MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A large piece of debris on a tiny French island in the Indian Ocean is the latest twist in the story of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. That jetliner went missing over a year ago with 239 people on board. Now investigators are poring over a battered piece of flotsam that washed ashore on a beach on the island of Reunion. It's more than 2000 miles from where the flight is thought to have gone down. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is following this story. And Geoff, what more can you tell us about this large piece of wreckage that was found?
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, it's about three feet by eight feet, and it definitely looks, to the untrained eye, like a wing. I'm told by an aviation expert it's actually a control surface and most likely something called a flaperon, which can be used to steer the plane during flight and also for takeoff and landing.
BLOCK: And is there any indication that it is from this particular missing aircraft?
BRUMFIEL: Well, there's some strong indications it's from a large passenger aircraft. In fact, an investigator I spoke to said that pretty much is what it has to be. And there's a lot of evidence to suggest it might be a Boeing 777 aircraft. Now, that is the type of aircraft Malaysian Air flight 370 was. And there aren't really any triple-seven aircraft missing in the world right now except that one, so if this does turn out to be from a 777, that's very likely what's going on.
Now, there are other possibilities. Believe it or not, parts of airplanes can occasionally fall off. This aviation expert I spoke to suggested that could happen. I did go into the National Transportation Safety Board database of accidents and incidents today, and I couldn't find anything like that over the past decade. But they'll have to rule things like that out.
BLOCK: Rule things like that out - and in terms of ruling something in - specifically, tying this piece of debris to the missing aircraft - how do they do that?
BRUMFIEL: Well, they got lucky here in the fact that La Reunion happens to be a French island, and the French have one of the best civil aviation authorities in the world. So actually, this piece of debris will make its way to Toulouse where it'll be studied. Also, because it's a control surface, it's more likely to have markings, maybe maintenance markings or serial numbers that can tie it to the plane. There's been some reports of that, nothing confirmed yet, but they're hopeful they can tie it to this particular plane.
BLOCK: Now, the assumption was that flight 370 went down off the coast of Australia. Again, this wreckage was found thousands of miles away. Is that plausible?
BRUMFIEL: Yes. In a word, it is. I mean, a quick recap here - this flight was taking off from Kuala Lumpur. It was flying to Beijing. And at some point early in the flight, it made a series of unpredicted turns that eventually led out over the southern Indian Ocean. The leading theory is that it ran out of fuel and crashed there. I spoke to an oceanographer today who said that flotsam could make its way or debris could make its way all the way across to the La Reunion. It would be a little bit lucky if that happened, but it could happen.
BLOCK: Do you think, Geoff, that we are much closer now to knowing what happened to that missing plane and solving the mystery behind that?
BRUMFIEL: I think we're just going to have to wait and see. It's going to take time to definitively trace this, and we've had other incidents of debris that, you now, turned out not to be from the plane.
BLOCK: Right, a lot of false leads - yeah.
BRUMFIEL: Yeah, exactly, especially early on. But if this is right, this will be the only piece of the plane we have. And so this could really turn the case. I mean, on the one hand, there may be physical clues on the piece of debris itself, or it may be possible to trace it back. I think the biggest impact this is likely to have, though, is on the families. I spoke to, last year, someone named Sarah Bajc, whose partner was on the plane. And at the time, she wasn't willing to accept that he was gone. But today on CNN, she was sort of speaking differently. Here's what she said.
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SARAH BAJC: If ultimately, this is a piece of the wing, then that little thread of hope that I've been holding onto will have to break.
BRUMFIEL: And I think, you know, that's actually an important thing. The families will finally have some evidence that this is the ultimate fate of their loved ones. And this is really a time, you know, for closure, and I think that could be a very good thing for them.
BLOCK: OK. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks so much.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.