New York: What the MH370 Wing Flap Tells Us, And What It Doesn’t

A policeman and a gendarme stand next to a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on July 29, 2015. Photo: Yannick Pitou/AFP/Getty Images

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.

All airline parts carry identifying labels, much as cars carry Vehicle Identification Numbers etched on the engine block. In the normal course of things, this plate should have been attached to the rib end of the flaperon and allowed investigators to make an instantaneous identification. As fate would have it, the plate is missing.

That’s why a hastily convened team of investigators from Malaysia, France, and the United States is meeting this Wednesday in Toulouse to open the sealed container in which the flaperon has been dispatched from Réunion. In the absence of a serial number, they’ll have to look for peculiarities of materials or construction that will allow them to say definitively that the flaperon came from MH370 and isn’t, as some have suggested, a discard from a parts factory in India.

It’s going to be a tricky job, and the stakes are high: MH370 has unnerved the aviation community like no crash before. Until we can figure out what took it down, the danger is ever-present that it could happen again.

While the world’s attention is on the flaperon, however, the sonar-scanning of the seabed on the other side of the Indian Ocean promises to tell us even more about MH370’s fate. If the small flotilla of search ships can locate the plane’s primary debris field on the ocean floor, they’ll likely find the black boxes that can tell us exactly what happened to the flight. But even if they don’t, they’ll reveal something important about what happened.

The area they’re scouring was defined through analysis of the Inmarsat satellite data. Part of the data tells investigators that the plane must have wound up somewhere along a broad arc 3,000 miles in radius. Another part, subjected to a new and complex form of analysis, showed that the plane headed in a generally southern direction. Where, exactly, depends on how it flew. If the plane flew slowly it would have taken a curving path and wound up north of a subsea feature called Broken Ridge. If it flew fast, its path would have been straighter and taken it south of Broken Ridge.

Among the attractions of the latter option was that it fit with an easy-to-imagine scenario: that, after flying up the Malacca Strait, whoever had been in control became incapacitated and the plane flew straight south on autopilot as a “ghost ship” until it ran out of fuel. Once that happened, the plane would have quickly spiraled into the ocean within a few miles of the final arc, meaning that the debris would have to be located within a fairly small area of seabed.

Last October, after months of internal debate, Australian officials decided that the straight-and-fast scenario was more likely. They laid out a 60,000-square-kilometer search grid and hired contractors to begin scanning. Their confidence in their analysis was so great that they reportedly kept a bottle of Champagne in the fridge, ready to be popped at any time. The longer they searched without finding the plane, officials said, the more their confidence grew, because they knew the plane had to be inside that box.

As time went by, however, a problem emerged: The plane wasn’t there. After six months, there was a 99 percent probability that the search had covered the calculated end point, and that number only kept climbing toward 100. Authorities stopped talking about how sure they were that it was in the 60,000-square-kilometer area, and announced that they would expand the search zone to twice that size.

What went unremarked upon in the general press was that there was no theoretical justification for the authorities to continue the search in this way. To get so far from the final arc, the plane would have to have been actively piloted, because only a conscious pilot could have kept the plane out of a death spiral. So the ghost-ship scenario was out the window. A plane held in a glide by a conscious pilot could travel for a hundred miles or more, far too huge an area of ocean to scan. The only reason to search the extra 60,000 square miles was that, for the authorities, it was better than admitting they had no idea what they were doing.

It also kept them from having to contemplate other unattractive alternative scenarios. Perhaps the plane didn’t fly straight and fast, but slow and curvy, and wound up north of Broken Ridge. It’s hard to imagine why someone would fly like this, but then again it’s hard to imagine why someone would sit patiently on a six-hour death flight to nowhere. If a slow, curvy flight was what happened, then again a terminal death spiral could by no means be assumed, and the required search area would be impossibly large.

To be sure, none of these scenarios make a lot of sense. But then, so much of what we know about MH370 is baffling. If the perps flew into the southern Indian Ocean because they wanted to disappear, why didn’t they just fly to the east instead of turning back over the Malay peninsula? If the aim was suicide, why not just put the nose down and crash right away, like every other suicide pilot we know of? And why did the perps turn off the satellite communication, and then turn it back on again, a procedure that — by the way — few airline pilots know how to do?

Though it has earned much less attention from the world press, the failure of the seabed search actually tells us a lot about what did or did not happen to MH370. And what it tells us is that this case is as weird as ever.

This piece originally ran on the New York magazine website on August 4, 2015.

425 thoughts on “New York: What the MH370 Wing Flap Tells Us, And What It Doesn’t”

  1. @all

    The JACC confirmed, some minutes ago, that the flaperon is from MH370. Something most of us anticipated.

    With that news finding MH370 debris in the Maldives, which is North of the equator, is a virtual impossibility.

  2. @DennisW, @ Susie Crowe

    is it not odd that one source here is from August 6 and the second source does not mention French confirmation at all?

  3. @Scott

    The August 6 date refers to when the Malay PM first announced that the flaperon was from MH370. Many people were annoyed because the French did not collaborate his certainty. It is now confirmed by all parties involved.

  4. @DennisW
    It does seem suspicious., the link I posted IS from Malaysia and it!’s all I can find

  5. @DennisW

    Thanks. I understand the August 6 date. But to me the language from the JACC is far from ironclad:

    “Subsequent examination has indicated that IN ALL PROBABILITY, the wreckage, a wing part known as a flaperon, was from MH370,”

    “In all probability,” unless that’s an idiomatic expression i don’t fully understand given my American English, is not the same as 100 percent confirmation or even beyond reasonable doubt.

