The search for debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been extended to the southwest Indian Ocean.
The move follows confirmation that a flaperon – part of the control surface of an aircraft – found last week at Saint André, in the northeast of the French island of Réunion, is from a Boeing 777. The only aircraft of that type to have been lost at sea was 9M-MRO, which disappeared early on 8 March 2014, on flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Mauritian deputy prime minister Xavier-Luc Duval announced on 4 August that in response to a request from the Malaysian government, Mauritius would mobilise its air and sea assets, including recovery equipment and divers, to collect any aircraft debris that may have reached its territory. Although the island’s surface covers little more than 2,000 km², the Indian Ocean republic’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends to 1,900 km².
Mauritius National Coast Guard (NCG) patrol vessel CGS Retriever has started searches around the Mauritius and its outlying islands. On 4 August, a coastguard Dornier Do 228 surveillance aircraft undertook two sorties and will look for floating debris that may have come from the airplane. The NCG has also put helicopters and its new Indian-built offshore patrol vessel, CGS Barracuda, on standby.
Sgt Bhugobaun of the Mauritius Police Force (MPF, parent body of the NCG) told IHS Maritime, “In the forthcoming week, it is planned to undertake routine air sorties towards the Réunion island by the aircraft of the National Coast Guard. It will be the endeavour to keep particular watch for similar wreckage. Similar diversionary sorties to Réunion island have been approved commencing 4 to 7 August, which will be utilised to look for aircraft debris.” If debris is found, the location will be treated as a crime scene, said Commissioner Mario Nobin of the MPF.
Bhugobaun added, “A message has already been broadcast through the Mauritius Radio Services to all seafarers to keep a lookout during their voyage.”
On Réunion, a ‘treasure hunt mentality’ has seized the population, the island’s media reported, with crowds scouring beaches for debris. Items handed in to the authorities included a mangled aluminium ladder and a Chinese-made kettle. Two Saint André residents told local media that they spotted the flaperon on about 10 May, and there have been claims of an aircraft seat, suitcases, and even an aircraft wheel being seen at the same time.
There has been criticism that apart from a couple of ‘cursory’ helicopter flights, no systematic search of the island’s waters has been started.
The discovery has prompted some marine experts to cast doubt on the undersea search strategy. Mauritius-based oceanographer Vassen Kauppaymuthoo told IHS Maritime, “I am of the opinion that the debris have travelled over a distance of 13,000 km. This distance has been calculated based on the mean current velocity of 0.3 m per second and a travel time of 508 days.” If, however, the flaperon was present at Saint André by 10 May, then it is likely that any other debris will already have reached the east coast of Madagascar.
Kauppaymuthoo said his calculations put the crash site much closer to the French islands of Kerguelen. This remote, rocky archipelago lies midway between Réunion and the Antarctic landmass, and is northwest of the arc-shaped ‘ping track’ that the Australian-led search team is using as the basis for its sonar search of the southern Indian Ocean. Fugro Discovery and Fugro Equator are currently working on a search area that was expanded in April from 60,000 km² to a maximum 120,000 km². By mid-July, 50,000 km² had been searched, without result.
Kerguelen is about 4,000 km south-southeast of Réunion, but anti-clockwise sea currents would take floating debris on a much longer journey, Kauppaymuthoo explained, “Everything starts with the circumpolar current, which flows towards the east, then the current is deflected at the level of Australia towards the north before flowing westwards towards Agalega, Saint Brandon and deflected again towards the south to Mauritius and Réunion.”
Australia’s Ministry for Infrastructure & Regional Development stated that the location of the wreckage on Réunion “is consistent with other analysis and modelling that the resting place of the aircraft is in the southern Indian Ocean. Any new evidence will be used to further inform and refine ongoing search efforts”.
Meanwhile, the 2 m-long section of wing is undergoing detailed examination by air accident investigators from the Bureau d’enquêtes et d’analyses (BEA) at a French defence ministry laboratory in Toulouse. Preliminary results of the BEA inspection are expected tomorrow.
News agency AFP quoted Malaysia’s deputy transport minister, Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, saying, “I think we are closer to solving the mystery of the MH370. This could be persuasive evidence that the MH370 crashed into the Indian Ocean.” Experts believe it is unlikely that examination of the flaperon will reveal why the aircraft diverted from its course and crashed, however.