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. @jeffwise:
    “It’s not yet known why investigators reached this conclusion”
    Just for accuracy – the story in La Depeche du Midi did not link the opinion expressed by an unnamed “aeronautical expert” living in Toulouse to the “investigators”.

  2. @Jeff/all

    I do sense a lot of frustration within our community, and it is certainly understandable.

    For my part I have absolutely zero doubt that the flaperon found on Reunion came from 9M-MRO. I have dealt with the French a lot during the course of my career, and I decided more than a couple of decades ago that I was not going to allow them to give me an ulcer. They always move at a glacial pace relative to what we would consider the norm in our culture. We will hear from them “in due course”, as they have said.

    My own crystal ball tells me that the plane will not be found in the current extended search area. When that exercise is complete, that will almost certainly mark the end of underwater searching, and the plane will likely never be found.

    I’ve held this view for many months now, so anything that represents an improvement is uplifting for me. Since things cannot get any worse, I don’t have any downside emotional risk.

  3. @all

    german drift model

    In a drift model from the renown Geomar Helmholtz-Centre for Oceanography in Kiel, Germany the search area is entirely dismissed and the origin of the flaperon is located near the equatorial region of the southern arc. This is in german in “Der Spiegel-online” today. english version not yet published. (Scientists Villwock, Durgadoo, Biastoch)

    There will be a meeting for the press next Tuesday with exciting new details.

  4. @CA

    Well, that is uplifting in contrast to the Metron paper which used their own estimate of the ATSB/IG probability density as a Bayesian prior. It was all I could do to get through their drivel after that.

    Please provide a link to an English translation when it becomes available.

  5. Here is a hypothetical example of a discrepancy between the Reunion flaperon and the maintenance records:
    Let’s say Boeing sold a steel widget to MAS as an upgrade to replace the original aluminum widget. MAS maintenance records document that the steel widget was installed on a certain date but the widget on the Reunion Flaperon is still aluminum.

  6. That is Sebille’s drift model. They have a lot of publications together – , and more. I am sure that is Sebille’s model.

    None of them work with probabilities and bayesian approach.

    So I expect their work is of poorer use than Rydberg’s and Merton’s works

  7. Jeff Wise posted above: “Airplane parts are engineered precisely, and any changes made to them must be meticulously logged by maintenance personnel. ”

    Precisely. Each modification to any part of the airplane is covered by a “Service Bulletin” from the manufacturer, containing precise accomplishment instructions, including tools and materials to be used. Either SBxxxxx was accomplished or it was not.

  8. @Lauren H, Could be! And then the question would be: how problematic should we take that to be?
    I’m reminded of the acoustic pinger debacle, when it emerged that the signals being picked up were at a frequency of 33.3 kHz while the black box pingers were designed to emit at 37.5 kHz. A large number of “experts” were corraled to say on air that the frequency discrepancy was no big deal, that pressure or a cracked resonator could change the frequency. I went on CNN at the same time as Bill Nye, who assured viewers that just as a prism can change light’s wavelength, varying water temperature and salinity can change a sound’s frequency. (Of course refrecation bends light but doesn’t change its frequency.) Long and short, people spent a lot of time convincing themselves that a big problem with the data was a small problem with the data.
    I’m not saying that the same is necessarily the case here, only that there is a precedent for people who are not completely immersed in a topic to misjudge the significance of a discrepancy.

  9. @Alex, Thanks for this. I too am finding it hard to get excited about a new drift model. Maybe once more data points have been accumulated…

  10. I find it unbelievable that a numbered part supplied by a Spanish subcontractor would not be within hours traced back to a specific aircraft. This in itself is worthy of a story. Does Boeing have no control over its subcontractor? It is hard to believe that French and US investigators could not quickly get an answer if they wanted, even during the “holiday month” of August. Why are they so willing to delay?

  11. @VictorI:

    I can’t say I’m surprised. Boeing’s control over its subcontractors has been criticised before. Perhaps we are talking of a subcontractor to the subcontractor that manufactures the flaperon under contract to Boeing. From the perspective of that subcontractor, what’s the urgency for tracing the manufacturing history of a part that was delivered 15 years ago when there is no airworthiness or quality assurance issue?

