WASHINGTON — Air safety investigators have a “high degree of confidence” that aircraft debris found in the Indian Ocean is of a wing component unique to the Boeing 777, the same model as the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared last year, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
Air safety investigators — one of them a Boeing investigator — have identified the component that was found on the French island of Reunion in the western Indian Ocean as a “flaperon” from the trailing edge of a 777 wing, the U.S. official said.
Given that there are no other missing 777s, if the piece is confirmed to be from such an aircraft, it would almost certainly have to belong to Flight 370, which vanished on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board while traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
A discovery of debris from the missing plane would confirm the prevailing belief based on satellite data that the plane turned south into the Indian Ocean after vanishing from radar, and put to rest other theories that it traveled north or landed somewhere after being hijacked.
The piece could also help investigators figure out how the plane crashed. But whether it will help search crews pinpoint the rest of the wreckage is unclear, given the complexity of the currents in the southern Indian Ocean and the time that has elapsed since the plane disappeared.
A French official close to an investigation of the debris confirmed Wednesday that French law enforcement is on Reunion to examine a piece of airplane wing that was found. A French television network was airing video from its Reunion affiliate of the debris. U.S. investigators are examining a photo of the debris.
The U.S. and French officials spoke on condition that they not be named because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
If the part is from Flight 370, it would be the first debris found from the vanished airliner. A massive multinational search effort of the southern Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand has turned up no trace of the plane.
The last primary radar contact with Flight 370 placed its position over the Andaman Sea about 230 miles northwest of the Malaysian city of Penang. Reunion is about 3,500 miles southwest of Penang, and about 2,600 miles west of the current search area.
At the United Nations, Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters that he has sent a team to verify the identity of the plane wreckage.
“Whatever wreckage found needs to be further verified before we can ever confirm that it is belonged to MH370,” he said.
The discovery is unlikely to alter the seabed search, said Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, who is heading up the hunt in a remote patch of ocean far off the west coast of Australia. If the find proved to be part of the missing aircraft, it would be consistent with the theory that the plane crashed within the 46,000 square mile search area, 1,100 miles southwest of Australia, he said.
“It doesn’t rule out our current search area if this were associated with MH370,” Dolan told The Associated Press. “It is entirely possible that something could have drifted from our current search area to that island.”
Dolan said search resources would be better spent continuing the seabed search with sonar and video for wreckage rather than reviving a surface search for debris if the part proved to be from Flight 370.
It was well understood after the aircraft disappeared that if there was any floating debris from the plane, Indian Ocean currents would eventually bring it to the east coast of Africa, said aviation safety expert John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But the debris is unlikely to provide much help in tracing the oceans currents back to the location of the main wreckage, he said.
“It’s going to be hard to say with any certainty where the source of this was,” he said. “It just confirms that the airplane is in the water and hasn’t been hijacked to some remote place and is waiting to be used for some other purpose. … We haven’t lost any 777s anywhere else.”
Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, said there is precedence for large objects traveling vast distances across the Indian Ocean. Last year, a man lost his boat off the Western Australia coast after it overturned in rough seas. Eight months later, the boat turned up off the French island of Mayotte, west of Madagascar — 4,600 miles from where it disappeared.
“I don’t think we should rule anything out, that’s for sure,” Beaman said. “The Indian Ocean is a big ocean, but the fact that a boat can go that distance and still be recoverable on the other side of the ocean … the possibilities are there.”
Beaman believes experts could analyze ocean currents to try and determine where the plane entered the water, though given the time that has elapsed and the vast distance the debris may have traveled, it would be very difficult.
If the part belongs to Flight 370, it could provide valuable clues to investigators trying to figure out what caused the aircraft to vanish in the first place, said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The nature of the damage to the debris could help indicate whether the plane broke up in the air or when it hit the water, and how violently it did so, he said.
The barnacles attached to the part could also help marine biologists determine roughly how long it has been in the water, he said.
A comprehensive report earlier this year into the plane’s disappearance revealed that the battery of the locator beacon for the plane’s flight data recorder had expired more than a year before the jet vanished. However, the report said the battery in the locator beacon of the cockpit voice recorder was working.
Investigators hope that if they can locate the two recorders they can get to the bottom of what has become one of aviation’s biggest mysteries. The unsuccessful search for Flight 370 has raised concern worldwide about whether airliners should be required to transmit their locations continually via satellite, especially when flying long distances over the ocean.
Over the past 16 months, hopes have repeatedly been raised and then dashed that the plane, or parts of the plane, had been found: Objects spotted on satellite imagery, items found floating in the sea and washed ashore in Western Australia, oil slicks — in the end, none of them were from Flight 370.
The most infamous false lead came in April 2014, when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said officials were “very confident” that a series of underwater signals search crews had picked up were coming from Flight 370’s black boxes. The signals proved to be a dead end, with no trace of the devices or the wreckage found.
JOAN LOWY, LORI HINNANT AND ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia, Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.