TIME Aviation

French Officials Are Skeptical of Malaysia’s MH370 Claims

Reunion Missing Malaysia Plane
Fabrice Wislez—AP Workers for an association responsible for maintaining paths to Jamaica Beach from being overgrown by shrubs, search the beach for possible additional airplane debris near the shore where an airplane wing part was washed up, on the beach of Saint-Andre, Reunion Island, Aug 6, 2015

Malaysian officials have been accused of jumping the gun

(KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia) — Malaysia’s assertion that more debris potentially linked to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had washed up on an Indian Ocean island prompted puzzlement from French officials, adding to criticisms that the international response to one of the most famous aviation mysteries of all time is suffering from an exasperating lack of cohesion.

Ever since the Boeing 777 vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, Malaysian officials have been accused of jumping the gun, giving inaccurate statements and withholding information from families and other countries involved in the investigation.

On Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement that a wing fragment found on a French island had been definitively linked to Flight 370 prompted cautious responses from French, U.S. and Australian officials involved in the probe, who would say only that it was likely or probable the part came from the missing plane.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai added to the confusion later Thursday, saying a Malaysian team had found more debris on Reunion Island, including a window and some aluminum foil, and had sent the material to local authorities for French investigators to examine.

“I can only ascertain that it’s plane debris,” Liow said. “I cannot confirm that it’s from MH370.”

French officials involved with the investigation in both Paris and Reunion were baffled by Liow’s announcement; none were aware of any discovery or material in French custody. The Paris prosecutor’s office, which is spearheading a French legal inquiry into the crash, later denied there was any new debris, before French officials — notoriously cautious when it comes to air accident investigations — again retreated into silence.

A spokesman for Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss said in a statement Friday that while a great deal of additional material has been handed to police in Reunion, none appears to have come from the plane.

Meanwhile, Liow sparked further questions when he said that a maintenance seal and the color tone of the paint on the wing part, known as a flaperon, matches the airline’s records. On Friday, an Australian government official said that the paint is not a unique identifier for Flight 370; rather, it comes from a batch that Boeing used on all its planes when the missing plane was manufactured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

Liow said Thursday that differences with other countries amounted to “a choice of words.” But the dissonant comments prompted frustration from families of those on board the plane, who have waited more than 500 days for solid clues into the fate of their loved ones. Some questioned why the various countries involved couldn’t get on the same page before speaking publicly.

French government officials have not addressed the conflicting information coming from Malaysia either publicly or privately. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian defended the government’s relative silence saying instead. “We have above all mobilized our means” since the plane disappeared. Since the wing fragment washed up on Reunion, he added, the government has added its investigators directly to the case.

“I hope that all of this can be verified, but we have to take it to its end,” Le Drian told RTL radio.

Some criticism came from within Malaysia itself. Opposition lawmaker Liew Chin Tong said in a statement that Liow must explain “the haste and hurry” to declare the wreckage came from Flight 370.

“A quick conclusion will not do justice to the next of kin of the victims,” he said.

Until the wing flap washed ashore last week, investigators had not found a single physical clue linked to the disappearance of Flight 370, despite a massive air and sea search. Officials believe it crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people aboard, but the wreckage and the reason why remain elusive.

The discovery of the wing flap refocused the world’s attention on the investigation, which many hope will finally yield clues into the plane’s fate. But information from the French, in particular, has been scant. The BEA, as the French agency that investigates air crashes is known, rarely comments publicly, instead eventually releasing the information via its detailed reports. In the case of Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the south Atlantic in June 2009, the final report was published in July 2012. The legal investigation was concluded only in July 2014, and the case still has not gone to trial.

That cautious approach was recently derailed in the aftermath of the crash of a Germanwings plane into the Alps that was ultimately blamed on a suicidal co-pilot. In that case, the BEA refused to comment until an account was leaked to The New York Times and the Marseille prosecutor circumvented the usual secrecy rules.

French aviation investigators have tended to be guarded in their conclusions until they gather solid proof. Xavier Tytelman, an air crash expert based in France, said although most experts believe the wing flap is probably from Flight 370, France requires a definitive clue, such a serial number, before it would make that conclusion.

“Malaysian officials — every time there’s a clue or some new information that’s not been confirmed — announce it as fact,” Tytelman said. “They make mistakes. It’s happened all the way through. I don’t know why they don’t have as many precautions, but they’ve definitely lost credibility.”

Tytelman also said Australia had developed trust issues by changing the search area of the plane “without explaining why.”

