Free the Flaperon!

SchifferWith every passing day, the odds go down that searchers will find the wreckage of MH370 on the Indian Ocean seabed. (Indeed, many independent researchers suspect that the game is essentially over.) If nothing comes up before the search’s scheduled wrap date this June, then the entire case will hang on a single piece of physical evidence: the flaperon that washed up in Reunion Island last July and is now being held by French judicial authorities at a facility near Toulouse, France.

The good news is that the flaperon could provide a wealth of information. I’ve seen photographs of the serial numbers located inside the plane, and I’m convinced that, despite my previously expressed reservations, they do indeed prove that the piece came from MH370. And experts have told me that the sea life found growing on it offers a number of different clues about the airplane’s fate.

The bad news is that the French authorities have apparently made little effort to follow up.

As I’ve described earlier, the predominant form of life growing on the flaperon is an accumulation of goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. In all the world, the number of marine biologists who study these animals is tiny; those who have carried out peer-reviewed research specifically on animals of the genus Lepas could fit in an elevator. Each has contributed something unique to the field; each has a unique body of experience with which to inform the investigation of this important Lepas population. Yet the French authorities have reached out to none of them. (I have been informed that they have contacted two French marine biologists, one of whom is unknown to me and the other of which is an expert in crustaceans of the southern ocean; Lepas belong within this much broader category of animal.)

That’s a shame, because only by tapping the world’s leading experts in this little-understood species can we hope to wrest the most information from this solitary piece of evicence. Here’s what we could learn:

  • Hans-Georg Herbig and Philipp Schiffer in Germany of the University of Cologne have carried out genetic analysis of the world’s Lepas species to understand their geographic distribution. By examining the animals on the flaperon up close they could determine the mix of species growing on it, they could derive a sense of were the flaperon has drifted. The image above shows Dr. Schiffer’s best guess of the identities of some barnacles in one small section, based on photographic imagery alone.
  • Knowing the species of the barnacles, and measuring their exact size, would allow scientists to gauge their age, and hence the amount of time that the flaperon has been in the water. Such an analysis has been performed forensically before: Cynthia Venn, a professor of environmental science at Bloomsburg University, helped Italian researchers identify the how long a corpse had been floating in the Adriatic Sea, as described in their paper “Evaluation of the floating time of a corpse found in a marine environment using the barnacle Lepas anatifera.”
  • By measuring the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the animals’ shells, scientists could determine the temperature of the water through which they traveled as they grew. “All one needs in an appropriate shell, a fine dental bit in a handheld Dermel drill, a calculator and  access to a mass spectrometer,” says legendary marine biologist Bill Newman, who helped pioneer the technique at the Scripps Instition of Oceanography in La Jolla. In the past, this technique has been used to track the passage of barnacle-encrusted sea turtles and whales. But again, it would require access to the flaperon barnacles.

Why haven’t the authorities been more proactive in seeking help from the world’s small band of Lepas experts? One possible answer is that they’re befuddled. As I’ve described earlier, photographic analysis of the barnacles’ size seems to suggest that they are only about four to six months old. This is hard to reconcile with a presumed crash date 16 months before the flaperon’s discovery. Something weird might be going on—which would not be that surprising, given that the case of MH370 has been tinged with weirdness from day one.

After nearly two years of frustration, the key to the entire mystery may well lie in this single two-meter long wing fragment. But if the authorities don’t examine it—and publish their findings—we’ll never know.

PS: In my aforementioned piece about the barnacle distribution on the Reunion flaperon, I argued that the piece must have been completely submerged for months—an impossibility without human intervention. However, it’s been pointed out to me that barnacles sometimes grow on surfaces that are only intermittently awash. A very vivid example of this is a section of SpaceX rocket that was found floating off the coast of Great Britain last November. The piece (pictured below) had spent 14 months floating across the Atlantic with its top surface apparently above the waterline, yet sufficiently awash to support a healthy population of Lepas.

A section of rocket casing found floating in the Atlantic after 14 months.

While this suggests that the Reunion flaperon could have accumulated its load of Lepas while floating free, it also provides another example of how thickly covered by large barnacles a piece can be after more than a year in the ocean.

205 thoughts on “Free the Flaperon!”

  1. @Oleksandr: I am now particularly interested in Jeff’s new post.. if new information comes out then its best to spend energies on that analysis than arguing over public domain details.

  2. Dear All,
    This MH370 disappearance conundrum has fuelled my OCD ever since the accident and now I want to dump some of my ridiculous ideas.

    Can the flaperon float?
    NO. My ‘back of an envelope’ calcs show that the buoyancy provided by the honeycomb core material is insufficient to support it. The whole structure must be designed with openenings for air pressure equalisation in flight and further it is assembled with screws which are not airtight therefore any entrapped air would have escaped quickly and it would have sunk. The French investigators also confirmed that it is indeed negatively buoyant.