  12. Jeff,

    I am afraid you were overly optimistic by saying “The Strange Saga of the Plane Part That Was Supposed to Solve the MH370 Mystery”. How could it solve the mystery? The other thing is that this part was supposed to shed some light on MH370 mystery, but instead it has cast even more shadow on it.

  13. @Gysbreght, in principle you’re right: every modification on an aircraft part should get documented meticulously. But in reality that doesn’t always happen. I mentioned a few times already the problems with unauthorized aircraft parts, some even pilfered from crash sites and sold on a florishing black market after refurbishment. Then there are unauthorized repairs by unapproved companies which never make it into any records. Especially financially ailing airlines might not do everything by the books. And MAS was in financial trouble well before they lost two airliners within a few months. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if their record keeping wasn’t absolutely aboveboard.
    Hopefully the tracing of the flap through the subcontractor yields some precise information, no matter how much longer it takes.

  14. Does the flaperon float on the surface by itself? I assume goose barnacles are denser than water and that the goose barnacles on the flaperon made it less buoyant. Over time it would seem as more barnacles attach to the flaperon it would tend to sink lower into the water, and thus the flaperon would be hovering 1 or 2 meeters below the surface. How long would it take for the flaperon to become completely covered?

  15. There is an interesting discussion of identification plates and maintenance logs on reddit:

    My takeaway is that identification plates go missing occasionally even on aircraft parts that haven’t crashed and been tossed around in the ocean for 17 months, and, that maintenance logs are not always exact or accurate.

    That leaves the barnacle discrepancy.

    According to Wikipedia, goose barnacles “live attached to hard surfaces of rocks and flotsam in the ocean intertidal zone.”

    “Since the intertidal zone periodically desiccates, barnacles are well adapted against water loss.”

    What is more likely, that barnacles could live on flotsam bobbing up and down in seawater or that the flaperon appeared as part of an inscrutable conspiracy?

  16. Jeff, Bill Nye the (so-called) Science Guy denied that an inflated football would show a drop in internal pressure when moved from a warmer environment to a colder environment, as it must in the known universe.

  17. @Trip Barthel
    If you read Jeff’s 3 previous “flaperon” articles and subsequent posts you will a lot of what you asked discussed and very informative!

  18. @Bruce Lamon, I think you’re mistaken about the kind of barnacles we’re dealing with here. Those ain’t intertidal goose barnacles which can deal well with dry intervals. The barnacles on the flap are open ocean dwellers and according to Professor Griffiths they can’t cope well at all with falling dry. That’s why he thought that the story about the early landfalls of the flap since May don’t ring true. The barnacles should’ve been dead then and eaten by birds. But in pictures you can see quite well that the barnacles were still alive, if barely though, when the photos were taken after the discovery.

  19. @Alex @Jeff


    Alex, i think you are quite right, when you put those people in the extra elite among oceanographers together with sebille. To be clear, we are talking about the people who DID find AF447 and DID accomplish, what many people in the search for MH370 only are TRYING.

    But you are right , when you state that they dont trust in the stochastics so much, but their model is founded rather on facts, on daily real time observation thru a considerable period of time, which data the french were able to supply. We talk about great people with a lot of merits here, who know their stuff better than we do. And they are not kind of “experts” who need to adapt their theories to tv-trash. They use the topic of MH370 to get better funding and öobby for support of their science. Thats good for both sides. Because we get a degree of expertise for free in the open domain that has been so important in the build up of a strong public reaction to the obvious mismanagement of the investigation by the leading party.

    I am sure we will see unexpected details on Tuesday and be very happy about it. Maybe the whole SIO story is blowing up right now anyway, because if it comes true, what Jeff Wise stated about the floating mode of the part, and no evidence can be established about unique serials in the flaperon, we will be right back on the plains of Kazakhstan.

    I feel like anybody else that the establishment of clues from the part should have happened in a matter of days. If BALMA is not capable of linking the piece to MH370, who would?

  20. @CosmicAcademy
    Also consider the diplomacy required to make an announcement of that magnitude, it’s not the failure of being a part of MH370 that would unleash the masses but how the heck it got there and by whom. Seems like the something that would, should require weeks of planning.

