What can the Indian Ocean plane wreckage tell us?

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Thank you for being with us today. When you don’t get any good news for a while, I’m sure it’s hard to deal with what could be a tantalizing bit of maybe good news. That’s what some families of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are going through after a piece of plane debris washed ashore on Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. No official word yet on whether this part actually came from the missing plane, and so the families wait, as they’ve done for almost a year and a half now ever since the plane disappeared with 239 passengers and crew on board.


Bimal Sharma: I mean, it’s been a roller coaster ride. We’ve been through so many stories, so many theories. Unless they come up with something concrete and real evidence to prove something, you’re just speculating.


Werman: That man’s sister was on MH370. We’ll hear more from him and other relatives of the missing. First though, what can investigators do with this new find? I asked Dai Whittingham, head of Britain’s Flight Safety Committee and a former senior officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force.


Dai Whittingham: Well, they’ll start by looking for any identification marks that have come up during manufacture. It’s a rotable part. In other words, it’s replaceable, and for that reason there will be a tracking plate on it and of course there will be forensics which will allow them to trace and test through other batches of carbon fiber and the metal itself.


Werman: So, every part on every plane has a unique identifier? These are replaceable parts, right? So somebody, somewhere has this written down?


Whittingham: Replaceable parts, they do get tracked. So, they’re recorded at manufacture and that’s to allow the manufacturer to go back and engineer out any defects that might have come in to replace when they get fatigue cracking or something like that. That’s normal business with aviation, and it also allows them to make sure that parts aren’t being extended beyond their design life.


Werman: How long has that been going on? It seems crazy, but I guess brand new cars have the same deal.


Whittingham: Yeah, they do. Manufacturers know which cars they’ve issued and when they were made and where they were made and what was in them, so airplanes are just the same.


Werman: So it will be helpful to have those numbers. But given the vast currents in the Indian Ocean, once the identification is established, how long could it take to identify where this plane debris actually drifted from and to track back to that point?


Whittingham: Yeah, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I think that firstly we need to make sure we don’t jump the gun too much by assuming that this part is from MH370, although all the evidence is pointing in that direction. It looks very much, from the drawings and the photographs, that’s it’s a 777 part. So, you would expect the system to want to be absolutely 100% certain before they announce it officially. What will be happening now is that the oceanographers will be busy modeling. And some of these forecasts have been done already, but I suspect they’ll be using that information to try and refine the search area. Now that search area itself is also difficult because if you think back to the Air France 447 accident, where the aircraft went down off the South American coast, even know they knew the impact point to within about five miles, it took them two years to find the flight recorders. Until they find the flight recorders, we’re not really going to know what happened to that airplane.


Werman: So let me take it just a step further: I know you said you need those flight recorders to tell what happened to the airplane, but can this wreckage, can this debris tell us anything about what might have caused the crash?


Whittingham: It’s possible. It may be, for example, you find signs of sooting on it, which would have shown an airborne fire; it may be that you find signs of a failure in the metal, the construction itself, which could show that there was a fatigue failure. I mean, I don’t think it’s particularly likely in this case. Or, as we’ve seen with MH17, clear signs of a strike with high-speed missile fragments. I don’t think we’re into that scenario. So, it may tell us a little bit about the speed that the aircraft was doing when it hit the water, assuming it did hit the water, which appears to be the case. But in terms of finding out the exact mechanism, you’ve got one small part of the jigsaw--a very small part--at the moment.


Werman: There’s been some suggestion that this is a flap that could’ve just fallen off of any plane. Do you believe that?


Whittingham: No, I don’t because there is a global reporting system which would’ve required the manufacturer to have been notified of something, because that could’ve been a failure mechanism that would’ve affected the entire fleet, and it’s part of the flight control system, it’s a flaperon--it appears to be--which is a flap that also acts as a bit of roll control, as well. So, you would expect that to have been reported and the manufacturers would have been doing something about that. So, that information would be out there. It isn’t, and the inference is that it’s come from an aircraft that’s down in the sea.


Werman: Dai Whittingham is head of the UK’s Flight Safety Committee. Thank you very much.


Whittingham: You’re welcome.


Werman: So that’s what the experts are up against as they study the latest discovery in the search for MH370. Here’s what’s going through the minds of some family members of the missing.


Bimal Sharma: There have been so many stories and so many theories and so many unanswered questions.


Werman: Bimal Sharma has served as a captain with India’s Merchant Navy. His sister, Chandrika, was a passenger on Flight 370.


Sharma: My entire family is watching this very closely; everybody in my family. And that includes Chandrika’s mother, also--she’s 90-years-old. It could be any wreckage. I mean, it could be another aircraft. I don’t know. They haven’t come up with anything concrete. It’s been a roller coaster ride and it’s still a ride.


Werman: Same thing for Grace Subathirai Nathan. She and her family are still hoping to find out what happened to her mother, Anne Daisy.


Grace Subathirai Nathan: Well, of course we’re very shocked and anxious and you just feel like you've been thrown back into that loop one more time, all over again, for the umpteenth time. So I mean we're not ... we're not to say like we're taking it as the truth, because it's happened so many times before so we're wary of the information. So, I think we're also holding out hope until it's confirmed and we understand that there's a high likelihood or there's a high chance that this might be it. But, you know, 'til then we still have to hold out hope.


Werman: Even if the part that washed ashore in Reunion is confirmed to be from MH370, Nathan says she still needs to know how and why the plane went down. Jacquita Gomes' husband was also on board. She says she’s not even sure if she wants to hear that this piece of debris belongs to the missing plane.


Jacquita Gomes: Yes, that they have found the aircraft, then we can have some sort of closure, until they bring the whole aircraft back and then I can give my husband the peace that he needs. The other part is that no, let it not be true, because then we can still have hope that there's a chance that the plane is still out there and then they all can come home.


Jeanette Maguire: The most difficult part is not knowing anything.


Werman: That’s Australian Jeanette Maguire. She’s hoping the debris found this week will help her learn the fate of her sister and brother-in-law.


Maguire: We're all longing and waiting so much for any sort of news that is, you know, valid ... but when we get it I think it's going to be another emotional roller coaster.


Werman: Jeanette Maguire there, one of the many people whose loved ones went missing aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 nearly a year and a half ago.