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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.

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What Are the Discrepancies in the Reunion Flaperon? — UPDATED

According to the New York Times, shortly after the discovery of the 777 flaperon on Reunion Island, Boeing and the NTSB found discrepancies between the part and details recorded in Malaysia Airlines’ maintenance data. This claim was reinforced by an article published by Le Monde on Wednesday, which reported that “maintenance work that Malaysia Airlines has indicated it carried out on the flaperon does not exactly match that observed on the discovered piece.”

I’m somewhat puzzled by this language. What does it mean to “not exactly match”? Airplane parts are engineered pretty precisely, if a part should have eight holes and it has nine, it doesn’t just “not match exactly,” it doesn’t match.

At any rate, it seems to me that just by looking at photographs available on line we can discern some oddities about the Reunion flaperon that have perhaps given investigators pause.

UPDATED: Well, that didn’t take long. Readers @GuardedDon and @Beinahu wrote in and told me that I was mistaken: “the widget” that I write about after the jump most likely does not represent a basic difference between the Reunion flaperon and the reconditioned 777-200ER one. Rather, the two black rectangles visible on the reconditioned flaperon are holes to which a bracket fitting is attached in both the Reunion and India Airlines flaperon. Someone told me weeks ago that the two black rectangles were “rub plates” and I’d assumed that ever since. So there’s one idea I can throw out the window.

UPDATE #2: On 9/3/2015, Nicola Clark of the International New York Times (@_NicolaClark) tweeted to me the following explanation of the discrepancies that the paper reported: “Sources told us wing part showed evidence of expected modifications (reinforcement plate) to the flaperon but the number and placement of screw holes did not precisely match what would have normally been expected.” Given that the identity of the flaperon has since been confirmed, this would seem to imply non-standard maintenance practices or record-keeping by Malaysian Airlines.

Anyway, I’m leaving up the rest of the post after the jump, so people can see what I’m admitting to being wrong about.

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How Did the Reunion Flaperon Float?

inboard end

Inboard end of flaperon, top. Click to expand.

One of the many important details yet to emerge publicly about the Reunion flaperon is how it floated in the water. Presumably, French investigators have immersed it in saltwater to see how it settles. Since the results of that test haven’t been released, the only clue available to us is the the sea life visible in photographs. As I’ve written, the flaperon is liberally encrusted 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, every part upon which they were growing must have been well submerged for a considerable period of time.

Above, the inboard end of the flaperon, as seen from the top looking down. This is where the ID plate should have been attached. Barnacles are growing all around the rim of this end, and to my eye extend beyond the plane of both the upper and the lower surface, so this entire end appears to have been submerged.

More pics after the jump.

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French Report: Investigators Can’t Link Reunion Flaperon to MH370

I am grateful to reader @AM2, who early this morning alerted us to a report in the French website stating that investigors who have been examining the flaperon found on Reunion have been unable to find any evidence linking it to MH370. Soon after, reader @Jay provided the translation below, which I’ve tweaked and edited using my high-school French and some online dictionaries. Thanks to both of you (and to Brock for his translation help)! Any corrections or suggestions from people who actually know the language would be very gratefully received.

MH370: At Balma, the Technical Investigation is Complete 

The Toulouse experts of the Directorate General of Armaments have finished the survey of the flaperon found on Reunion. Nothing permits it to be 100% certified as belonging to MH370!

In Balma, near Toulouse, technical analysis of of the wing flaperon believed to belong to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing has ended. The Toulouse engineers have submitted their findings to the Paris Prosecutor’s Office, which is in charge of the judicial inquiry. At the moment none of their observations have been leaked. “The investigation team headed by the French to consider the flaperon concluded the first phase of its inspection work,” the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) announced in Sydney.