  21. Victor – it never looked right and if we thought the French were going to blow it open for us think gain. The lack of frankness is bothering – no dialogue with the people at all. The 9-11 investigation involved frequent and frank disclosure of information that left no one wondering or distrustful. With MH370 there has been a coyness from the beginning that must really hurt the relatives deeply. It’s as if there have sensitivities at play all along and I’m braced for the possibility that the french may be primed to toss a grenade.

  22. @littlefoot, @Bruce Lamon, Here’s another source:
    “Essentially the goose barnacle is a crustacean that loses the abdomen and accentuates the head. The selective advantage of this biological makeup is related to barnacles’ feeding habits: the ability to reach out from its floating home, past neighbouring barnacles for food, has been the selective pressure in evolving the long stalk.
    Acorn barnacles come later in the evolutionary process. These barnacles dominate rocky shorelines and filter the water that passes over them for food. A goose barnacle, whilst ideal for the deep ocean, could not survive in the intertidal zone: the loss of water from the stalk would ensure its rapid desiccation on the shore, and wave action would cause it to beat itself to death. Acorn barnacles have evolved without a stalk, and the shell plates encase the body, with retractable legs protruding from the shell for filtering food when underwater. Acorn barnacles can happily colonise rocky shores: the shell resists wave action and provides a humid microclimate within, preventing the barnacle from drying out when tide is out, especially when exposed to sunlight. The plates also reduce exposure to predatory molluscs such as dog whelks that can drill small holes and suck out the insides.”

  23. @Matty – Perth
    The lack of respect for the nok must be so demoralizing for them, another reason to stand for those that cannot

  24. In regards to the GEOMAR analysis, really interesting and though-provoking, yet incredibly puzzling and game-changing if their conclusion is true. Essentially, they conclude that the part drifted from the eastern equatorial region of the Indian Ocean. This is referring to the area west of West and South Sumatra. Of course, this completely conflicts with the Inmarsat data regarding the planes final position. So, although this is only a computer model–a reason not to put too much faith or merit into it, it’s still worthy of considering it’s potential ramifications if it’s conclusion were true, and the Flaperon drifted from that region. Either A) The plane crashed there, in which case the Inmarsat data is wrong, B) The flaperon came off of MH370 while the plane was flying high above that region, or C) The flaperon is not from MH370 and was either 1) Dumped in the ocean as scrap or 2) Purposefully and nefariously put in the ocean at that spot.

    It seems to me that none of those scenarios are particularly likely, in which case the model is incorrect. However, I’m not in the business of ruling anything out.

    One last point, which is moderately off topic, but something I think about quite often. It seems to me that some people believe that if Fugro/GO Phoenix searched in a particular area and didn’t find something, then nothing is there. Essentially, they have full confidence in the search vessels, their equipment, and techniques. I happen to have a very differing philosophy on this. This is an unprecedented search, in an uncharted and inhospitable area of the ocean. Mountains, crevices, volcanoes, shadows, are all things that can have an affect on plane parts being able to be identified on the bottom of the ocean. Combine this with the fact that man has planned and is carrying out the logistics of the search effort, and the sheer size of the search area, and what you get are many many different ways that this plane could have been missed while searching in the correct area. Yes, we’ve all heard that “if it’s there, we will find it,” but of course this is what these companies would tell the public–it gives everybody confidence in them. But in reality, I highly doubt that is the case. And I feel very strongly towards the notion that the search vessels could have easily missed the plane.

  25. An amendment to my previous post: Maybe I was too rigid with my definition of “equatorial region,” because if you allow for a bit more distance away from the equator, West of West Java, this spot actually does fall along the 7th arc, and thus the conclusions from GEOMAR would indeed fall in line with the Inmarsat data–insofar as the plane ending on the 7th arc.

