Debris May Have Come From Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, U.S. Investigators Say
PARIS — American investigators have concluded that a large object that washed up Wednesday on the shore of RÉunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, came from a Boeing 777, making it likely that it was debris from Flight 370, the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that disappeared in March 2014.
A French official with knowledge of the investigation said that the object appeared to be a wing flap. The official said that the object was about 9 feet long and 3 feet wide, and that it appeared to have been in the water for a very long time.
The French aviation safety bureau, known as BEA, said in a statement on Wednesday that it “is studying the information on the airplane part found in La RÉunion, in coordination with our Malaysian and Australian colleagues and with the judicial authorities.” It added that “it is not possible at this hour to ascertain whether the part is from a B-777 and/or from MH370.”
The French official said that the authorities were in the process of designating a laboratory in France where the object would be taken for examination.
Agence France-Presse reported that the object was found by people cleaning a beach, and cited a witness who said it was partly encrusted with shells.
Aviation experts who viewed published photos of the object said it strongly resembled a part of a modern jetliner wing known as a flaperon, one of the control surfaces that pilots use to guide the aircraft in flight.
Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said it seemed clear from the photos that the object “is a wing flap, and it’s about the right size.”
Noting that investigators should be able to tell quickly whether the object came from a 777, Richard L. Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said that “if that happens, there is only one possibility.”
Malaysia’s transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, said on Wednesday afternoon that it was too early to know if the debris was from Flight 370 but that he had sent investigators to RÉunion.
“We hope we can identify it as soon as possible,” he told reporters at the United Nations, where he was attending a Security Council meeting on the other Malaysia Airlines disaster last year — the downing of Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.
Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer specializing in ocean currents who did extensive computer simulations last year of where Flight 370 wreckage might float, said that it was possible that pieces might now be reaching RÉunion, more than 3,000 miles from the plane’s last known location.
But the plane would have had to enter the water off northwestern Australia, he said. A series of separate analyses of the satellite “pings” coming from the aircraft’s engines in its last hours of flight have all pointed to its coming down off southwestern Australia, many hundreds of miles farther south — and that is where investigators from Australia, Malaysia and China have concentrated their search efforts.
Currents in the Indian Ocean move fairly quickly from east to west near the Equator, Mr. van Sebille said, but those to the south move more slowly. Debris entering the ocean in the primary search area would be much less likely to have drifted as far as RÉunion by now.
Martin Dolan, the chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said in a telephone interview that “the drift models we have are that it is possible, not probable, that debris would wash ashore at RÉunion.”
Mr. van Sebille noted that even if the object found on the shore came from Flight 370, that did not mean that any other parts of the plane would be found nearby. “The way the ocean works is like a huge pinball machine,” and the plane’s wreckage “could be spread across an enormous area,” he said.
Flight 370, with 239 people on board, veered off its planned route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and stopped communicating with ground controllers shortly after midnight on March 8, 2014. It flew westward across the Malay Peninsula and then southward over the Indian Ocean, and it is presumed to have crashed there in very deep water, killing everyone aboard. Months of extensive air and sea search efforts have so far failed to find any trace of the aircraft.
Boeing said in a statement that it remained “committed to supporting the MH370 investigation and the search for the airplane” and would share its technical expertise with safety investigators, but it declined to comment specifically on the RÉunion object.
Aurelien Breeden reported from Paris, and Nicola Clark from Mobile, Ala. Keith Bradsher and Christopher Drew contributed reporting.