Circumstantial evidence

“French authorities will, in consultation with Malaysia, report on progress in due course,” added the ATSB. Indeed, the judicial authorities remain silent and refuse to comment. According to our information, the experts have found no compelling technical element that would certify 100% that this piece belongs to flight MH370. “The expert conclusions are only the technical part of the criminal investigation, which is still going on,” so the case cannot be considered closed. For now all that is certain is that the flaperon, which was transferred from the island of Reunion to Toulouse on August 5, corresponds to a moving part of a wing of the Boeing 777. A representative of the American manufacturer Boeing quickly confirmed that after arriving at the site of the DGA Aeronautical Technical Center in Balma. If the deputy prosecutor of the Republic of Paris has stated that there was a “very strong supposition” that the piece belonged to the plane of flight MH370, which disappeared 18 months ago, that is based on circumstantial evidence.

First, the piece belongs to the aircraft model corresponding to that of Malaysia Airlines, a Boeing 777. In addition, no other aircraft of this type except that of the Malaysian company were reported missing.

Also, the trajectory of the wing piece that ran aground on a beach in Reunion matches the sea currents that link the search area of ​​the wreckage of the plane to the French overseas department. Finally, the shells found attached to the flaperon belong to a species endemic to the southern Indian Ocean where the unit is believed to have disappeared.

According to a Toulouse aeronautics expert who requested anonymity, 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. According to Jean-Paul Troadec, former chairman of the Bureau of Investigation and Analysis (BEA), the state of flaperon, even if it is not intact, indicates that there was no violent impact with the ocean surface. “If this had been the case with the MH370, one would expect much smaller debris than a flaperon,” said the expert.


A couple of observations from me, JW:

  1. I find it odd that a piece of random debris would happen to have exactly neutral buoyancy, as floating for months just below the ocean surface would require. Unless it was tethered…
  2. Reader @Jay raises the question: “What about the maintenance seal that Malaysia claimed 100% linked the part to MH370?” Likewise, no mention is made of the discrepencies that Boeing and NTSB officials reportedly found between the flaperon and Malaysia Airlines maintenance records, according to the New York Times.  Hopefully the French will soon issue a report clearing up these issues.




Ditching in the Middle of the Ocean, Part 2: Answers

After I put up my post on Tuesday, some people questioned why I would even pose such a question whose premise is so unlikely. The reason is that at present there seem to be only two possible end-of-flight scenarios for MH370:

  1. Flying south on autopilot, the plane ran out of fuel shortly after 0:11 and thereafter plunged into the sea at high speed, hitting the surface near the 0:19 ping arc. This is what I would call the mainstream default view; it is implicitly endorsed by the ATSB and the Independent Group, and is the justification for the current subsea search area.
  2. A conscious pilot flew the plane until fuel exhaustion—possibly along a curving path—then guided it to a soft landing (the “ditching” scenario) beyond the current search area.

Scenario 1 has largely been discounted by the failure of the seabed search (the Australians cling to hope that the wreckage will turn up in the extended search area, which should be completed within the year; if it does not they have admitted that they are out of ideas). Scenario 2 would explain the lack of wreckage on the seabed and the scarcity of surface debris; the idea is that the plane could have come to rest on the surface largely intact and then sunk in one piece, leaving little floating debris.

The condition of the Reunion flaperon might also be evidence for ditching, given its relatively intact condition. Some have surmised that the aft portion was ripped away at the moment of impact with the water. (Fans of scenario 1 propose that the flaperon could have been ripped of by aerodynamic forces during a very high-speed descent, and then fluttered intact the surface while the rest of the plane hit the surface at near-Mach speed at was smashed to smithereens. This would explain why the flaperon is intact, but not why the subsea search has failed.)

As I pointed out in the original post, an inherent problem with the ditching scenario is that it is an intentional act that dooms the pilot to a prolonged death. Indeed, while pilot suicides are rare, ditching suicides are so far unknown. It woud be like committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge while wearing a parachute.

