MH370: If debris is part of missing plane, what’s next?

(CNN)If confirmed to be from missing flight MH370, could a small portion of plane wing be the clue investigators need to unlock one of aviation’s biggest mysteries?

On the surface, it’s what investigators have been waiting for — the first physical piece of evidence as to what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight that vanished in March 2014, carrying 239 people.

Here’s what could happen next:

Identifying the wing fragment

Planes are stamped with multiple serial numbers for exactly this purpose — to allow parts to be identified and matched to a specific model and aircraft.

“If the part numbers that are stamped on the pieces of the plane still survive, it literally could be a phone call to Boeing or the parts indices to see if it belongs to a 777. And if it belongs to a 777, it is MH370,” said Mary Schiavo, CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general of the United States Department of Transportation.

Schiavo points out that there have been only five accidents involving Boeing 777s, and the disappearance of MH370 is the only one where debris hasn’t been recovered.

If the identifying numbers are missing, more tests will need to be conducted on the part to determine its origin. In that case, it’s likely that the wing portion will need to be transported elsewhere, potentially Paris, because it was found within French territory.

Australia: Debris found is ‘major lead’ in MH370 search

If it is from MH370, will the main search area move?

Unlikely, analysts say.

The discovery of the potential debris off Reunion Island in the west Indian Ocean is consistent with the route of currents in the region and the time it would take for a piece of metal to be washed thousand of kilometers across a vast ocean, experts said.

“It’s possible that it could have drifted that far — certainly it is possible, especially if air was maintained in that particular piece,” said former pilot Les Abend.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said if the piece is proved to be from MH370, it would indicate authorities are searching in “roughly the right place.”

The current search is focused deep on the sea floor off the coast of Western Australia, along an arc considered by investigators to be the most likely area the plane went down if it turned back towards Malaysia, as indicated by data, and stayed in the air before running out of fuel.

The arc where investigators are mapping the sea floor in the search for MH370.

If it’s part of the plane, is it more likely the main section will be found?

Truss says no.

He told Australian media on Thursday it is “not really going to be all that helpful in pinpointing precisely where the aircraft is.”

However, if confirmed, the find is likely to give investigators further belief that other pieces of the plane have been carried by currents to the same region.

Hope hangs by a thread for MH370 families

Will the search area expand?

Potentially.

If the piece is confirmed to be from MH370, searches are likely to be conducted of surrounding islands.

However, experts are divided as to whether one or more pieces of floating debris will give many clues as to the fate of flight MH370.

“It really is not going to tell us too much about the final moments of the aircraft,” said Geoffrey Thomas from AirlineRatings.com. For that, the flight data recorders — or black boxes — are crucial.

However, Tom Ballantyne of Orient Aviation magazine, said the condition of the wing could indicate if the plane met a catastrophic end. Charring, for example, could indicate an explosion, he said.

9 aviation mysteries highlight long history of disappearances

Will debris found near Reunion cause a rethink of past theories?

Not necessarily.

Thomas said, if anything, the location of the potential debris confirms modeling form the University of Western Australia which showed that material from the plane could wash up around Reunion between 12 to 24 months after the plane’s disappearance.

Despite the modeling, no one had been searching in that area, he said, because of the vast nature of the Indian Ocean and the multitude of factors that meant that finding anything would be matter of luck and time.

“It was a matter of waiting for something to wash up,” he said.

Thomas said, however, if confirmed the find would dispel the numerous conspiracy theories that suggest that investigators were searching in the wrong place, or that somehow the plane may have landed safely undetected.

The mystery of MH370: What you need to know

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