Ghislain Wattrelos, who lost his wife and two of his children when Flight 370 disappeared, said he was baffled by the comments by Malaysian authorities.

“We are delighted that the debris ended up in France,” Wattrelos told BFM television in France on Thursday. “I have a lot more confidence in my country than in Malaysia and Australia, who have lied to us since the beginning.”

Australia’s credibility as search leader suffered a battering thanks to a series of false leads that were oversold by its government, which was eager to boast success after the hunt shifted to its search and rescue zone in the southern Indian Ocean after the plane disappeared.

Two apparent large objects spotted in satellite imagery off the west Australian coast in March 2014 were declared the “best lead” yet, before they turned out to be unrelated. The next month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said officials were confident that a series of underwater signals search crews had detected were coming from the plane’s coveted black box data recorders. That was also wrong.

The failure to find a single piece of Flight 370-related debris in a surface search covering 4.6 million square kilometers (1.8 million square miles) over six weeks raised serious questions about whether they were looking in the right place. And the search area has been altered many times.

Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Martin Dolan denied his agency, which is leading the search, had misled anyone or withheld information. And though the search area was changed several times as officials revised the scant data available, it has been the same since October, he said.

“As soon as new or changed information comes to light, we make it available,” Dolan told The Associated Press on Friday.

The ATSB has also faced criticism for making a mistake in its original drift modeling, which initially predicted debris would wash ashore in Indonesia, rather than the area east of Africa where the flaperon turned up. The bureau issued a statement this week saying a revised analysis showed that, in fact, debris could be carried by currents to the area near Reunion Island.

Dolan said the ATSB didn’t withhold that error, and instead had been working with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, to recalculate the drift area after noticing flaws in the model in November.

“We had to work with CSIRO to check the facts and as soon as we had something that was checked, we published it,” Dolan said. “We were in the process with CSIRO of publishing that revised drift modeling when the flaperon turned up at Reunion.”

France said it is deploying a search plane, helicopters and boats around Reunion in hopes of spotting more debris that might be from the missing jet.

It is not known why Flight 370 — less than an hour into its journey — turned back from its original flight path and headed in an opposite direction before turning again and flying south over the Indian Ocean for hours.

Malaysian officials have said the plane’s movements were consistent with deliberate actions by someone on the plane.

___

Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Paul Joshua in Kuala Lumpur, and Thomas Adamson and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

 

TIME Aviation

Here’s What That Piece of Debris Tells Us (And Doesn’t) About the Fate of MH370

Further analysis could provide valuable clues, but there's still a long way to go

Nearly 17 months after it seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, the first tangible piece of evidence on the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has finally emerged.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced just after midnight on Thursday that the debris found last week on a beach in Réunion, a small island and French territory in the Indian Ocean, does indeed belong to MH370.

A French prosecutor in Toulouse, where the debris (a part of the aircraft wing known as a flaperon) is currently being analyzed was slightly more cautious, saying there were “strong indications” that this was true but further tests are required before it can be confirmed.

The deputy prime minister of Australia, the country spearheading the extensive yearlong search for the Beijing-bound aircraft that went missing on March 8, 2014, was equally noncommittal.

“The French-led investigation team is continuing to finalize its considerations of the wreckage and we will await further detail from them,” Warren Truss said in a statement, but added that there was a “high probability” that the flaperon comes from MH370.

Malaysia Airlines released a statement of its own, calling the finding a “major breakthrough” in determining the aircraft’s fate. “We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery,” the national carrier said.

The news did little to pacify the relatives of those who allegedly perished in the accident, however, with many continuing to express skepticism and a lack of trust in the investigators.

Here is what we can (and cannot) ascertain from Thursday’s developments:

  1. What we know now that we didn’t know before.

The fact that the debris was found in the Indian Ocean, where authorities have been trying to narrow the search for months, shows that the current investigation is focusing in the right area — albeit still a very large one. “It’s a very small needle in a very big haystack,” David Newbery, a Hong Kong-based flight captain and accredited aircraft investigator, tells TIME. However, Newbery says closer examination of the flaperon could reveal details like the speed and angle of impact with the water, as well as whether the airplane remained intact.

“If they examine the failure points of the structure they may be able to get some idea of the force of the impact which broke it off,” he says, “It depends on how quickly the airplane hit the sea and at what speed, whether or not the aircraft broke up completely on hitting the sea or whether it was mainly intact when it sank.”