So how to explain such an occurrence? Here are some of the answers that commenters came up with:

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Guest Post: Some Observations of the Radar Data for MH370


click on image to expand

by Victor Iannello

[Note: While attention has been focused on the definition identification of the Reunion flaperon, there remain many other elements of the MH370 case that still require careful attention. Here, Victor delves into what the data that has been released, in particular in the Factual Information (FI) report, to clarify what we know about the first hour of flight after the turnback at IGARI. — JW]


This work analyzes the position and time data derived from the publicly-available radar data for MH370. Some of the findings are:

  • After the turn back towards the Malay Peninsula, the flight path recorded by civilian primary surveillance radar (PSR), civilian secondary surveillance radar (SSR), and military radar are consistent with a flight at a Mach number (M) equal to 0.84 at an altitude of FL340.
  • If the aircraft did fly at a steady M = 0.84, then the timestamps for some of the PSR contained in the Factual Information (FI) are offset by about 35 s.
  • After the left turn at around 17:23:38 UTC, the aircraft might have descended from FL350 to FL340 and accelerated from a ground speed of 473 kn to a ground speed of greater than 500 kn.
  • In the FI, the PSR data between 17:47:02 and 17:52:35 UTC is attributed to the radar site at Kota Bharu, but more likely was collected by another radar site. The PSR data between 17:30:37 and 17:44:52 is correctly attributed to Kota Bharu.
  • In the FI, it is stated that Indonesian military radar recorded MH370 as it traveled toward IGARI but not as it traveled back over Malaysia. One explanation is that Indonesian radar site was powered down after midnight, local time.
  • The sharp turn to the left at around 17:23:38 UTC is unexplained, and could be due to either an inaccurate graphical portrayal of the radar track, or crossing radar tracks from two aircraft.
  • The curve in the radar path close to Kota Bharu can be explained by “slant range” due to high altitudes and close distances.
  • The fuel consumption models which assume that MH370 flew near Long Range Cruise (LRC) speeds and at cruising altitudes between 17:07 and 18:22 are likely accurate.

You can read the whole document here.


Why Would Anyone Fly a Plane Into the Middle of the Ocean and then Ditch it?

Seriously, why? Can anyone think of a single justification?

The plane has a fully functioning communications suite, so if your plan was to commit suicide but then you got cold feet, you could call for help. Otherwise, what you’re looking at a best-case scenario in which you wind up sitting on a slowly-sinking aircraft for a little while until you wind up treading water until you drown or get eaten by sharks.

And you’d have six hours beforehand to do nothing but sit there and think about what lay in store.


Listening to Barnacles — UPDATED

(FOCUS) THE REUNION ISLAND-MH 370 FLIGHT-DEBIRSIt’s not every day that you need to talk to one of the world’s leading experts on goose barnacles of the Indian Ocean, but today is one of those days, so I considered myself very fortunate to get in touch with Charles Griffiths, an emeritus professor of marine biology at the University of Cape Town and author of the seminal paper “South African pelagic goose barnacles (Cirripedia, Thoracica): substratum preferences and influence of plastic debris on abundance and distribution.”

I reached out to Dr Griffiths by email and he graciously answered my questions about the sea life found growing on the Reunion flaperon after I sent him a more detailed version of the picture above.

Is it possible to identify the species of barnacle growing on the debris? 

In this case it is possible to identify this as being Lepas anserifera striata on the basis of the small row of pits across the shell, which is characteristic of that subspecies.

Can this tell us anything about where the debris might have been floating?

This is not much clue as the species has a wide global distribution in tropical and subtropical seas.

Can you say in very rough terms how long it takes the barnacles to reach this stage of growth?

I cannot accurately gauge the sizes of the largest specimens from the image but goose barnacles grow spectacularly fast e.g. 21 mm head length ( i.e. Without the supporting stalk) in 21 days cited in one paper I have at hand. I have seen very large barnacles (as long as my finger) growing on a cable known to have only been in the water for 6 weeks!

UPDATE: To clarify a point raised by commenters, I asked Dr Griffiths a follow-up question:

Is it true that barnacles can’t survive in the open ocean? Is it possible for a piece of debris floating far out to see be colonized by Lepas anserifera, or would it need to be in a coastal environment?

No, that is not the case. These goose barnacles are in fact characteristically oceanic beasts and only occur in floating objects in the open sea. Reaching the coast is in fact a death warrant for them and any that get washed up die! Interestingly they seem to know whether an object is floating, so for example are common on kelp that is uprooted and floating but never occur on the same kelp when it is attached.

