New York: The Strange Saga of the Plane Part That Was Supposed to Solve the MH370 Mystery — UPDATED

UPDATED 9/3/15: France has announced that a serial number found within the flaperon has been matched to records kept by the Spanish subcontractor who built the part, and that there is now no longer any doubt that the flaperon found on La Réunion is, in fact, from MH370. Media reports suggesting that investigators would conclude otherwise — the basis for the article below — appear to have been mistaken. Questions about how the flaperon arrived at La Réunion remain, for the time being, open.

Tomorrow marks one month since a piece of a Boeing 777 washed up on the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, but French investigators are no closer to confirming that the part came from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In fact, leaks from within the investigation suggest that the the part might not have come from the plane at all.

Such a conclusion, if confirmed, would constitute a shocking reversal. At the time of the discovery, it was generally accepted that the wing segment, a so-called “flaperon,” could only come from MH370: Boeing engineers confirmed that the part was from a 777, and MH370 was the only 777 to have gone missing. Aviation experts declared that serial numbers on the flaperon would allow it to be definitively linked to the missing plane within 24 hours. When that deadline past, news outlets told readers that the ID should be nailed down within a few days. Then, by the following week.

What was holding things up, it turned out, was that the ID plate that should have been attached to the inboard edge of the flaperon was missing. And that was not the only problem.

According to the New York Times, Boeing and the NTSB found that the object did not match Malaysia Airlines’ maintenance records.

The waters were muddied on August 6, when Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that experts examing the flaperon in France had “conclusively confirmed” that it was from the plane. Minutes later, the French prosecutor in charge of the case, Serge Mackowiak, contradicted Najib and stated that confirmation would require further tests. Around the world, however, many prominent news outlets, including CNN and the BBC, went with Najib’s more confident-sounding claim.

The story briefly faded from the public eye. Then, on August 21, the French news outlet La Depeche ran a report citing sources within the investigation to the effect that the technical examination of the flaperon had ended without the hoped-for evidence being found. A few days later, Le Monde ran a report which echoed the Times’ earlier reporting: “maintenance work that Malaysia Airlines has indicated it carried out on the flaperon does not exactly match that observed on the discovered piece.”

It’s not clear exactly how one should interpret such language. Airplane parts are engineered precisely, and any changes made to them must be meticulously logged by maintenance personnel. If a part has four holes instead of five, it doesn’t just “not match exactly,” it doesn’t match.

If the part didn’t come from MH370, however, where could it have come from? In recent weeks the internet has been abuzz with speculation that the part might have been a replacement part not yet put into service or a spare part pulled off a scrapped airframe. Some have even speculated that the part might have come from the other Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER lost in 2014, MH17. It’s all pure speculation.

How the part found its way to a beach on Reunion Island is another puzzle. The Depeche article contained a tantalizing hint. “According to a Toulouse aeronautics expert who requested anonymity,” the article stated, “the element of the wing would not have floated for several months at the water’s surface but would have drifted underwater a few meters deep.”

It’s not yet known why investigators reached this conclusion, but one clue might be that the flaperon found on La Reunion was encrusted on every edge with goose barnacles. These animals are a type of crustacean that attaches while young to a floating object and spends its entire adult life affixed to the same spot. Since they obviously can only survive underwater, their distribution around the object suggests that the entirety of it must have spent at least several months submerged.

Therein lies the mystery. While it’s easy to imagine a submarine or a scuba diver hovering peacefully 10 or 20 feet under the surface of the water, this is not something that inanimate objects are capable of doing on their own: either they are more buoyant than water, in which case they float, or they are less buoyant, in which case they sink. “My experience is that things will go up or down—they will never stay statically neutral,” says famed ocean-drift expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer, professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Washington.

So how a six-foot-long chunk of airplane could remain suspended beneath the ocean surface for a long period of time? At this point, there aren’t any simple, common-sense answers; the range of possible explanations at this point runs from as-yet-unidentified natural processes to purposeful intervention by conspirators. The implausibility of it all is quite maddening—but then again, when it comes to MH370, maddening and implausible is par for the course.

64 thoughts on “New York: The Strange Saga of the Plane Part That Was Supposed to Solve the MH370 Mystery — UPDATED”

  1. @Matty, the comparison of your pics and the photos of the flap is very interesting.
    On the boat there’s one thing I’m totally missing on the flap: growth of algae.

  2. @Bruce Lamon


    The article about goose barnacles is beyond catastrophic flat out wrong. I was led down by it like you. All scientific sources state that goose barnacles are pelagic without exception. No intertidal live.


    If we say that an adult Goose Barnacle might weigh maximum 25 gramm and we guess that there are couple of thousands on the flaperon with average weight of 5 gramm you have a biotic mass of about 10 to 15 kg additional weight, that might somehow affect the Buoyancy … But they consist 80% of water and 20% proteins and about 1% fat. So we can really forget about any contribution towards sinking the flap beneath water surface. The weight of the shells might be comparable to the weight of the bones in human bodies, so we would have about 1,5 kg of calcium to add to the weight of the flaperon which, by rough guess, might afect the buoyancy by about 1% of a small fraction. I think This idea is a dead end.