He does add that the fact that only one piece of debris has been found may be an indication that the Boeing 777 remained intact after hitting the water.

John Page, a senior lecturer and aircraft design expert from the University of New South Wales, says the flaperon could confirm what he says is the most plausible theory he’s heard about the aircraft’s disappearance.

“If it is where we think it is, then it appears to have been flying a reciprocal course than the one it should’ve been on — the opposite direction, in other words,” he told TIME in an interview, adding that a possible scenario is that the crew, sensing trouble, plugged in the coordinates to reverse the flight path but then lost all communication. “So one possibility is they tried to turn back, not realizing that before they got to the next waypoint when they had to turn again they wouldn’t be available,” he said.

Another significant outcome of finding the debris, along with clues about what happened to the aircraft, is definitive proof of what didn’t.

“I think what it does do is get rid of all the conspiracy theories about the airplane landing here, there and everywhere,” says Newbery, while Paige adds that “extreme ideas like flying saucers” only serve to “make noise on what’s happening.”

One major indication of MH370’s whereabouts could come from the barnacles found clinging to the piece of debris. The marine animals, which come from the same crustacean family as crabs and lobsters, could tell researchers where the flaperon has been.

“If marine scientists can really get their hands on them and look at the species distribution patterns, then they can possibly figure out roughly where the barnacle got onto that part of the aircraft,” says Qian Pei-Yuan, who heads the Division of Life Sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Qian says the barnacles found on the debris appear to belong to a genus known as “gooseneck barnacles,” the study of which could help pinpoint the aircraft’s location by determining how fast the aquatic creatures grow and where they reside.

“The first thing we need to know is exactly which species [of gooseneck barnacle] they are,” he says. “You can then figure out how fast they can grow, what the temperature of the sea is, when the barnacle actually got on [to the flaperon], and then you can extrapolate how long they have been there.”

  1. What we still don’t know.

Although the barnacles could provide hints as to how an aircraft that supposedly went down near the western coast of Australia ended up on Réunion, just off the coast of Madagascar, the fact that it was found there doesn’t really narrow the search area to a great extent.

“If you’re trying to figure out based on the ocean currents, I don’t believe they can narrow down the area that much because the ocean currents in the Indian Ocean are quite complicated,” Qian says. “There’s a current from the northern part of India to the equator regions, from Malaysia going to the west, then from the equator region going to the east. You can’t tell.”

The duration that the aircraft (and this particular piece of debris) has been in the ocean makes it all the more difficult to pinpoint its location, as does the lack of other debris.

“A year is a long time to be floating, if it was only a couple of weeks they could probably reasonably accurately predict where it came from,” says Newbery, the aircraft accident expert, adding that the developments on Réunion will most likely not refine the search any more than it already has been. “Unfortunately, though I know this piece of debris gives some certainty about the search, I’m not convinced that it’s going to help the investigators terribly much in terms of finding out what happened.”

  1. What comes next.

Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC), cited by the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Truss, said in its statement that authorities will persist with “thorough and methodical search efforts” in the existing search area.

“The indications are that it’s probably not going to increase with any great degree the likelihood of finding the wreckage any earlier than before,” said Ron Bartsch, chairman of international aviation safety consultancy firm AvLaw Consulting.

Malaysian authorities, along with the airline, have said that they will do everything in their power to bring an elusive sense of closure to those affected by the disaster.

Although he says that there are a “myriad of legal issues yet to be resolved” before compensation for the victims’ families can be finalized, Bartsch is of the opinion that the stray flaperon being analyzed in Toulouse gives a much-needed boost to the search efforts.

“I think the significance of the discovery of the wreckage should not be underestimated,” he said. “It is the first positive confirmation of objective evidence that we know that the aircraft did disappear in the search, so I believe that this should give search authorities and governments alike the motivation to not only continue their search efforts but to increase them.”

TIME Aviation

Chinese Families Remain Suspicious Despite ‘Confirmation’ MH370 Crashed in the Ocean

"I have lost my faith in the investigators”

A whole 515 days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from the skies en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed early Thursday that a barnacle-encrusted fragment of wing that had washed up last week on the remote Indian Ocean island of Réunion, a French territory, was indeed from the doomed flight. “It is with a very heavy heart,” Najib told a press conference organized around midnight in Malaysia, “that I must tell you that an international team of experts has conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris…is indeed MH370.”

