Investigators are examining plane debris found on Reunion Island to determine if it came from Flight MH370. DW speaks to aviation expert Heinrich Grossbongardt about what this could reveal about the fate of the plane.
It is a discovery that could shed light into one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history. A two-meter (six-foot) long piece of wreckage, possibly from a wing part known as a flaperon, was found on a beach in La Reunion on Wednesday, July 29, fueling hopes across the globe that it may belong to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Aviation investigators are headed to the French Indian Ocean island, located east of Madagascar, to study the debris.
Malaysia is responsible for the investigation and is managing the examination of the piece with the assistance of aircraft manufacturer Boeing as well as French, US and Australian authorities. "In the event that the wreckage is identified as being from MH370 on La Reunion Island, it would be consistent with other analysis and modeling that the resting place of the aircraft is in the southern Indian Ocean," Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss, said in a statement, adding that any new evidence would be used to further inform and refine ongoing search efforts.
Flight MH370 vanished on March 8, 2014, shortly after it left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in the early morning hours with 239 people, mostly Chinese, on board. Investigators believe an area off Western Australia - along a narrow arc in the southern Indian Ocean - is the most likely resting place of the jet. Despite the most expensive search and rescue operation in history, an international team of investigators has yet to find evidence of any wreckage.
In a DW interview, aviation expert Heinrich Grossbongardt explains that if the debris does match MH370, it will be the first physical evidence that the plane crashed, bringing investigators one step closer to solving the mystery. An analysis of the debris and ocean currents might also give clues as to where to look for the other plane parts.
DW: If the debris found on La Reunion does indeed belong to a Boeing 777, how likely is it that it belongs to MH370?
Heinrich Grossbongardt: If it is confirmed that the debris really belongs to a 777 we can regard it as very likely to be a part of the missing Malaysian airplane. Theoretically, it could be a spare part, but things like this don't get lost without notice. They are not a mass product. Every 777 has two of them, plus some spares have been built.
If the piece matches the missing MH370, is it possible that ocean currents may have taken it almost 4,000 miles from where the plane was last spotted?
The general circulation of water within the Indian Ocean would very well allow this part being transported from off the Australian coast to La Reunion. There is a large current which circulates counter-clockwise.
West of Australia it moves north and then follows the equator, moving south along the coast of Madagascar. If confirmed, this find would be physical evidence that the crash very likely happened south of the equator, supporting the calculation of the flight path based on satellite data.
The six-foot long piece of wreckage, possibly from a wing part known as a flaperon, was found on a beach in La Reunion
How would the authorities be able confirm that the debris actually belongs to MH370?
All airplane parts have an identification plate with a serial number and additional information. This would allow investigators to track it. There is a very thorough bookkeeping system with respect to all parts which are used in an aircraft over its entire life.
What might this piece of debris reveal to investigators as to what happened to the plane?
The piece washed ashore in La Reunion looks like a flaperon, which is a control surface located on the trailing edge of the wing behind the engines. It would be the first physical evidence that MH 370 has disintegrated. Not less and not more, but for the relatives of those who have lost a beloved one this will be very important.
Could it reveal anything about where the plane might have crashed or the cause of the crash?
A single part like this won't tell us the entire story behind this tragedy, but it could shed some light into the accident. First, an analysis of the damage might give a rough indication as to the strength and the direction of the forces that ripped it off the wing.
All airplane parts have an identification plate with a serial number and additional information, says Grossbongardt
Moreover, an analysis of the sea organisms found on it as well as an examination of the sea currents over the past 15 months may allow scientists to estimate where it came from and where to look for other parts.
How would this impact the investigation and ongoing search efforts? What is likely to happen next in the case of a confirmation?
For the investigation it is important to have this kind of physical evidence and to be able to analyze it. But I don't expect it will have a major impact.
Heinrich Grossbongardt is an independent aviation expert and managing director of Expairtise, a Hamburg-based communications agency specializing in aviation and aerospace.
The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.