Investigators probing the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are examining an object found on the coast of Mozambique they suspect came from the missing Boeing Co. 777, a person familiar with the investigation said.
The piece turned up on a sandbank in Mozambique Channel where debris from the Indian Ocean washes up, according to the person, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation. It appears to be part of a 777 tail and, since there aren’t any other cases in which that model has crashed, investigators believe it may have come from the plane that went missing almost two years ago, the official said.
If it’s verified, the item would become the second confirmed piece of the jetliner that disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, while on a routine flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It has since become one of aviation’s most befuddling mysteries. There has been no trace of the 239 people on board.
The discovery of the 1-meter metal fragment on a beach in Mozambique shows investigators are correct to focus their search area for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, the Australian government said Thursday.
The location on Africa’s east coast is consistent with ocean drift modeling carried out for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is leading the search, Darren Chester, Australia’s minister for infrastructure and transport, said in a statement. The fragment is being transferred to Australia to be examined by Australian and Malaysian officials, as well as international specialists, Chester said.
According to the person familiar with the investigation, the latest debris is marked with the words “NO STEP.” Preliminary analysis of photographs by investigators in Malaysia, Australia and the U.S. suggests the piece is a fiberglass and aluminum section from the front of the horizontal stabilizer, the small wings at the tail, according to the official.
The discovery was first reported by NBC News.
“Based on early reports, high possibility debris found in Mozambique belongs to a B777,” Malaysia’s Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said in a Twitter post. “It is yet to be confirmed & verified” and Malaysian authorities are working with Australian counterparts to retrieve the debris, he said.
Boeing had no immediate comment.
“It’s too speculative at this point for MAS to comment,” Malaysia Airlines said in response to questions from Bloomberg News, referring to itself by its acronym.
A barnacle-encrusted wing flap was found last year on Reunion Island, thousands of miles from the search area off Australia’s west coast. The Mozambique location where the latest find was made is at a similar wing flap attitude as Reunion Island, about 1,300 miles (2,000 km) west.
The discovery of a second piece in the same general area as the first tends to confirm that searchers are looking for the plane in the right place, an arc from west of Australia curving toward the South Pole, according to John Cox, president of aviation consultant Safety Operating Systems in Washington.
“It’s not conclusive, but it is a bit more,” said Cox, who has participated in dozens of accident investigations.
Examination of the piece may be able to tell investigators something about how Flight 370 came down and broke apart, Jim Wildey, former chief of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s materials laboratory, said.
If the piece broke loose as the plane crashed into the sea, it would exhibit different types of damage than if the plane broke apart in midair, Wildey said. If it was partially crushed by the impact, that may also yield clues about plane’s orientation as it hit the water, he said.
NTSB investigators were able to use such techniques while investigating the July 17, 1996, crash of TWA Flight 800, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean near Long Island, New York, killing all 230 aboard, according to Wildey.
Australia is leading a search of the southern Indian Ocean where investigators believe the plane flew after turning around between Malaysia and Vietnam and heading into one of the most remote areas of the world. The path was estimated from pings between the plane and a satellite after other electronics and radios on the plane stopped functioning.
Some of the world’s most experienced search-and-rescue experts are resigned to the fact that the A$180 million ($130 million) search may fail. Without fresh clues, four ships are due to finish combing the seas off western Australia in the middle of the year, Martin Dolan, head of the ATSB, said in an interview with Bloomberg News last month. Within a rectangle the size of North Korea, vessels have scoured most of the patch believed to be the probable impact point — and come up empty.
“I think we’re going to see pieces like this continue to show up, one by one,” Cox said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to narrow the search field. And hopefully the Australians, the Chinese and the Malaysians all continue to fund the search until we find it.”
–With assistance from Chong Pooi Koon and Manirajan Ramasamy.
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