In France, where aeronautical experts near Toulouse were examining the flaperon, as the chunk of the wing spotted on the pebble beach is called, prosecutor Serge Mackowiak used less definitive language, instead saying that there were “very strong indications” that the Boeing 777 chunk was from MH370. (No other Boeing 777s have been reported missing in the Indian Ocean area.)

Najib, whose government has been criticized for fumbling the investigation into the jetliner’s disappearance, said the confirmation of the flaperon’s origins “will at least bring certainty to the families and loved ones of the 239 people onboard MH370,” most of whom were Chinese. The Malaysian leader spoke of the “unspeakable” nature and “torment” of their loss.

But several families of Chinese passengers felt no certainty in Thursday’s announcement — and even less a sense of closure. “I don’t care if they found the wreckage, and I don’t care where the plane is,” says Li Huiyun, whose husband was on the jet. “If they cannot find the bodies and know what happened to our relatives, it’s meaningless.”

Since the March 8, 2014, disappearance, family members have endured ham-fisted coddling from Malaysian authorities. After initial support from the Chinese government, relatives of those on MH370 endured repression when they veered outside of the officially sanctioned parameters of grief. Relatives have been physically harassed by Beijing authorities, one so badly she ended up in the hospital. Others have been detained, some accused of breaking Chinese rules against unapproved public gatherings.

With no sense of what exactly happened, despite search efforts by 26 nations, certain family members have expressed skepticism in the commonly accepted explanation that the plane went down somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean. (Australian authorities are around half-way through combing 46,000 sq. mi. of ocean floor around 1,000 miles west of Perth, and say the discovery of the wing part has not shifted their focus.) “I do not believe the plane is stranded on the sea floor as some people say,” says a woman surnamed Yuan whose husband was also on the flight. (Yuan does not want her full name used or that of the husband she married just a couple months before the plane’s disappearance.) “How can I trust [the investigators]?”

Messages in Chinese chat groups organized by family members speculated whether the plane was actually hijacked by radical Islamic terrorists who secretly landed in the wilds of Central Asia. Others blame the CIA for having somehow captured it. Wu Xia, whose husband was also one of the MH370 passengers, wonders whether some of the passengers even got on board. “I suspect they fabricated the whole thing about the wreckage being found,” she says. “Why did it take so long for them to verify the [flaperon]? I have lost my faith in the investigators.”

It took two years for investigators, working out of the same Toulouse aeronautics center where the MH370 wing part is being examined, to figure out what happened with Air France Flight 447, which plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. For the families of the MH370 victims, the wait could be even more extended — a long time to keep the faith.

—With reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

TIME Aviation

Malaysia and France Frustrate MH370 Relatives With Mixed Messages

"After 17 months, we need definite answers"

(BEIJING) —Families aching for closure after their relatives disappeared aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last year vented their deep frustration Thursday at conflicting signals from Malaysia and France over whether the finding of a plane part had been confirmed.

“Why the hell do you have one confirm and one not?” asked Christchurch, New Zealand, resident Sara Weeks, whose brother Paul Weeks was aboard the flight that disappeared March 8, 2014 with 239 people aboard while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

“Why not wait and get everybody on the same page so the families don’t need to go through this turmoil?” she said.

Malaysia’s prime minister announced overnight that a plane wing section found on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean was “conclusively confirmed” to be from Flight 370, saying he hoped the news would end “unspeakable” uncertainty. The announcement was in line with the Malaysian conclusion that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean, killing all aboard.

But French officials with custody of the wing part said only that there were strong indications the barnacle-encrusted part — known as a “flaperon” — was from the flight and that they would work further to try to confirm the finding Thursday.

“After 17 months, we need definite answers,” Weeks said. “We need to progress, get answers, move toward further answers, and get some closure along the line.”

About two-thirds of the passengers were from China, and in the Chinese capital, Xu Jinghong said she could not understand why Malaysian and French authorities did not make their announcement together.

“I am very angry — so angry that my hands and feet are cold,” Xu, 41, said in an interview during the early hours of Thursday outside her home in downtown Beijing. “The announcement was made without experts from France present. I don’t understand how the procedure can be like this.”

The announcement overnight by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak would appear to give the first strong physical evidence of a crash, which could put to rest several theories that many relatives have refused to rule out, including that the plane and its passengers were hijacked and intact in some still-secret location.

Irene Burrows, the 85-year-old mother of missing Australian passenger Rod Burrows, who was lost with his wife Mary, said in interview last year that she didn’t expect the mystery of MH370’s disappearance to be solved in her lifetime. She said at the time: “All I just want is a bit of the plane. It’s all I want to know — where they are.”