Can you tell whether the barnacles in that picture are alive or dead? If alive, how long can they live after being washed up?

If you find a washed up item that is fresh (same day) the barnacles will still be opening their shells and waving around their cirri (legs) to try to feed. Obviously in a still image cannot see this. However I can see the cirri projecting from some animals. These would rot away and drop off in a few days in a tropical climate, so this wreckage has only been washed up a couple of days at most. Also crabs and other scavengers love to eat goose barnacles and will clean off most within a couple of days. There is no evidence of feeding damage or headless stalks here, so that suggests to me this wreckage was collected and photographed within a day or two of stranding.


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.

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The Mysterious Reboot, Part 3

Two weeks ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange reboot of MH370’s satcom system that occurred shortly after the plane disappeared from primary radar, and asked if anyone could come up with a reasonable explanation. I drew attention in particular to the left AC bus, which the satcom equipment is connected to. This bus can be electrically isolated using controls located in the cockpit, and this appears to be the only way to recycle the satcom without leaving the flight deck. I suggested that there might be some other piece of equipment that the perpetrator wanted to turn off and on again by using the left AC bus, thereby causing the satcom to be recycled as an unintended side effect.

The readers rose to the occasion. Gysbreght pointed out that paragraph 1.11.2 of Factual Information states that “The SSCVR [Solid State Cockpit Voice Recorder] operates any time power is available on the Left AC transfer bus. This bus is not powered from batteries or the Ram Air Turbine (RAT).”

This is an incredibly interesting observation. Reader Oz fleshed out Gysbreght’s insight, writing to me via email:

We could isolate the Left Main AC by selecting the generator control switch to OFF and the Bus Tie switches to OFF; SATCOM is now dead.  What else happens……….the Backup generator kicks in automatically to supply the Left Transfer bus. Here’s what’s so spine chilling; if you now simply reach up and select the Backup Generator switch to OFF……… now lose Left transfer as well.  The CVR is gone!  I couldn’t believe how easy the CVR was to isolate!
To recap;
Left Gen Control to OFF
Bus Ties to OFF (Isolate)
Left Backup Gen to OFF.
I now firmly believe your mystery reboot was Left AC power being switched back ON……….. after something that had occurred that the perp or perps didn’t want any possible evidence of on the CVR……whatever was being hidden was done by around 1822; AC back to normal.

Gysbreght notes that the Factual Information also identifies the location of the CVR as Electronic Equipment Rack, E7, in the aft cabin above the ceiling, and suggests: “Later [the perp] could have opened Electronic Equipment Rack E7, physically pulled the SSCVR power supply plug from its socket, and then gone back to the MEC to restore power to the Left AC bus.”

Oz has his own theory: “If you are thinking why the hell you would turn Left AC/Left transfer back on? Flight deck temperature control comes from these…”

There’s a precedent for a suicidal airline pilot depowering the black boxes before flying a plane into the ocean: the pilot of Silkair Flight 185 appears to have done just that before pointing the nose down and crashing in December, 1997. It’s easy to imagine Zaharie reading the accident reports and realizing he should also figure out a way to disable the CVR before implementing his suicide plan. When the moment came, near IGARI, one can imagine the veteran 777 pilot suddenly flipping various switches while the baffled newbie, Fariq, looked on.

It’s certainly an intriguing scenario, but it is not without its flaws. As Gysbreght notes, “I would expect the Captain to know that the CVR only retains the last two hours and overwrites older recordings.” So if Zaharie planned to commit suicide by flying the plane for hours into the remotest reaches of the southern ocean, he wouldn’t have needed to turn the CVR off: the portion between 17:07 and 18:25 would have been erased anyway. This is not in insurmountable problem, however. Maybe he orginally intended to crash right away, a la Silkair, but then lost his nerve.

I’m not quite ready to declare, as Gysbreght has, “Case closed,” but I have to admit that the CVR idea is fascinating. Great work, Gysbreght and Oz!