There is a consensus among experts that the piece of wreckage washed up on a beach on island of Réunion is part of a Boeing 777’s wing, called a flaperon, and that it must be from the missing Malaysian 777.
The Daily Beast asked an expert familiar with the Boeing 777 what could be read from just one small but relatively intact control surface like the flaperon.
“It looks like the jet went into the water in a gliding/ditching attitude, because otherwise this wing component would have likely been completely destroyed.”
This is notably consistent with a scenario that Boeing engineers assigned to the Flight 370 investigation have replicated in their computers. They reverse-engineered the final six hours of the flight, creating the so-called Zombie Flight, surmising that some unknown incident incapacitated the pilots and left the 777 to continue at its cruise height and speed until it eventually ran out of fuel.
As the engines flamed out and died, according to the computer models, the 777 did not nose-dive but began a spiraling descent without power to the water and splashed down.
The debris is being sent to Toulouse, France, where it will be scrutinized by investigators from the Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, BEA, the French equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as experts from other nations taking part in the investigation.
From the start the BEA has been a key member of the international team assigned to the investigation into the disappearance of Flight 370. They have unique experience gained from discovering and analyzing debris from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the south Atlantic in 2009.
The immediate priority must be to scour the ocean east of the island of Réunion where the first debris turned up. Helicopters have already been sent to the area.
It’s highly improbable that the piece of wreckage found on Réunion floated off on its own across the vastness of the Indian Ocean.
The investigation now faces a new and unprecedented challenge: how to combine two search zones that are almost 4,000 miles apart.
All previous experience with buoyant wreckage indicates that it would have originated as a cluster above where the rest of the airplane sank on impact. The underwater search being directed in the southern Indian Ocean by Australian authorities covers a huge area—47,000 square miles.
These are, though, literally uncharted waters. Nobody predicted that wreckage would turn up near the east coast of Africa. Indeed, the only prediction offered, by the Australians, was that it would in all likelihood wash up on the southern coast of Indonesia—4,500 miles from Réunion!
And that prediction was made by very experienced oceanographers using software developed to trace the course of major oil spills.
Comparisons are being made with the mass of floating debris from the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Clusters of debris from the tsunami crossed the Pacific and are still turning up on the coasts of Washington State and Oregon, but any debris from Flight 370 is far less in quantity and mass and some of it could have been dispersed in its passage across the ocean.
As well as verifying that the debris from Réunion is from the 777, the French investigators will get valuable clues to the crash from its condition.
The forensics of this investigation have not been totally frustrated by the absence of physical wreckage. In the 17 months that have gone by these lines of inquiry have been pursued including by the Malaysian police:
The personal lives and records of the pilots, and of other crewmembers.
Background checks of all the passengers, looking for anyone with possible terrorist connections or a criminal motive.
Flight history: security at the airport as the airplane was serviced and as cargo was loaded—with special attention given to the cargo and its handling.
The maintenance history of the airplane, looking for any recent technical problems and work carried out.
All those boxes seem to have been ticked without finding any plausible lead. That silence speaks volumes—there is no evidence of criminal or terrorist involvement, nor anything to support precipitate attempts by the Malaysian government to implicate the pilots.
What’s missing? Any of several possible scenarios involving a sudden emergency on board, like a fire or smoke, a systems failure that shut down communications but left the automatic pilot functioning, or a structural failure in which the cabin and flight deck were depressurized creating for passengers and crew the condition called hypoxia, where they are starved of oxygen and become unconscious—or, indeed, some combination of the above.