For her, Thursday’s confirmation was a simple wish come true.

“We’re quite pleased that it’s been found,” she said from her home in Biloela in Australia’s northeast.

However, for many relatives, any potential certainty was diluted by the word from Paris, where Deputy Prosecutor Serge Mackowiak said the “very strong conjectures” that the wing part was from Flight 370 still needed to be “confirmed by complementary analysis” that would begin later Thursday.

It was unclear whether the mix-up was a result of miscommunication between the two countries, differing notions of the burden of proof or whether Malaysian officials were overeager to send out some definitive signal for relatives of the missing.

In any case, a full confirmation of the wing part wasn’t likely to bring total closure for relatives, with the rest of the plane and the bodies still missing.

Jiang Hui, also 41, whose mother was on board, said that there was still a lack of evidence to prove that the plane crashed as was announced by Malaysian officials last year. At the time, they cited thorough analysis of the relatively limited satellite data available for the flight. Major questions still remain, including why the plane went off course, crossed back over Malaysia and went south into the Indian Ocean.

“The finding of debris does not mean the finding of our next of kin,” Jiang said.

In Kuala Lumpur, Melanie Antonio — whose husband was a flight attendant on Flight 370 — said she wasn’t sure how to feel.

“I’m numb, I’m not sad,” she said. “It’s just a flaperon, it doesn’t prove anything. We still need the wreckage to prove. I just want anything that can tell me my hubby is gone.”

Jacquita Gomes, also the wife of a flight attendant, echoed that sentiment. “If it’s not too much to ask, I still want the remains of my husband.”

___

Associated Press writer Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, video journalist Zhang Weiqun in Beijing, writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and photographer Joshua Paul in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

 

TIME Aviation

Discovered Plane Debris Is From Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

A clue about the fate of a vanished jet is confirmed

Debris that was recently recovered from the Indian Ocean has been confirmed to be from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the plane that disappeared in March 2014. Malaysia’s prime minister announced on Wednesday that the material was a part of a wing from the Boeing 777.

Experts hope that the segment, which washed ashore on the island of Reunion, may provide clues as to what happened to the plane. The flaperon, a part of the wing that stabilizes flight, is the first piece of physical evidence in the case.

“It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you that an international team of experts have conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion is indeed from MH370,” Prime Minister Najib Razak announced in a televised statement. “We now have physical evidence that … Flight MH370 tragically ended in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

“This is a remote, inhospitable and dangerous area, and on behalf of Malaysia, I would like to thank the many nations, organizations and individuals who have participated in the search,” Razak said. “The burden and uncertainty faced by the families during this time has been unspeakable. It is my hope that this confirmation, however tragic and painful, will at least bring certainty to the families and loved ones of the 239 people on board.”

MH370 departed from its planned route and ceased communication with air traffic controllers less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing. Australian officials are leading the underwater search for the plane; they said about 23,000 square miles have already been combed, with another 23,000 to go, the New York Times reports.

Prime Minister Razak said that Malaysia will continue to do all it can to find out the details of the accident.

TIME Aviation

Experts Think That Pieces of MH370 Might Still Be Floating in the Ocean

Authorities believe the plane most likely crashed offshore Australia

(WELLINGTON, New Zealand) — If a wing fragment found in the western Indian Ocean turns out to be part of missing Flight 370, experts say, there are probably other pieces of the aircraft that floated off rather than sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Finding them remains the hard part.

John Page, an aircraft design expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the discovery of the fragment last week on Reunion Island leads him to conclude the missing Boeing 777 broke up, most likely when it hit the water nearly 17 months ago.

He said that while the main body of the plane is likely to have sunk, he thinks other small, lightweight parts attached to the wings and tail may have floated free and could still be afloat — pieces like the flaps, elevators, ailerons and rudders.

“I’m certain other bits floated,” he said. “But whether they’ve washed up anywhere is another question. The chances of hitting an island are pretty low.”

He said there’s plenty of trash in the ocean, and even if somebody sailing past spotted something in the water, he or she may have no clue it was from the plane.

The discovery of the fragment, which has been taken to France, could be a significant development in one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished in March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard.

Air safety investigators have identified the component as a flaperon from a 777. French and Malaysian investigators will begin examining the piece Wednesday to make sure that assessment is correct. They will try to confirm the flaperon is from Flight 370 and gather clues about what happened to the plane. Flight 370 is the only missing 777.

