WATCH ABOVE: Malaysian officials said Wednesday that the piece of wing washed up on an island in the Indian Ocean is in fact from the missing Malaysian plane. Jackson Proskow reports.
French investigators now have “very strong suppositions” that a plane part found washed up on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion came from the wreck of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, but Malaysian Prime Minister Najijb Razak went further to say it’s been confirmed the part came from the doomed airliner.
While a forensic investigation is ongoing, Deputy Paris Prosecutor Serge Mackowiak said the identification of the debris — a flaperon from a Boeing 777, the same aircraft as MH370 — will a three-judge panel to move forward with an inquiry into what happened to the plane that disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 passengers and crew on board.
According to University of Toronto professor Doug Perovic, an expert in material science and engineering, the debris could help “provide a roadmap and timeline” of what happened to Flight MH370 and where the wreck of the plane lies.
From his view, looking at the images of the flaperon that have been released so far, the damage appears consistent with the part coming off while the plane was still in the air.
“I don’t see a sudden impact with the water scenario,” he told Global News, suggesting the part may have broken away from the plane at some point before the aircraft hit the surface of the Indian Ocean.
But to best determine that investigators would need to examine the part as a whole before dismantling it — if they haven’t already — to look at distortions and damage, Perovic said.
“The front leading edge of that wing section looks relatively undamaged, whereas the rear looks quite tattered,” he said. “And that has indications of the types of stresses it underwent before it finally came to rest in the ocean.”
Despite the wear and tear from being washed around in the Indian Ocean for 17 months, the evidence needed to determine when the wing broke off is likely still evident.
“You would look at the fracture surfaces of the connection points, where the flaperon connects onto the wing, and see how it was torn off,” he said. “Was it pressed upwards? Was it pressed downwards. How was it sheared off?”
And if the part had hit the water with the rest of the aircraft, you’d be more likely to see damage along the front, curved area of the flap.
Now, saying the flaperon likely came off in the air doesn’t necessarily point to some sort of onboard explosion or fire that led to the plane’s destruction, he warned. (Although the French judicial inquiry will examine whether the disaster was an accident or the result of an intentional act.)
It’s possible, he said, that the piece tore off because of the “flutter of the wing at excessive speed.”
“If this plane is diving, it’s going to pick up speed much faster than it normally ever would in a regular flight and the wind speed going over top of the wing is faster, because that’s how they’re designed, than the bottom of the wing.”
That in turn causes the back side of the flaperon to vibrate severely enough that it begins to fracture and break away, he continued.
The smaller components of the piece, once it’s disassembled, will provide further information about how the part detached, he said.
The mounting pieces that attached the flaperon to the wing will also be key, as investigators also need to determine whether it broke off on its final descent into the ocean or hours before.
He referenced to a 2005 Air Worthiness Directive — a safety recall — from the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency for the fasteners on the flaperons for the Boeing 777-200 and 777-300; MH370 aircraft was a Boeing 777-200ER.
The directive reads:
“We are issuing this AD to prevent damage and eventual fracture of the yoke assembly, pin assembly, and attachment bolts that connect the inboard and outboard PCUs to a flaperon, which could lead to the flaperon becoming unrestrained and consequently departing from the airplane.”
“It’s possible there was some defective component that helped this flaperon separate at an earlier time,” Perovic said. “I’m not saying that it caused the crash. I’m saying that it was a contributing factor to determining when did it actually separate from the aircraft.”
And the location of where the aircraft remains is one of aviation’s great mysteries.
It was predicted that debris from MH370 could wind up in the area of Réunion, some 3,700 kilometres away from where search crews have looked for the wreckage, but investigators need to narrow down when the piece actually washed up on the island in order to retrace its track.
“It could have been sitting there for two weeks, right. We don’t know that,” he said. “To get an accurate time and location to reverse engineer the path and the history… isn’t so easy. But I think with good mathematical and computer modeling, they will be able to use this.”
This discovery, he said, provides peace of mind for the search teams that have been scouring a swathe of the Indian Ocean for months, in search of debris just like this. And there could be more pieces that could still turn up.
“The wing section, the rudder part. These are largely hollow pieces, just like that flaperon. So, they should be floating if they were separated, provided they’re not still attached to the main fuselage.”
PLEASE NOTE: The headline of this post was updated on Aug. 6 to include the word “apparent,” in order to reflect that investigators have not yet given an official confirmation the part came from Flight MH370 while the Malaysian prime minister said it was confirmed.