Probe of suspected MH370 plane part begins in France

Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation director-general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman arriving at the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) Aeronautical Technical Centre in Balm, near Toulouse, France, on Aug 5, 2015.
Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation director-general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman arriving at the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) Aeronautical Technical Centre in Balm, near Toulouse, France, on Aug 5, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

TOULOUSE, France (AFP) - Experts in France began examining a washed-up plane part on Wednesday which likely belonged to the MH370 plane that vanished last year, hoping to find clues to one of aviation's greatest enigmas.

The Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared on March 8 last year, inexplicably veering off course en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, sparking a colossal but ultimately fruitless multinational hunt for the aircraft.

But last week's discovery of a two-metre-long wing part called a flaperon on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion raised fresh hopes for relatives desperate for answers.

French and Malaysian experts including Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the head of the Asian country's civil aviation watchdog, arrived at a laboratory in the southern French city of Toulouse on Wednesday for the tests.

A judicial source said the examination of the wing part began shortly afterwards.

French, Malaysian and Australian experts, Boeing employees and representatives from China - the country that lost the most passengers in the disaster - were all due to be present.

A source close to the case said a full probe of the wing part would "likely take at least a few days."

Jean-Paul Troadec, former chief of France's BEA agency that probes air accidents, said the analysis would focus on two issues - whether the flaperon belongs to MH370 and if so, whether it can shed light on the plane's final moments.

He said the paint on the piece was one key element of the probe.

"Every airline paints their planes in a certain way," he said. "If the paint used is used by Malaysia Airlines... there may be more certainty."

Pierre Bascary, former director of tests at the French Defence Procurement Agency, where the analysis will take place, added that the airline may have written maintenance information on the piece such as "Do Not Walk".

"The phrase used and the way it was written also gives an idea of the origin of the plane," he said.

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, meanwhile, said drift modelling performed by the national science agency confirmed debris could have been carried by wind and currents to La Reunion, some 4,000km from the region where MH370 was thought to have gone down.

Xavier Tytelman, an expert on aviation security, told RTL radio the wing part was already widely believed to be part of MH370, and experts were looking for "legal evidence".

But crucially, the debris could also yield information on the final moments of the plane.

Troadec said experts would examine the way the part detached itself from the wing.

"Was it in a violent impact with the sea or not?" he said. "This piece looks like it is in good condition, it doesn't look like the part of a plane that fell vertically in the water at 900 kilometres an hour."

He added that experts may also look for traces of an explosion or fire.

Scientists have pointed to the barnacles attached to the flaperon, saying these could give an idea of how long the piece has been in the water, and perhaps where it has been.

"If it has cold-water barnacles on it that might tell them it went down further south than they think. Or if it's got only tropical barnacles, that might tell them it went down further north," said Shane Ahyong, a crustacean specialist from the Australian Museum.

Troadec warned that the analysis was highly unlikely to give any clues as to why the plane mysteriously diverted off course.

"One should not expect miracles," he said.

For the victims' loved ones, though, any tangible piece of information is likely to help them in seeking closure, according to psychologist Carole Damiani, who specialises in helping the families of people who died in disasters.

"The grieving process is about untying oneself from someone, accepting that they will not be found and they have gone forever," she said.

"When someone goes missing, it is difficult to say 'I will stop looking'," she added. "You need people to say 'he is dead, you are allowed to start the grieving process and undo this bond'."