Authorities believe the plane most likely crashed offshore from Australia in the east Indian Ocean. Oceanographers say it’s feasible the wing fragment floated thousands of kilometers (miles) in a counterclockwise direction across the ocean before washing ashore.

Malaysian authorities said this week they’ll seek help from territories near Reunion Island to search for more debris.

Page said the heaviest parts of the plane, like the engines, would sink immediately, while other parts might get spread out by the currents before sinking, forming a triangular-shaped debris field on the ocean floor.

He said flight-control surfaces on the wings and tail would be most likely to break off and float because they are essentially carbon-fiber skins filled with air, making them strong but lightweight. They’re also designed to be waterproof, so moisture doesn’t enter them and freeze during flight.

“What makes aircraft work are their light structures,” he said.

Depending on how the aircraft broke up, Page said, it’s possible other pieces could float. Those could include plastic and fiberglass trim, door panels, even personal belongings or luggage. He said it was unlikely any human remains would have survived very long.

Mark Tuttle, a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, said in an email that all structural materials used in transport aircraft are heavy enough they will sink in saltwater. He said the only time they will float, as he suspects is the case with the flaperon, is when a design feature like air trapped inside causes them to remain buoyant.

Geoff Dell, an air safety investigation expert and associate professor at Australia’s Central Queensland University, said he, too, would expect the parts most likely to break free and float would be the flight-control surfaces. Many are attached to the plane only with hinges.

He said the amount of floating debris would be determined by the way the plane hit the water, which remains unknown. He said if it hit in an uncontrolled manner and at a high speed, the plane would likely break up more, allowing more debris to float. A more controlled landing, on the other hand, could result in more of the plane remaining intact and sinking, he said.

Dell said some parts of the plane that might initially float, such as a seat that broke free from the fuselage, could become degraded and saturated over time and eventually sink.

Michael Smart, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland, said there was some reason for hope in the search.

“If one piece turns up, perhaps there’s a likelihood that others will as well,” he said. “It’s strange to think you’d find one part that floated and nothing else.”

TIME Aviation

An Expert Says Our Search Strategy Will Need Overhauling If the Réunion Debris Is From MH370

The discovery of possible MH370 debris on Réunion Island would mean that the existing search zone is wrong, a top oceanographer explains

On Friday, a group of French officials boarded a 12-hour flight to Paris from Réunion, a volcanic island and French territory in the southwest Indian Ocean. With them was a 9-ft.-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam many believe is a wing-flap from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

It was the unremarkable final stretch on what may turn out to be the wing-flap’s remarkable journey—if indeed it is a wing-flap, and if it turns out to have actually come from MH370. Sources in Boeing have told CNN they are ”confident” the flotsam was part of a Boeing 777, and experts have little doubt the part came from the doomed jetliner. That would mean this debris could have been drifting on ocean currents for more than 500 days for some 2,500 miles, or the equivalent to driving Route 66 from New York to Los Angeles.

Yet what is more remarkable is what more it can tell us. It could, for example, nix ongoing search efforts, which are currently focused around 1,000 miles off the coast of Perth in Western Australia. Authorities have scoured 21,000 square miles of a 23,000 square mile search zone in an operation costing well over $100,000 million, and which has involved thousand of flights, dozens of ships and several submarines. They are now poised to head south and double the search zone’s size.

On Friday, Australian deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a press conference that he was “confident” this zone was the right one “based on continuing refinement of the satalite data.” He added: “We will continue to concentrate on the southern end of that identified area.”

However, according to Erik van Sebille, a lecturer in oceanography at Imperial College London, the flotsam’s very appearance in Réunion—if it is proven to come from MH370—would mean that searchers have been looking in the wrong place.

“If you take into account the currents in the Indian Ocean, then you can trace the flow backwards from the northern part of the search zone,” he tells TIME. “It would exclude the southern part as anything that drifts from there would go eastward into the Pacific Ocean.”

Following the discovery of the supposed debris—spotted on a pebble beach by an eagle-eyed government worker named Johnny Bègue—helicopters have been scouring Réunion, which lies around 600 mi east of Madagascar, for more. Reports of luggage fragments are currently being investigated. However, van Sebille also believes such efforts are largely misplaced, factoring in the frenzied nature of the ocean’s currents.

“The ocean currents are not like highways. They are not really simple and predictable—they are actually quite chaotic. It’s a bit like the weather,” he says. “It’s just like how San Francisco is typically used to the westerly wind, but every so often it might come the other way—it’s the same for the ocean.”