    There are stalks overall the colonized places of the flaperon clearly visible on the fotos as orange colours between the shells. There are stalks visible attached to the flap material and stalks attached to the stalks of other individuals.


    its hard to imagine, that the flaperon floated partly submerged with one plane above the water. because you see the same distribution in regard to different sizes in all places accessible to the larvae on the upper and lower surface and edges. If the part was drifting at the surface, the Barnacles on the dry side, exposed to the sun would die within hours. Since the part would be tossed around by hurricanes with 10 meter waves, you could guess, that the exposed side changes from time to time and hence the barnacle colonies would be reduced. I think that Jeff Wise is completely right to follow this up. Maybe a DNA check of Herbig and Schiffer in Cologne University could help to find out whether they really originate from one single spot, because they mapped the SIO by degrees of latitude for the DNA of some prominent Barnacle species.

  3. @littlefoot

    though i cannot see algae on the boat on my small screen, i’ll take your word and offer this thought: algae needs sunlight and nutrients to grow.

    If the flaperon floated submerged, as been previously discussed here, it would have less exposure to sunlight, inhibiting algae growth.

    if the flaperon spent a great deal of time in the open ocean where nutrients might be somewhat scarcer than closer to the coast, that too would inhibit algae growth.

    the article about the boat makes a point of saying that the vessel floated its way up the coast of Africa presumably exposing it to more of both sunlight and shallow-water nutrients.

  4. Re: boat drifted from WA to Africa.

    It seems to me there is algae growth and maybe barnacles of a different species.

  5. One possible solution is that the flaperon was indeed buoyant, but pinned by or attached to a heavier object.

    What is the possibility that the entire plane sank in relatively shallow water? Then the flaperon broke free after a year and drifted away.

    That would constrain the locations a bit, but avoid this whole “in between waters” nonsense.

  6. @JS. I’d might say the flaperon was stuck in the intertidal of some atoll’s lagoon. Finally a storm washed it free

  7. @Jay

    Sorry for coming a bit unhinged. I do that when people say the ISAT shows the plane had to have terminated near the current search area. That is simply not true. The current search area is the result of the ISAT data coupled with a specific choice of light dynamics. The ISAT data would allow the plane to be just about anywhere on the 7th arc below Indonesia subject to the fuel range.

  8. If this was a deliberate act, we need a motive. I think this is the most likely motive. It was suggested earlier that the pilot might have been in a holding pattern outside of radar coverage while negotiating. With whom and over what? The planeload of Chinese passengers were the hostages.

    Malaysia is an Islamic country. Uighurs are Moslems who come to Malaysia seeking asylum. The pilot’s political party opposes the practice of deportation. The current Malaysian government has been deporting Uighurs back to China for several years. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah wanted to end this practice and draw attention to the fact Malaysia has been deporting Uyghurs, his fellow Muslims, back to Xinjiang, China, to face certain torture and death. So he was using the Chinese passengers as hostages to bring about reform.

    In 2011, the government of Malaysia secretly deported 11 Uyghurs. More recently on December 31, 2012 Kuala Lumpur secretly deported another 6 Uyghur asylum seekers, which HRW called a “grave violation of international law” given China’s dubious charges against them.

    October 7, 2014 KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Human rights groups have urged Malaysia not to deport 155 ethnic Uighur migrants, including 76 children, back to China, fearing they could face persecution.

    I had earlier mentioned that the pilot would be most likely to fly to Kuqa Quici, in Xinjiang to bring world wide attention to the plight of Uyghirs.. Kuqa Quici was mentioned as one the possible landing sites from an earlier post.

    Malaysia would have been happy to help China hide a potentially devastating foreign policy embarrassment. Xinjiang is one of the most remote and tightly controlled regions on the planet. China is extremely sensitive about the Uyghur situation. No matter what motive the pilot might have had, neither Malaysia nor China would be willing to negotiate.

  9. @Trip

    the flight happened only couple of hours after Anwar’s trial

    if motivation was political(and it most certainly was), he wouldn’t need anything other than that, it would be more than enough

  10. I am told this is a true story but I suspect it is either a bit stretched or simply a joke.

    A major technology conference was held in New York. A group of French engineers from the country’s A-listed Ecoles d’Ingenieurs were in attendance. On their first night they decided to collectively have dinner in a nearby restaurant. Once seated at their table and handed their menus, an engineer noticed that the salt was in the pepper shaker and the pepper was in the salt shaker. Immediately an argument ensued as they debated how best they could correct that anomaly. Some engineers started writing mathematical formulas on their napkins, others were outlining various mass transfer and displacement theories. The heated argument drew the attention of their waitress who came over to their table and inquired if she could be of assistance. An irate engineer pointed to the shakers and explained the intolerable situation. The waitress smiled, apologized for the inconvenience, then proceeded to remove the caps of both shakers and swapped them around.

    I guess that explains why it’s taking so long for the French to make a pronouncement on the flaperon!

  11. @Trip @Jay @StevanG

    I accept it is possible and you make fair points on motive.
    Would any pilot expect to “negotiate” under those circumstaces. That would be a massive miscalcution of any government especially that one.
    I see no possible (oh ok land and all is forgiven) positive outcome in that situation

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