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.