Experiments with GPS-tracked objects, released 30ft apart in the ocean, have resulted in them drifting hundreds of miles apart within just a month. So while the broad strokes of the ocean’s currents can be mapped, conclusions are typically ambiguous. By tracing the currents from Réunion back to the search zone, “our best hope is that we can perhaps pin down the region to perhaps a few hundred miles, which will still be very large,” says van Sebille.

The barnacles clinging to the wing-flap can also tell a story. Very quickly, investigators will be able to tell from their size how long the object has been in the water, meaning that even if serial numbers cannot categorically prove the object came from MH370, identifying the plane model, combined with time adrift, could remove reasonable doubt.

As there are more than 1,000 species of barnacles in the ocean, with their provenance depending on myriad environmental factors, Benny K.K. Chan, associate professor of marine biology at National Taiwan University, says that it would also be possible to lead back to a specific crash site by identifying certain varieties.

“There are some species of barnacles that have very distinct distribution, and so if you get some of these then maybe you could get some hint from where this wing-flap has drifted,” he tells TIME. “But from the pictures I can only see the lepas genus, which are common to nearly all floating objects.”

Experts are due to examine the flotsam at a laboratory in Toulouse, with conclusions expected in the next day or so. But the value of the wing-flap—again, if MH370’s wing-flap is what it actually is—increases exponentially should more debris be found, especially, and perhaps surprisingly, if it is found far from the original discovery.

“If we find some debris somewhere else on a completely different part of the Indian Ocean, then what we can do is backtrack that too and then look at the overlap,” says van Sebille. “You can then look at the overlap of all the rough areas. It’s essentially triangulation.”

TIME MH370

This Is the Piece of Debris Suspected to Be Part of Missing Jet

An Australian official has warned not to jump to conclusions about a 9-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam that washed up on the French island of Reunion - but experts say it's likely to be a section of a Boeing 777 of the type that disappeared over 500 days ago

Read next: What to Know About the New Malaysia Airlines Clue

TIME Aviation

What to Know About the New Malaysia Airlines Clue

The discovery is the most significant since the Boeing 777 vanished almost 17 months ago

An Australian official warned Thursday not to jump to conclusions about a barnacle-encrusted, 9-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam that washed up on the French island of Reunion — a discovery many are saying may be debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Australia’s deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, said it was premature to link the recovered chunk of metal with the jet that went missing 509 days ago. “It is too early to make that judgment,” Truss said at a news conference in Sydney. “But clearly we are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and whether it is indeed linked to the disappearance of MH 370.”

Other officials have a “high degree of confidence” that the discovery is an aluminum-composite wing-flap from a Boeing 777, the same type of plane that vanished shortly after departing Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8, 2014. The 227 passengers and 12 crew are all presumed dead.

Now engineers from Boeing are examining the debris to confirm that it is a flaperon from a 777, and even, if possible, from MH370 specifically. “We are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and if it is indeed liked to the disappearance of MH370,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at a press conference Thursday.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Where does the investigation stand?

Initial search efforts were concentrated along the flight’s charted route over the South China Sea, but then moved to the Strait of Malacca when Thai military radar indicated the aircraft doubled back across the Malay Peninsula (conventional tracking wasn’t possible as the plane’s secondary radar had been disabled inside the cockpit).

Then, after still no trace was found, pioneering data analysis by British satellite telecom firm Inmarsat indicated that MH370 had traveled south into the Indian Ocean, probably running out of fuel roughly 1,000 miles off the western Australia city of Perth.

A total of 55,000 sq km of seafloor has been scoured in this area, but the lack of any success prompted the search zone to be doubled to 120,000 sq km in May. In addition, thousands of reconnaissance flights were launched, with the combined operation costing more than $100 million — an unprecedented figure.

And so, if confirmed, Wednesday’s discovery of a supposed wing-flap — found 2,500 miles (or the equivalent of the width of the U.S.) from the search zone — would be the first definitive piece of proof that the plane had crashed.

“Malaysia Airlines is working with the relevant authorities to confirm the matter,” the carrier said in an emailed statement. “At the moment, it would be too premature for the airline to speculate the origin of the flaperon.”

2. What’s next?

Proving categorically that the recovered piece came from a Boeing 777. Investigators from the U.S. aviation giant, as well as representatives from Malaysia Airlines, are currently trying to make that call. But should verification prove tricky in tiny Reunion, they may transport the object to specialist labs in France for further examination. (France has jurisdiction to handle evidence found on its territory, though will work with Malaysia, which heads the overall investigation because it involves its flag carrier; Australia has also offered assistance.)