    How did the flaperon get on the beach then?
    I suspect it was washed up by wave and current action from somewhere in relatively shallow water near to the Reunion coast which suggests that (in the absence of any conspirators who put it there) the wreck of MH370 also lies there.

    How did MH370 end up near reunion?
    Theories abound about what happened aboard the A/C but my instinct as an engineer, pilot and sailor tells me that the aircraft suffered a catastrophic mechanical / electrical failure likely involving fire and creating a ‘gohst flight’ where for whatever reason the crew were not in control.
    At the point where the emergency happened the crew quite naturally turned back on a course towards the nearest airport on the Malaysia mainland. Immediately after this turn, control and communications were lost by the crew and the A/C continued on the course programmed into its autopilot therefore overflying Malaysia and out into the Indian Ocean. If one extends this course by the estimated fuel range of the A/C you will end up in the vicinity of Reunion.

    What about the Inmarsat data?
    For my outrageous theory to be correct there must be an error in this. Likely not the data itself but in its analysis and here is my theory which may of course have already been considered in which case I will be happy if everyone prints this post and uses the paper appropriately.
    In my view there are far too many unknown variables, speed, course, altitude changes etc etc to plot a route through the BTO and BFO data which is any more than a statistical wild guess. Nevertheless, my theorised flight path cannot be supported by the presented BTO data but what if something has been missed in the derivation of the range rings? Richard Cole’s paper on the subject is the best description of the mechanics of the Sat/ground/aircraft interactions used in analysing the data that is available in the public domain. Thank you Richard. It is well known that the Satcom terminal aboard an aircraft collects data from the A/C computers to calculate the doppler effect of its speed and course so that the terminal can respond to a transmission from the satellite at the correct frequency. It is also well known that in the absence of this data from the A/C’s multiple computers the terminal will revert to its own internal GPS receiver to garner this information.

    And my point is?
    When the A/C was operating normally (along with all the other A/C operating in the area which were apparently used to verify the analysis) the Satcom terminal would be receiving speed and course data from the first of the A/Cs computers on its No.1 port.
    At some point in the flight if there was a sudden (or gradual) failure of the A/C’s computers the Satcom would poll its various ports looking for this data and if not available would eventually find its own internal GPS data. This polling obviously takes time for the internal processor/electronics to perform therefore the Satcom’s response to a transmission from the satellite would be delayed. This delay would be added to the normal satellite/ aircraft/sat transit time from which the range rings have been calculated. In this scenario the actual range rings would be smaller and closer to the satellite and they could therefore conceivably fit a route such as the one I have proposed (or indeed many other routes).

    Any Satcom design engineers out there who could rebuff my theory please? If so it would enable me to forget this and apply my OCD to something more productive. In the meantime I am going to mix a Gin and Tonic.

  3. Bob,

    First let me welcome you in the “technical failure” camp…

    Re: “The whole structure must be designed with openenings for air pressure equalisation in flight and further it is assembled with screws which are not airtight therefore any entrapped air would have escaped quickly and it would have sunk.”

    No. Screws are rarely or even never used for this purpose. Instead rivets are used. I have seen (and actually held in hands) pieces of a helicopter blade: a sandwich of plates filled with honeycomb structure made of aluminium-alloy foil. The foil itself was rather thin, and it was attached to two surfaces by some kind of glue, I think epoxy. The whole structure was very rigid and light. I have fuzzy memory about it, but I think it could float.

    The idea about additional BTO delay is not novel; in particular what you described explains the two abnormal BTOs paired with two abnormal BFOs. But there are two problems with your theory:

    1). If mh370 was moving towards Reunion, there would be a sequence of 3 or 4 decreasing ping rings after the reboot. The additional delay you proposed would not be a constant; it would be increasing with the time in order to match the measured BTOs. Why?

    2). Several 18:25-18:27 post-reboot BFOs are consistent with radar data, and they do no exhibit any additional delay. Why?

  4. Oleksandr,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Some of the hi-res photos show that the fleperon appears to be fabricated in sections and then assembled with screws. There appears to be a central spar along the thickest part of the wing which is probably aluminium. This is attached at either end to aluminium torque box assemblies. The centre leading edge and the trailing edge sections appear to be composite components.
    You will notice I have used the words ‘appears to be’ and ‘probably’ above which means that I am guessing like everybody else in this investigation.
    Whether this flaperon can float or not is one of the few determinable facts in this investigation. We need the design drawings from Boeing to determine this analytically or better still for the French to throw it in the sea and see what happens.

    I also need to know exactly how the Satcom terminal times its reply to the satellite. Another determinable fact.

    Got to go.

    Have a good day,


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