Confirmation that a wing flap found on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean is from Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 is unlikely to put an end to wildly diverse theories about one of the biggest mysteries in modern aviation.
Even as authorities examine the piece of wreckage, called a flaperon, that washed up on a Reunion beach, a host of other experts and enthusiasts are coming to their own conclusions – ranging from an analysis that the plane carried out a controlled landing to the notion the wing part was planted.
“At the moment, both the flaperon’s appearance and the drift study which ‘validates’ it seem to be of a weirdness sufficiently ambiguous to bolster confidence in theories across the suspicion spectrum,” said Brock McEwen, a Canadian mathematician who has followed the investigation from the start.
McEwen is among hundreds of experts and hobbyists who have tried to unravel what happened after MH370 disappeared off radar on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 with 239 passengers and crew.
Delayed responses from the Malaysian government, false leads, fortuitously found satellite data and the very remoteness of the southern Indian Ocean where authorities believe the plane crashed have fuelled speculation.
The resulting theories range from the wild – alien abduction, the plane was shot down by the U.S. military near the island of Diego Garcia, it was transported to Russia or Pakistan for use in terrorism – to sober, science-based arguments that the plane is in the southern Indian Ocean, but not necessarily where searchers are looking.
Official investigators say the torn, barnacle-encrusted flaperon confirms MH370 went down within the designated 120,000 sq km (46,000 square mile) search zone in the southern Indian Ocean, and cautioned that even after weeks of analysis it may divulge little more about why the plane crashed.
But that has not deterred interpretations of photographs of the flaperon and revised drift modelling by the Australian-led search team, which some argue was changed to suit the finding, to pursue existing theories.
“People came out and staked a claim early on what happened, like the theory that MH370 had been shot down during war games,” said Chris Fleming, a senior lecturer in cultural and social analysis at the University of Western Sydney.
“To retract that is an enormous blow to their credibility and professional career.”
Andre Milne of military technology developer Unicorn Aerospace, who believes the plane crashed into the Bay of Bengal, said the state of the flaperon shows that MH370 was subjected to a “soft ditch aquatic landing” by the pilot.
The Independent Group, or IG, a respected global coalition of aviation experts and scientist, said the torn debris implies the plane broke up mid-air.
And then there is the most basic rebuttal of all to the latest evidence: the find itself is not real. That analysis means conspiracy theorists can keep alive their belief that the plane flew north and did not crash in the Indian Ocean at all.
The latter theory has been picked up by several grieving relatives. Liu Kun, whose younger brother was onboard MH370, said he and others suspected the wreckage could be faked.
“Parts previously used and exchanged in maintenance could be thrown down there, but the people right now cannot be found,” Liu said.
Fleming said the psychology of the bereaved was a different matter to conspiracy theorists, although it was easy to see why they might cling to narratives that dispute the official version of events.
“The very nature of a conspiracy theory is a distrust of the authorities; that they are covering something up,” he said. “It helps people understand the senseless.”
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