The discovery last week of what appeared to be a piece of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on the shores of Réunion Island seemed at first blush a giant leap toward solving the famously perplexing mystery. Officials declared that, based on photos, the part could only have come from a Boeing 777. And since only one 777 has ever been lost at sea, physical evidence of the vanished plane seemed at last to be irrefutably in hand.
This marked a huge break in the case, since before now not a single piece of wreckage had ever been spotted. The only evidence that the plane had gone into the ocean was a series of difficult-to-decipher signals received by the satellite company Inmarsat. The incongruity led some, including me, to question whether the plane had really wound up in the Indian Ocean at all. Back in February, I explained in New York how sophisticated hijackers might have infiltrated the plane’s electronic bay in order to spoof the satellite signals and take the plane north to Kazakhstan. MH370 wreckage on the shores of Réunion makes such explanations unnecessary.
Investigators hope to glean from the six-foot-long chunk important clues about where and how the plane went down. The piece, called a flaperon, forms part of the trailing edge of the wing, and was located just behind the right engine. The front part of it looks dinged up but more or less intact, but pieces on the side and much of the rear part have been ripped away. That damage might have taken place in the ocean, but if on inspection it appears to have been caused by high-speed airflow (as a plane might experience in a steep dive) or impact with the water, it could shed light on the flight’s final moments.
The fact that the debris was found on Réunion itself provides a hint as to where the plane went down. The island lies on the far side of the Indian Ocean from the suspected crash area, a distance of some 2,500 miles. The ocean’s strongest east-to-west current, the South Equatorial Current, runs about a thousand miles north of where searchers are currently looking. Should the search area be moved up? In the coming weeks oceanographers will be refining their models in order to figure that out. To lend a hand, biologists will examine the barnacles and other sea life found living on the debris in order to determine how long it was in the water and what part of the ocean it passed through.
But, as if steeped in the weirdness of all things MH370, the Réunion flaperon came wrapped in an unexpected layer of ambiguity.