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MH370 found? New debris off the coast of Madagascar sparks immediate investigation


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Ever since MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean (at least, according to the best-available data), pundits, amateur enthusiasts, deep sea salvage experts, and whackjob conspiracy theorists have hotly debated the final resting place of the aircraft. After more than a year of searching, we may finally have a partial answer as to what happened to the plane, thanks to new debris found on Réunion Island, 500 miles east of Madagascar.


The wing piece, compared to a diagram of a Boeing 777.

French officials are cautioning against early conclusions (Réunion is French territory), but aircraft experts have already analyzed the wreckage and concluded it came from a Boeing 777, the same type of aircraft as the downed airliner. It appears to be part of a wing flap, and while I can’t claim to be an aircraft expert, I’m fairly certain that flaps aren’t the sort of thing that regularly fall off an airplane mid-flight. Further analysis from Boeing and a search of existing records should confirm whether or not any Boeing 777 that would have overflown the Indian ocean has ever lost its flaps or gone down in a manner that would lead to its wreckage washing up on Réunion.


What’s believed to be part of a wing flap.

Speaking of ocean currents, let’s examine that question. MH370 isn’t thought to have gone down anywhere near Madagascar or Réunion, so how could debris from the aircraft cross thousands of miles between its estimated trajectory and Réunion? That’s the magic of ocean currents at work. It’s not unusual for ocean wreckage to travel vast distances from where it fell into the water. In 2011, the bulk carrier Olivia ran aground in the South Atlantic. Two years and 8,000 km later, one of its lifeboats washed ashore in Australia. Wreckage from the Titanic is reported to have washed up in both Canada and Ireland. Wreckage from Amelia Earhart’s plane is rumored to have washed ashore on Gardener Island, though that would be a slightly different case if you believe that Earhart went down on the coral reef surrounding that island in the first place.

A map of Indian Ocean currents. MH370 is believed to have gone down off the west coast of Australia.

A map of Indian Ocean currents. MH370 is believed to have gone down off the west coast of Australia.

No matter how you slice it, there’s every reason to think that wreckage from MH370 could wash up ashore thousands of miles away, and the prevailing currents in the Indian Ocean would tend to funnel debris towards Madagascar and the African coast. The image above shows prevailing currents, with Réunion circled at left.

In theory, the wing flap may be marked with a stamp that identifies its part number and airplane, but that assumes that the marking hasn’t been worn away by more than a year of sun and salt water and that the representative section bore an identifying mark to begin with. Even if the wreckage is deemed to have come from MH370, it’s still not clear if it can tell us anything useful about where the plane might have gone down. That may depend on the specific condition of the debris and whether researchers can plot most-likely trajectories against the aircraft’s estimated maximum range with enough precision to predict a different search pattern. Metallurgical analysis could also tell us something about what kind of stresses the wreckage was subjected to  — assuming it’s identified as part of the missing airliner.

This would also seem to knock holes in CNN’s vaunted “black hole” theory, though hope undoubtedly springs eternal.

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