About That Airplane Part That Was Supposed to Solve the MH370 Mystery ...

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Does this part really belong to the missing Malaysian Airlines jet?Photo: YANNICK PITOU

Update: France has confirmed that the airplane part found on La Réunion is, in fact, from MH370. The media reports suggesting that investigators would conclude otherwise – the basis for the article below – appear to have been mistaken.

Tomorrow marks one month since a piece of a Boeing 777 washed up on the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion, but French investigators are no closer to confirming that the part came from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In fact, leaks from within the investigation suggest that the part might not have come from the plane at all.

Such a conclusion, if confirmed, would constitute a shocking reversal. At the time of the discovery, it was generally accepted that the wing segment, a so-called “flaperon,” could only come from MH370: Boeing engineers confirmed that the part was from a 777, and MH370 was the only 777 to have gone missing. Aviation experts declared that serial numbers on the flaperon would allow it to be definitively linked to the missing plane within 24 hours. When that deadline passed, news outlets told readers that the ID should be nailed down within a few days. Then by the following week.

What was holding things up, it turned out, was that the ID plate that should have been attached to the inboard edge of the flaperon was missing. And that was not the only problem. According to the New York Times, Boeing and the National Transportation Safety Board found that the object did not match Malaysia Airlines’ maintenance records. 

The waters were muddied on August 6, when Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, announced that experts examining the flaperon in France had “conclusively confirmed” that it was from the plane. Minutes later, the French prosecutor in charge of the case, Serge Mackowiak, contradicted Najib and stated that confirmation would require further tests. Around the world, however, many prominent news outlets, including CNN and the BBC, went with Najib’s more confident-sounding claim.

The story briefly faded from the public eye. Then, on August 21, the French news outlet La Dépêche ran a report citing sources within the investigation who indicated that the technical examination of the flaperon had ended without the hoped-for evidence being found. A few days later, Le Monde ran a report that echoed the Times’ earlier reporting: “[M]aintenance work that Malaysia Airlines has indicated it carried out on the flaperon does not exactly match that observed on the discovered piece.”

It’s not clear exactly how one should interpret such language. Airplane parts are engineered precisely, and any changes made to them must be meticulously logged by maintenance personnel. If a part has four holes instead of five, it doesn’t just “not match exactly” — it doesn’t match.

But if the part didn’t come from MH370, where could it have come from? In recent weeks the internet has been abuzz with speculation that the part might have been a replacement part not yet put into service or a spare part pulled off a scrapped airframe.

How the part found its way to a beach on La Réunion is another issue. The Dépêche article contained a tantalizing hint. “According to a Toulouse aeronautics expert who requested anonymity,” the article stated, “the element of the wing would not have floated for several months at the water’s surface but would have drifted underwater a few meters deep.”

It’s not yet known why investigators reached this conclusion, but one clue might be that the flaperon found on La Réunion was encrusted on every edge with goose barnacles. These animals are a type of crustacean that attaches while young to a floating object and spends its entire adult life affixed to the same spot. Since they obviously can only survive underwater, their distribution around the object suggests that the entirety of it must have spent at least several months submerged.

Therein lies the mystery. While it’s easy to imagine a submarine or a scuba diver hovering peacefully 10 or 20 feet under the surface of the water, this is not something that inanimate objects are capable of doing on their own: Either they are more buoyant than water, in which case they float, or they are less buoyant, in which case they sink. “My experience is that things will go up or down — they will never stay statically neutral,” says famed ocean-drift expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer, professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Washington.

So, how could a six-foot-long chunk of airplane remain suspended beneath the ocean surface for a long period of time? At this point, there aren’t any simple, common-sense answers; the range of possible explanations at this point runs from as-yet-unidentified natural processes to purposeful intervention by conspirators. The implausibility of it all is quite maddening — but, then again, when it comes to MH370, maddening and implausible are par for the course.