Many experts had already assumed what French investigators have now confirmed: The Boeing 777 flaperon washed up on a beach of Réunion Island came from Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.
Among the people who didn’t wait for the French announcement, the most significant were those leading the search for the remains of the 777 at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
For many months the Australians had been working on computer models that attempted to predict where any floating wreckage would end up. This work led them to make a widely reported prediction that wreckage would turn up on the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, last July.
The Daily Beast made repeated requests for information about the model on which this projection was based. In June, ATSB spokesman Daniel O’Malley said: “Detailed drift modeling has been undertaken to supplement the original work that identified the western coast of Sumatra as the most likely first landing for debris. The work, once finalized, will be released.”
This week the Australians made a startling confession: Their first computer modeling was seriously flawed, and they had known this when O’Malley made his statement.
It was only after a new model was produced by a different group of oceanographers that the mistake came to light.
“An error was found in the way in which wind data was being transferred into the first model.” The Sumatra prediction was wrong by thousands of miles, and so was the timing: “There was an extremely low probability that any debris from MH370 would have made landfall at that time.”
In fact, as soon as the flaperon was found on Réunion the ATSB used that location as the starting point to reverse-engineer the drift model both in distance and time to March 8, 2014, when the 777 vanished. The result has been, they said, validation of the area 1,000 miles west of Perth, Australia, where the underwater search is taking place.
“The drift analysis… supports that the debris from MH370 may be found as far west as La Renunion Island and is consistent with the currently defined search area.”
The ATSB also cast doubts that many other pieces of wreckage will have remained afloat for so long. “Over time, all floating debris will become water-logged and then sink. The opportunity to locate and recover debris from the sea surface diminishes rapidly over the first few weeks.”
The Australians do not explain how it is that if over time all floating debris will sink one piece as significant as a flaperon could have remained buoyant for so long.
Moreover, they do not acknowledge that how much wreckage floats and how much of it sinks has a lot to do with how new the design of the airplane is. The 777 flaperon is made of a non-metal composite material. Composites—usually carbon fiber or glass fiber—have the advantage of being as strong as metal but much lighter. They are also far more buoyant.
The 777 was the first Boeing jet to use composites for major components—around 12 percent of its structure. As it happens, the same is true of the Air France Airbus A330 that crashed in the southern Atlantic in 2009.
Unlike the case of Flight 370, floating wreckage from Air France Flight 447 was located within days of its disappearance. In the following 20 days 1,000 pieces of floating wreckage were located (not 700 pieces as the Australians state in their new report).
What is more, the French investigators’ report on Flight 447 highlights the fact that most of that floating wreckage was either of composite construction or metal or plastic honeycomb construction—material that contains many pockets of air that make it buoyant. Of course, any floating wreckage from Flight 370 will not have remained in a cluster and would be widely dispersed.
The experts now examining the 777 flaperon in France are from the same team—DGA-Techniques Aeronautiques—that examined the floating wreckage recovered from Flight 447, in the same hangar. One of their priorities will be to see how much the condition of the flaperon reveals about how the airplane hit the water.
One piece of wreckage can reveal a lot. For example, when the French experts looked at the outer casing of an engine from Flight 447—made of composites—they noted that its lower half had been deformed and from this they were able to calculate that the Airbus hit the water with astonishing force—it had fallen at the rate of 11,000 feet a minute.
Of course, the definitive account of the fate of Flight 370 can in the end come only from the discovery of the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. The wreck could be lying as deep as 2.8 miles in a seabed that in some respects resembles an underwater Alps. The search has so far covered only half of the 46,300-square-mile area where the main wreckage is believed to be.
That’s an unprecedented challenge: It took two years to find the black boxes of Flight 447 even though they were lying with the main wreckage only 6.5 miles from the point on the flight path where the airplane was known to have disappeared.