Ideally, they would find a serial number. If there’s a part number that starts with “113W,” then we know it comes from a 777. (A marking “PB670” was found on the object, revealed Truss, though the significance is so far unknown.)

If the part is confirmed as coming from a 777, experts say there will be little doubt it came from MH370. “Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane but also to determine what happened — and why,” said Boeing in a statement Wednesday.

3. So have we been searching in the wrong place all this time?

Not at all. In the almost 17 months since the plane vanished, debris could feasibly have drifted anywhere around the globe. Certainly, the buffeting South Atlantic Gyre could have swept a flaperon from Western Australia to Reunion.

“The information that we have is consistent with the search that’s being undertaken at the present time,” Truss told reporters. “It supports the satellite data and the identification of the area in the southern Indian Ocean as the likely place where the aircraft could have entered the water.

However, if confirmed, additional searches of islands near Reunion, and the coastlines of nearby Madagascar and East Africa, could also be initiated to try to find more debris.

4. What does it tell us?

If confirmed as a piece from MH370, the most telling initial detail is the size of the debris, which experts say makes a high-velocity nose-dive crash unlikely. Larger objects of this ilk are more common from slower impacts, such as a pilot deliberately plotting a gentle descent.

“It’s an indication that this broke off in some sort of a landing or a spiral down from altitude as the plane stalled and ran out of fuel,” Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN.

But even the attached barnacles could tell an important story, given that there are over 1,000 different species throughout the oceans dependent on myriad environmental factors.

5. What’s the legal significance?

Very little. Under the Montreal Convention, litigation against an airline must take place within two years of a disaster. This is still the time frame that lawyers representing the victims’ families are working within. But Malaysia Airlines has already accepted responsibility and declared that the missing plane was “lost.”

Compensation has already been announced, although the amount could be challenged. However, as an airline has a “strict liability” to deliver passengers to a destination, the cause of the crash — pilot suicide, pilot error, hijacking, etc. — only has limited significance.

“The cause may not matter vis-à-vis the airline regarding what their duties and responsibilities are to pay compensation,” Brian Alexander, a lawyer specializing in aviation litigation for Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which is representing 48 victims’ families, tells TIME. “And I don’t think this one finding would affect our decisionmaking regarding the timing of the filing.”

However, should more wreckage be found to indicate the disaster resulted from a mechanical fault that was not the airline’s fault, additional litigation could theoretically be brought against Boeing.

6. What about the families?

This is where the discovery could be hugely significant. Without debris, conspiracy theories have proliferated, with some suggesting an elaborate heist and that the airplane may have been stashed for reuse in a later terrorist attack, possibly in a disused Soviet-era military runway somewhere near the Caucuses. Many families have refused to give up hope until the plane has definitively been proved as crashed. That time, for better or worse, may soon be upon us.

TIME Aviation

Debris Found in Indian Ocean Could Match Missing Malaysian Jet

The part washed ashore on Wednesday off the coast of Reunion Island

American officials have a “high degree of confidence” that airline debris found on a French Island in the Indian Ocean appears to belong a Boeing 777, the same kind of aircraft as the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

A U.S. official told the Associated Press that air safety investigators identified the part based on a photo of the wreckage. The plane parts were found on Reunion Island, about 380 nautical miles off the coast of Madagascar and about 3,500 miles from where the plane disappeared over the Andaman Sea.

The official told the AP that a team of investigators, which include a Boeing air safety expert, have identified the debris as a “flaperon,” which is typically responsible for controlling the roll or bank of an aircraft. On a Boeing 777, the flaperon would be found along the trailing edge of a 777 wing.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said that his country had sent a team to the island to confirm the identity of the debris.

“Whatever wreckage found needs to be further verified before we can ever confirm that it is belonged to MH370,” he said.

A French official confirmed that French law enforcement is on the island for the investigation.

The ongoing search of the seabed is unlikely to change, according to Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, whose agency is heading up the location effort. If the part is from the plane, it would line up with the theory that it crashed within a roughly 46,000 mile area.

Paul R. Bergman, a spokesman for Boeing, referred questions to authorities investigating the incident.

“Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane, but also to determine what happened – and why,” he said in a statement.

Flight 370 mysteriously disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 people on board and a multinational effort has been searching for it ever since.

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