    Touching upon this further, and this is just my personal opinion, the fringe(ish) theory that I have, since the beginning, found most believable and conceivably likely is the theory that MH370 flew South slowly along the western coast of Indonesia, ensuring that it was in a suitable position for landing if need be, but still out of radar coverage. The reason for this being that demands were made to the Malaysian Gov’t from the cockpit. I mention this theory because in a recent post from “Timr,” he lays out the gist of this theory, and I will copy/paste it here. Now, he does seem to have a strange confidence about the theory for some reason, but nonetheless, it aligns with the one fringe(ish) theory that I find conceivable, and also happens to potentially agree with both the computer modeling of the flaperon drift and Inmarsat. Here was his post:

    “The Malaysian “government” knew what was happening early on.
    Political demands were made and a response was awaited.
    While negotiations were taking place it would not have been necessary to alert SAR.
    There was no need at that stage to take any action other than to allow the world to think MH370 was on it way to its destination.
    The plan was for the captain to fly MH370 out of the Strait of Malacca [out of Malaysian radar contact] into the Andaman Sea, then turn the power back on to receive confirmation the demands had been agreed to.
    The plane would then proceed to Banda Aceh and land to allow the passengers to be repatriated.
    In the event confirmation was not received at that point the intention was to come back to port through a large arc in the form of a low speed holding pattern off the southern coast of Indonesia in close proximity to suitable island landing sites while the negotiations continued.
    Possible landing sites included Christmas Island with the default final landing strip being Bandung airport in West Java.
    There was no suggestion of suicide in the plan which was put in place weeks before.”

  26. Jay – what gives me a sense of comfort that they won’t miss it is the fact that all “hard spots” that show up on the sweeps get closer inspection. To miss it they have to miss every bit of it and the chances of that seem unlikely – to me.

  27. OK, Professor Griffiths is right and Wikipedia is talking about different goose barnacles or is wrong. “These goose barnacles are in fact characteristically oceanic beasts and only occur in floating objects in the open sea,” says Griffiths. That’s a long way from Jeff’s suggestion “that the entirety of it must have spent at least several months submerged.” But it’s pretty close to proof that the flaperon floated.

  28. Dennis–Care to elaborate? Are you intimating that you have been saying this all along? Or that my post is ridiculous in some way?

  29. Matty-Perth,

    Yes, I hear what you are saying. However I tend to have quite a pessimistic view about it. After all, it’s just a bunch of men and women on a ship doing their job. They want to get paid and go home. They may not have the interest and motivation that we’d like to think they have. They may not have the training that we’d hope they have. The equipment itself may not be as accurate and precise as we’d like it to be. There have already been numerous allegations by other companies in the same field that the vessels were not properly equipped for this type of search. I’m not saying any of this is definitely true, but are things I happen to buy into.

  30. @Jay, the theory you copied and pasted is one of the least convincing I’ve ever heard of. While it’s not out of the question that Shah did indeed negotiate with the Malaysian authorities, there’s so much wrong with it on purely practical terms that I don’t even know where to begin with critizising.

  31. With all this talk of barnacles and modifications, has anything been done to see if the paint on the Reunion flaperon matches that used on MA planes?

  32. Strange and ironic that this one piece of possible evidence cannot be clearly identified. Such is our fate, I guess. I posted in previous topics that Boeing requires DPM Barcodes or laser etched serial numbers for the majority of parts that make up a 777, Perhaps this mandate was made after Mh370 was built. But if not and we are looking at one and only one piece ( where are the other thousands parts of debris ? ) that had an epoxied plate as its identifier( which is missing) what exactly are those odds ? I think it gets into even stranger odds if it’s a discarded part that was dumped in the ocean, no?
    And the the notion of a plant for this flaperon and while this seems to me, easy to pull off , as I could imagine how one would do it, why Reunion and the French? Perhaps Malaysia did not expect such scrutiny if that was the case?
    I have always loved a good mystery and this is what drew me to MH370 initially. The fact that there is a place such as this that allows one and many to grok such as this makes me very happy indeed. Thank you all !

  33. While I would not put it past DGSE to plant something to get France into the investigation, I really don’t think that is a very likely scenario.

    @jeff I am away from home and càn’t check on anything J have

  34. @Jay, the 7-hour suicide ride ending with a soft ditch in order to create as little debris as possible has been rightly criticized by you and others for it’s psychological implausibility. Tim R’s scenario you presented above is simply implausible for so many practical reasons.

  35. Sure, that’s why it’s a fringe theory. But I happen to believe it fits with physical, metaphysical, and psychological possibility. Maybe it’s an unimportant detour from the current conversation, but you’d make your point more valid if you described these “practical reasons.”

