A fragment of an aircraft wing that may have come from the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that disappeared last year above the Indian Ocean has been found on Reunion.
If confirmed, the find will be the first trace of the ill-fated plane to have been discovered in more than 16 months of the search.
Malaysia’s deputy transport minister said on Thursday the country was ‘almost certain’ the fragment, washed ashore on a beach of the tropical island east of Madagascar on Wednesday, did originate from the missing plane.
French air crash investigation agency BEA, who is examining the debris together with Malaysian authorities, said it couldn’t yet confirm whether the wing fragment belonged to MH370.
Independent aviation experts who saw pictures of the debris said it was almost certainly from a Boeing 777 aircraft and as no other Boeing 777 was currently missing, MH370 would be certainly a plausible source.
The 2.5 meters long fragment was said to be a component called flaperon used to control the roll and bank of an aircraft.
"It is almost certain that the flaperon is from a Boeing 777 aircraft. Our chief investigator here told me this," Malaysian Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi told Reuters.
It would take about two days to verify whether ot not the piece was from MH370, he added.
According to Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, the discovered object had a number stamped on it that might speed up the verification.
"This kind of work is obviously going to take some time although the number may help to identify the aircraft parts, assuming that's what they are, much more quickly than might otherwise be the case," he said.
According to a Reuters source, such components usually contain markings or identification numbers that should make it easy to trace the part to an individual aircraft.
The flaperon appeared largely intact without visible burn marks or signs of impact.
Greg Feith, an aviation safety consultant and former crash investigator at the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said his sources at Boeing had told him the piece was from a 777.
Boeing, however, declined to comment officially.
"We haven't lost any other 777s in that part of the world," Feith told Reuters.
If investigators confirm the component belongs to the Malaysian flight that for reasons unknown diverted from its original route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March last year, investigators will face the difficult task to retrace its way back to the possible area of impact.
Oceanographers said vast, rotating currents sweeping the southern Indian Ocean could have deposited wreckage from MH370 thousands of kilometres from where the plane is thought to have crashed.
"This wreckage has been in the water, if it is MH370, for well over a year so it could have moved so far that it's not going to be that helpful in pinpointing precisely where the aircraft is," Truss told reporters.
Robin Robertson, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the timing and location of the debris made it "very plausible" that it came from MH370, given what was known about Indian Ocean currents.
Experts believe that the flaperon remained on the surface as its structure contains pockets with air. The rest of the wreckage is most likely on the ocean floor.
The yet unexplained disappearance of MH370 is one of the biggest mysteries in the history of aviation. The loss of the aircraft with 239 people aboard prompted what has become the most extensive and costly search and rescue operation in aviation's history.
Data from satellites revealed the plane remained airborne for up to eight hours after it lost contact with the ground control and eventually crashed thousands of kilometres to the south from its original trajectory, above a remote stretch of the Southern Indian Ocean.
Australia, who is leading the search efforts, said the discovery won’t have any effect on the underwater mapping that is being carried out in the area identified as the most likely resting place of MH370, some 3,700 km from the coast of Reunion.
In fact, if the flaperon belongs to MH370, it would be consistent with the theory that the plane crashed within the 46,000 square mile search area.
Although the cause of the disaster is unclear, investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off MH370's transponder before diverting it thousands of miles off course.
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. But the report said the battery in the locator beacon of the cockpit voice recorder was working.
Finding the data recorders, also known as blackboxes, is probably the only chance to shed some light on the causes of the MH370 disappearance.
The 777, first introduced into service in 1995, had had an enviable safety record up until Flight 370. The only prior fatal crash was of an Asiana Airlines flight while landing in San Francisco in 2013 that was later attributed by accident investigators to mistakes by the flight's pilots. Two passengers were killed in the crash and a third was run over by a truck.