Why the trail of clues to Flight 370 now leads to France

SYDNEY — A mystery that began with the disappearance of a Malaysian plane en route to China that detoured to the waters off Australia’s coast has now spread across the Indian Ocean close to Africa. Next stop: France.

Reunion, an island east of Madagascar where an aircraft part washed up on shore and has been taken into police custody, is a territory of France that sends eight legislators to France’s National Assembly. The piece will be dispatched from Reunion Friday and arrive on the French mainland Saturday to be examined near Toulouse, France’s Europe1 radio reported on its website.

“It’s a bit difficult when something lands in the great white oceans, because you don’t own the ocean more than 12 miles off your coastline,” Brian O’Keefe, a former vice president of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s general assembly, said by phone from Canberra. “It’s an unusual case where the wreckage is found in a different jurisdiction to the place where the accident is thought to have happened.”

If the investigation shows the piece is from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished on March 8, 2014 with 239 people on board, it won’t pinpoint the plane’s resting place. It would, though, give fresh momentum to search efforts off the coast of Australia that so far have failed to find any debris from the doomed flight.

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“The sighting of this wreckage is consistent with the aircraft being located in the search area,” Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a media conference in Canberra Friday. Investigators have been focusing on a remote stretch of ocean some 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) southeast of Reunion.

“It’s only a small part of the aircraft, but it could be a very important bit of evidence,” Truss said. “Assuming it is eventually identified as wreckage from MH370, what this does is eliminate some of the theories that have been around.”

Some amateur sleuths have argued that the plane was hijacked and landed in central Asia; that it was seen flying over the Maldives due south of India; or that it was shot down close to Diego Garcia, a U.S. naval base south of the Maldives.

A part number on the wing component confirms it was from a 777, the same model as Flight 370, according to a U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation. French investigators will examine the piece under the supervision of Malaysian authorities, the official said.

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While investigators haven’t definitively determined that the piece came from MH370, “it probably is from the plane,” O’Keefe said. “There’s no record of anybody else reporting a piece falling off an airplane in this area.”

Malaysia Airlines identified the part as a flaperon, a movable panel on the rear of the wing that’s used to bank the plane and can also be moved to expand the wing’s size during takeoff and landing. Other than MH370, no 777s are known to have crashed in the Indian Ocean.

The tattered remains of a suitcase also were found on a Reunion island beach near where the wing part was discovered, according to a report by the Journal de L’ile de La Reunion.

Airline representatives will meet with passengers’ families in Beijing on Aug. 7 to discuss issues related to MH370, according to a note it sent to families Friday.

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Flight 370 went missing after communication equipment on the aircraft stopped functioning and it veered from its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and flew over the Indian Ocean. Investigators have concluded that someone on board intentionally disabled tracking devices.

Based on pings between a satellite and the plane, searchers believe it flew until it ran out of fuel somewhere along an arc west of Australia in the Indian Ocean.

Searchers have found no trace of the plane despite deep-sea sonar scans of tens of thousands of square kilometers.

As many as four jurisdictions are typically involved in an accident investigation, O’Keefe said. These include the countries where the aircraft operator is based and where the plane itself is registered; the home country of the aircraft manufacturer; and the nation where the crash took place.

Crashes in international waters are especially complicated. Australia has led the undersea search for Flight 370 because the plane is thought to have crashed within the country’s vast search and rescue zone, which stretches about halfway to Africa.

For a definitive link to the Malaysian plane, investigators would look for serial numbers on one of the pieces within the flap or for inspection stamps, John Purvis, who used to head Boeing’s accident investigations unit, said in a phone interview. Boeing has a record of all sub-components with serial numbers installed on an aircraft as it’s assembled, Purvis said.

“When an airplane crashes, one of the first things done is to freeze production records and manuals so that nothing is destroyed,” he said.

The piece may have been adrift for more than a year and battered on the shoreline, but investigators still will attempt to tease out clues about what happened to the airplane it came from.

By studying fracture lines and the surface of the part, investigators may be able to determine how it sheared off the 777 and whether the flaperon was extended at the time.

Flaperons are used when pilots slow a plane for landing, so the position might provide a clue as to whether the pilots were in control of the plane during its final moments, he said. Investigators also could look at barnacles attached to the piece, which could provide insight into which waters the debris has passed through.

“There’s a lot of forensic evidence” lurking in the wreckage, said John Cox, a former airline captain and chief executive officer of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consultant.

“The question is whether corrosion has compromised it,” he said.