    But beyond that–and perhaps I’m being dense here or missing something–I don’t see any evidence that the French, who presumably would be in charge of such an announcement, have concurred. And in fact, I’m not finding it reported anywhere beyond

    I guess I’m wondering if this is another matter of misinterpretation or gun jumping on the part of an official or the press…

  6. @Scott

    I take it back. I am the one confusing the dates. Mea Culpa. My link originated on 6August when, in fact, i misread it to be referring to event happening today (12August).

  7. @DennisW

    No worries, Dennis, but where does this leave us? Still afloat, as it were?

    To me this JACC quote from today’s (Aug 12) operational update seems as inappropriately premature as the Malaysian PM’s without further corroboration:

    “On 29 July 2015 aircraft wreckage was found on La Réunion. Subsequent examination indicates that in all probability the wreckage, a wing part known as a flaperon, was from MH370. Any additional debris that is found will be examined to determine if it too can be linked to MH370.”

  8. @Scott

    The JACC web site makes no mention of the flaperon. The three reports I have read all emanate from Malasia with no mention of the who in JACC is making the statement. I am smelling a rat here now. I am doubting the JACC made a statement at all.

  9. @ MuOne:

    AA191 was at takeoff, very low speed, flaps and slats extended. It crashed because the left wing stalled. The left wing stalled because the engine separation caused the slats to retract, and because the airplane decelerated to below the stall speed for that configuration. MH370 was at high speed, well above stall speed, with flaps and slats retracted. Furthermore there are many system differences. Loss of the left engine does not deprive the left main AC bus from electrical power.

  10. Finally, MH370 less one engine would not have been able to maintain the speed it had until MEKAR.

  11. “Subsequent examination indicates that in all probability the wreckage, a wing part known as a flaperon, was from MH370. Any additional debris that is found will be examined to determine if it too can be linked to MH370.”

    So those who say Malaysian are lying about the flaperon belonging to 9M-MRO are all in face saving mode now. You have jumped the gun, just like how you have accused the Malaysian government in doing the same.

  12. The JACC statement “…in all probability…” only indicates it was probably from MH370 IMO (unless they have new information not yet made public); it doesn’t imply they are certain or anything to do with mathematical probability. I agree it’s premature. This waiting must be awful for the NoK but wait we must.

  13. @Gysbreght,

    Thanks for the clarifications.

    In hindsight, I should have phrased my post as a layman’s rethorical question as to the possibility of a departing left engine being capable of causing the theorized effects.

    I guess, in my excitement, I got cought thinking outside my square, seeing possible parallels, where there aren’t any.



  14. @ALL: please disprove this theory, it’s really out there (literally)….

    Did MH370 attempt to initiate some sort of hand off or exchange in the Southern Indian Ocean?

    Or put another way- if you had to remove highly valuable cargo from a plane, where is the most remote, undetectable place on the planet to do so??

    The flaperon discovery seems to make it highly likely now, that:
    1. MH370 may be in the (borrowing Jeff Wise’s phrasing) “…slow, curvy flight” path search area
    2. MH370 glided rather than crashed into the water

    Obviously different aircraft, but could the US Airway Flight 1549 that ditched in the Hudson provide clues as to the feasibility of initiating such an ‘exchange’?

  15. @Gavin, I found this paragraph the most intriguing (if self-admittedly unsubstantiated):
    “The social media echo chamber is, not surprisingly on this occasion, full of so far unsubstantiated rumours that Boeing doesn’t think that what is definitely a part of a Boeing 777 was in this case ever put into service.”

  16. I have a friend who was a B777 maintenance engineer (now retired) and he told me that every part on a B777 has identifying marks on it regardless if it has a data plate or not. It even has the name of the person that did the final inspection on it. He considers that they would have known within a very short period of time whether it was off 9M-MRO or not. The fact that this information has not been forthcoming (indicates to me at least) that it is not off 9M-MRO and they are currently tracing the aircraft that it came off. Did you know there was an AD put out in 2006 requiring certain remedial work to be done to avoid the flaperon departing the aircraft in flight? If someone did not carry out this work for whatever reason, then it is possible this could explain why this flaperon is there. Many have said to me that this couldn’t happen without Boeing knowing of it, but I’m not so sure… There have been 5 x B777s wrecked for parts so it is feasible that a used aileron was obtained from one of these sources and Boeing was kept completely out of the loop. As it stands at the moment, the only thing anyone has to go by to believe it is off 9M-MRO is like what a good friend described to me: ****The problem with the current press release is it is a confirmation by absence of alternatives, not a confirmation by presentation of proof. This would be like me saying, “We know men walked on the moon because the men weren’t seen on earth at that time”, and what I should be saying is, “We know men walked on the moon because we saw the pictures of them walking on the moon and they left stuff behind that proves they were there”. Absence of alternatives means we can’t think of another alternative. It is plausible that somehow another B777 lost a flaperon in the approximate area and … maybe the world has been duped?****
    I personally don’t think the world has been “duped,” but instead they all just want an end to this mystery, so everyone is understandably happy to accept anything that comes along… but that doesn’t help the families!

  17. I forgot to say that in my opinion, when Boeing said the “mods” (or lack of them) on this flaperon did not match that of 9M-MRO’s maintenance records, I believe this was what they were talking about (the mod required in 2006), and the social media echo chambers ‘rumours’ could well be true in the sense that if Boeing were of the belief that all the B777’s had had this Mod done, then for one to be washed up on a beach without this mod would beg that question… had it ever been in service? Of course, this still does not rule out the possibility of a cash strapped airline fudging the books!

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