MH370 Q&A: How did the flaperon reach Reunion? And when and where will more wreckage show up?

For 16 months no trace of the Malaysia Airlines plane was found

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The Independent Online

The Malaysian Prime Minister has confirmed that the wreckage found on a beach on the east coast of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion came from MH370. The Boeing 777 disappeared on 8 March last year on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. For 16 months no trace of the plane was found. The flaperon - a component used for turns and for low-speed flying - is being analysed at a French military aeronautical laboratory outside Toulouse. What can be inferred from the find? And what more might turn up?

Q) How did the flaperon reach Reunion?

It is a component that includes some air pockets, making it more buoyant than most of the aircraft. Five hundred days after the disappearance of MH370, it washed up about 2,500 miles west of the current search area, itself about 1,000 miles west of Australia. Oceanographers believe that wreckage could have drifted north from the likely crash site and then been swept 2,500 miles west by the South Equatorial Current to Reunion. Its speed along a direct track works out at about five or six miles per day from the predicted likely crash site - but it is very likely that the actual distance covered has been much greater, due to the very complex nature of water flows in a tropical ocean.

Q) How difficult does that make it to “reverse-engineer” the journey covered by the flaperon to try to locate the crash site more closely?

Very tricky. Experts at the UK Hydrographic Office are examining historical data on ocean currents and survey data of the sea floor to narrow down the likely location of the aircraft in the Indian Ocean. But the margins of error are extremely wide, especially so long after MH370’s disappearance. It is also unclear how much effect the wind will have had, since flaperon has a wide surface that could catch breezes very easily.

Q) When and where will more wreckage show up?

It is impossible to say. Early predictions suggested that Indonesia would be the most likely venue for MH370 debris. Malaysia has asked countries with Indian Ocean shores to keep vigilant, and seafarers are also studying the surface for clues. But large quantities of flotsam, mostly lost from shipping, are afloat in the Indian Ocean, and there are likely to be many false alarms. On Reunion, local beachcombers and international media attuned to the possibility of more debris washing up reported all kinds of finds as coming from the lost 777 - including a “window” that turned out to be part of a sewing machine.

Having said that, Madagascar has such a long shore that it must be a prime candidate - that is, if there is more wreckage to be found.

Q) Surely “when”, not “if” - since one flaperon has been found, there must be more debris?

Not necessarily floating on the surface of the ocean. Most aircraft parts will sink. In previous oceanic crashes, seat cushions and personal effects have been found, but that depends on breaches in the fuselage. If the plane was deliberately ditched at low speed, the fuselage could have remained intact. As it sank it will have been subject to extremely high pressure, but not necessarily with the effect of freeing objects inside the fuselage. So Malaysia Airlines’ statement looks premature: “We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery.”

Police officers on Reunion island carry away small pieces of metallic debris, that will be examined to see if they are from MH370

Q) What about the rest of the plane?

The engines are likely to have sunk to the sea bed due to their high density. Indeed, the search of the seabed is primarily focused on finding objects as large as engine, since smaller debris is likely to be much more elusive.

Q) But they haven’t found anything yet?

No, and according to the original time frame set by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau - which is leading the search for MH370 - it was expected to take no more than a year from last September.

Q) Remind me how the search zone was decided?

Sophisticated analysis of satellite “pings,” together with parameters such as the amount of fuel loaded and the estimated speed, has enabled the search team to declare a swathe of seabed as the most likely location for the missing plane.

Q) How might it be modified in the light of the discovery?

In a statement, the bureau said it had reviewed its search calculations and priorities and was satisfied that the discovery “is consistent with the current underwater search area in the southern Indian Ocean”. But it is possible that analysis of the flaperon in France may help pinpoint the location. For example, if investigators find that the component was deployed, that could suggest a human hand was at the controls. It could also mean that the plane was using more fuel than thought, and the likely range would be less.

Q) Is everyone convinced they are looking in the right place?

No. Jeff Wise, the American science writer who had earlier speculated that the jet had been hi-jacked on the orders of the Kremlin and flew it to Kazakhstan now concedes that it is lost in the Indian Ocean. He says, though, “If the plane flew slowly it would have taken a curving path and wound up north of a subsea feature called Broken Ridge,” and suggests the investigators are too committed to the present area of search.

Meanwhile, the agony of the families continues. They have been told that investigators are certain their loved ones perished in the Indian Ocean. But how they died, and where they are, remains the greatest unsolved mystery in aviation.