  36. I have posted previously. you might want too took check the FARs and regs to see if the sub or Boeing attaches the data plate to a part. And rwhich serial number is on the plate.

  37. Questions now that I still have regarding the flaperon are:

    1. Are we now dealing with some subcontractor twice removed from Boeing?
    2. Are the goose barnacles heavy enough to counteract the honeycomb filling buoyancy therefore weighing it down?
    3. I don’t see any stalks on the flaperon, so are they all acorn barnacles that kept the moisture in and the flaperon flip-flopped on the ocean keeping the barnacles alive in the shells?
    4. When 9M-MRO was delivered to MAS in 2002 was every part chronicled in MAS files?
    5. If from MH-370, was this flaperon part of the repair in the Shanghai incident?
    6. We still need to know what exactly is mismatched in the MAS maintenance records

  38. Sorry. My Android tablet and I are having a fight over who gets to write the messages. I am losing ATM.

  39. Taking a few vacation days off from work and the blog. Going to Saratoga to support our equine athletes, especially our Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. This will make the 3rd time this summer I have seen him in the flesh. Awesome, amazingly intelligent animal with an incredible demeanor as well.

    Keep plugging all. Go Pharoah! Go Jeff and team!

  40. @Jay, I thought some more about the scenario you proposed. And maybe I can see some merit after all.
    I find the idea that Shah actually negotiated with the Malaysian authorities about something much more plausible than the idea that he just decided to land on CI for some murky political demonstration. It’s harder to come up with a suitable subject for negotiations, though. It would have to be something whose fulfilment was within his control during the flight. If he couldn’t supervise it he would’ve been a tiger without teeth. If Shah really contacted the Malaysian authorities and made demands it would explain the seemingly criminal negligence of MAS whose employees kept insisting for two hours that the plane was fine and flying over Cambodia. Shah might actually have demanded this kind of delaying tactics.
    The problem I saw at first with your proposed scenario is the idea that Shah would fly the plane in a low slow arc along Sumatra’s coast. Why on earth would he do that? If he planned to release the passengers at Bandah Aceh it would be enough and a lot less risky if he would keep circling over the Northern Strait just outside of radar reach. Why go away any further and not stay near Bandah Aceh and also Malaysia? Why go for the islands or another airport on Java? That doesn’t make any sense at all. So, it’s basically the second part of this scenario – what was to come after he took the plane out of radar reach after passing the Strait – which is problematic. If Shah decided in the end to give himself up and land because all his negotiations were unsuccessful, why not landing at Banda Aceh?
    Well, there might’ve been one very good reason to go for CI instead and I don’t know if we have contemplated it before: CI is Australian territory. Instead of landing in Indonesia Shah might’ve opted for giving himself up to a Western style democracy – maybe even seeking asylum. That idea might have seemed even more attractive for him because the daughter he was reportedly closest to was living in Australia at the time. He had even visited her shortly before the fatal flight.
    In such a scenario CI wouldn’t have been Shah’s chosen destination but rather a default scenario.
    The problem is of course that this theory, like Dennis’ variation on the same theme, doesn’t explain at all what went wrong in the end. It can’t have been lack of fuel because the 7th arc is beyond CI. And if for some reason it wasn’t possible to land on CI, why didn’t he try to solicit help and make his desperate situation known? And if Shah really ditched the plane successfully, shouldn’t then life rafts have been launched? Where’s the debris? All these theories have a strong and plausible start but a weak and implausible ending.

  41. @Jay @littlefoot

    The simplest theory is a terrorist attack.

    After the negotiations (perhaps via a private sat phone or adequate equipment) failed, the pilot (whoever that was) skirted Indonesia to attack Kuala Lumpur from the south. The plane was shot down and a cover-up was thought out. Another crisis was unwanted, there were too many ‘hot spots’ already: ISIS, Israel and Gaza, Putin and Crimea. Inmarsat fabricated the ping data and any company would in fact do, if approached by the government for international security reasons. While everybody looked at the Roaring Forties, most of the debris was recovered near Indonesia. Indonesia is a land-owned country. Does anybody really expect the Indonesians to publish radar data and reveal debris found on their shores? A fake search was started that was never meant to take so long, but the unfortunate chain of plane crashs every couple of months made it impossible to end the search.

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