MH370 probe: Investigators look for links to tie flaperon to missing plane

French gendarmes and police stand near a large piece of plane debris which was found on the beach in Saint-Andre, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, July 29, 2015. — File pic
French gendarmes and police stand near a large piece of plane debris which was found on the beach in Saint-Andre, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, July 29, 2015. — File pic

WASHINGTON, Aug 7 ― Investigators looking for links tying the jet part found on France’s Reunion island to Malaysia Airlines’ doomed Flight 370 homed in on a crucial clue: evidence that the piece had once been repaired.

Now they’re trying to match that fix on the so-called flaperon to the carrier’s maintenance records, said a person familiar with the probe who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly. The part also is stamped with a date consistent with the production of the Boeing Co 777, the person said.

The evidence will be critical in determining once and for all whether the Indian Ocean flotsam came from the missing plane. Proving a connection to Flight 370 is an important symbolic first step in solving one of the greatest mysteries in aviation and raises hopes other debris may surface almost 17 months after the jet vanished with 239 people on board.

The working assumption is still that the wing part came from MH370 because it’s a 777 component and there are no other missing jets of that type. But taken together, the strengths and gaps in the circumstantial findings show why early pronouncements varied so widely after investigators in France began examining the wreckage.

Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak declared the piece “conclusively” tied to the jet while a French prosecutor said authorities were working only on a “strong presumption” that it came from MH370, which vanished while en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur in March 2014.

Data plate

The person familiar with the investigation said a data plate on the flaperon was missing when investigators first examined it in France on Wednesday, making a firm identification more difficult. Separately, Malaysian Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said a maintenance seal on the wing part matched Malaysia Airlines’ records.

The flaperon was manufactured by EADS CASA Espacio LS, a Madrid-based aircraft company that is now a division of Airbus Group SE, another person familiar with the probe said. Investigators are turning to the company for help in the examination of the piece.

E-mails to Airbus seeking comment weren’t immediately returned.

A bore scope was inserted yesterday into the flaperon to examine the interior in search of definitive markings, the person said. None were found. The scope provided video images without having to take the flaperon apart or damage it.

Meanwhile, searchers on Reunion island have found additional pieces of debris that resemble airplane parts, which will be tested to see if they are linked to the plane, Liow said.

Seats, windows

The items include materials from seat cushions and window panes, he said by telephone yesterday afternoon.

“The team has handed over the materials to Reunion island authorities,” he said. The debris “will be sent to France to verify if it belongs to MH370.”

The July 29 discovery of the flaperon on Reunion island in the Indian Ocean doesn’t pinpoint where the aircraft took its fatal plunge ― or indicate why the craft strayed so far from its intended route.

Based on MH370’s errant course and the way that communications equipment on board was disabled, investigators suspect the wide-body 777 was intentionally steered to one of the most remote regions on earth.

The inquiry is the longest search for a modern commercial jet, and sweeps in French judicial authorities and the Malaysian government, as well as aviation accident investigators from the US, Australia and France. Specialists from Chicago-based Boeing also are participating. ― Bloomberg