WASHINGTON/KUALA, LUMPUR – Debris that washed up in Mozambique has been tentatively identified as a part from the same type of aircraft as the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
Photos of the debris discovered over the weekend appear to show the fixed leading edge of the right-hand tail section of a Boeing 777, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
MH-370, which disappeared two years ago with 239 people aboard while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, is the only known missing 777. Its disappearance has led to the largest and most expensive search in aviation history.
People who have handled the part, called a horizontal stabilizer, say it appears to be made of fiberglass composite on the outside, with aluminum honeycombing on the inside, the official said. The part is being transported to Malaysia.
Mozambique National Director of Civil Aviation Joao Abreu dismissed the report, saying authorities have found no part of the missing plane. But Malaysian transport minister Liow Tiong Lai tweeted about the discovery.
“Based on early reports, high possibility debris found in Mozambique belongs to a B777,” Liow said in a series of tweets.
“It is yet to be confirmed & verified. @dca_malaysia working w Australian counterparts to retrieve the debris.” Australia has led the multinational search effort, which also includes the Malaysian and Chinese governments.
Radar data show MH-370 turned sharply around as it approached Vietnamese airspace and then flew back across the Malay Peninsula until contact was lost off the coast of Thailand.
Authorities who scrutinized data exchanged between the plane’s engine and a satellite determined that the jetliner continued on a straight path across the Indian Ocean, leading them to believe that the plane flew on autopilot for hours before running out of fuel and crashing into the water.
Despite an exhaustive search of the ocean west of Australia, where the plane is believed to have crashed, the only confirmed trace of the aircraft has been a wing part known as a flaperon that washed ashore last July on the French island of Reunion off the east coast of Africa — about 2,300 miles (3,700 km) from the current search area.
Nothing of the passengers, their luggage or even things designed to float, such as life jackets, has been discovered.
Authorities have long predicted that any debris from the plane that isn’t on the ocean floor would eventually be carried by currents to the east coast of Africa.
With authorities unable to find the plane and its “black box” flight data and cockpit voice recorders, investigators are no closer than they were two years ago to discovering the cause of MH370’s disappearance. There are many theories, including that a rogue pilot deliberately caused the $250 million jet to vanish, but little hard evidence.
With the search tentatively scheduled to wrap up later this year, MH370 may become one of aviation’s great unsolved mysteries.
In the aftermath of the plane’s disappearance, the airline industry and aviation authorities around the world pledged to find ways to better track airliners, especially over expanses of ocean where there’s no radar coverage.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. aviation-standards agency, has adopted a requirement that all airliners report their positions about every 15 minutes over open ocean. The standard goes into effect in November 2018.
Currently, pilots flying planes over open ocean report their positions about every 30 minutes. In the most remote areas, even that is not possible.
Complicating the search for MH-370, the plane’s “black box” data recorder was equipped with an underwater locator beacon whose battery is designed to last only 30 days. ICAO had adopted a new standard before the accident requiring the beacons to last at least 90 days, but the standard doesn’t go into effect until 2018.
Malaysia’s transport minister said Wednesday there was a “high possibility” the debris came from the same model as missing flight MH370.
“Based an early reports, high possibility debris found in Mozambique belongs to a B777,” Liow Tiong Lai said on his Twitter feed.
U.S. television network NBC earlier reported a piece of debris had been found along the eastern African coast between Mozambique and Madagascar.
If confirmed, it would be the second piece of debris found from MH370, which disappeared on March 8, 2014, while on a routine overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew aboard.
Last July a man on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion found a wing fragment that experts later determined came from the Malaysia Airlines flight, the only confirmed evidence of the plane’s fate so far.
Citing U.S., Malaysian and Australian investigators who had seen photos of the object, NBC said the Mozambique debris could be a horizontal stabiliser — a wing-like part attached to the tail.
Liow said Malaysia was working with Australia, which is coordinating an Indian Ocean search for the ill-fated jumbo jet, to retrieve the debris for closer study.
Liow stressed the origin of the item was “yet to be confirmed and verified.”
“I urge everyone to avoid undue speculation as we are not able to conclude that the debris belongs to MH370 at this time,” the transport minister said.
The find comes just days before the two-year anniversary of MH370’s disappearance.
Investigators believe the plane rerouted to the southern Indian Ocean, where it crashed, but no site has been found and the cause of the disaster remains unknown.
The debris was found on a sandbank in the Mozambique Channel by an American who has been blogging about the search for MH370, NBC said.
Mozambican authorities confirmed that a possible plane part had been handed in by an American tourist, who reportedly founded it near the coastal town of Vilankulo in Inhambane province.
“We can’t confirm categorically that this small piece belongs to the (MH370) plane,” Paulo Teimezira, inspector of aeronautical materials at the civil aviation department in Maputo, told AFP.
Neither NBC nor Teimezira said when the debris was found.
Teimezira also denied reports the object was on its way to Malaysia for further examination, saying it was still in Mozambique. More information would be released on Thursday, he added.
The disappearance of flight MH370 in 2014 gripped the world and remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
Theories of what happened include a hijacking, rogue pilot action, or sudden mechanical problem that incapacitated the crew, but there is nothing to support any one theory.
Families of passengers accuse Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government of allowing the plane to disappear through a slow and bungled response, as well as withholding information and treating families poorly.
Both strongly deny the charges, but a number of miscues blotted Malaysia’s chaotic reaction — including its air force’s failure to act despite tracking the plane on radar for nearly an hour after it diverted.
A slew of lawsuits targeting the struggling carrier have been launched in U.S., Malaysian Chinese and Australia courts ahead of the two-year anniversary, a deadline for taking legal action against the airline.
Aviation-law specialists say are they likely to result in payouts of possibly hundreds of millions of dollars.