MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — An American adventurer said Thursday that he discovered part of an aircraft on a sandbar off the coast of Mozambique and initially thought it was from a small plane, and not from a Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared two years ago with 239 people aboard.
If confirmed that the piece of tail section came from Flight MH370, a small piece of the puzzle will have been found, but it might not be enough to help solve one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Blaine Gibson described how a boat operator took him to a sandbar named Paluma and then called him over after seeing a piece of debris with “NO STEP” written on it.
“It was so light,” said Gibson, who has told reporters that he has spent a long time searching for evidence of missing Flight MH370.
Photos of the debris appear to show the fixed leading edge of the right-hand tail section of a Boeing 777, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Flight MH370 is the only known missing 777.
Gibson said the discovery happened after he decided to go “somewhere exposed to the ocean” on the last day of a trip to the Mozambican coastal town of Vilankulo.
“At first, all I found were usual beach detritus — flip flops, cigarette lighters. Then ‘Junior’ called me over,” said Gibson, using the nickname of the boat operator.
“I think, ‘Wow, this looks like it’s from an airplane but it looks like it’s from a small airplane because it’s very light and very thin. But I suppose there’s a chance that it could be from the plane or from one of those others.’
“In any case, it needs to be preserved, brought to the authorities and investigated,” he said. “So yes, my heart was thumping, there was anticipation, there was excitement.”
But Gibson said he wants “to exercise caution. We don’t yet know what this piece is … Until it’s been investigated by the experts, I warn not to jump to any conclusions.”
After being interviewed, Gibson went to the Maputo airport to take a flight to Malaysia to participate in second anniversary commemorations of the disappearance.
“It’s important to keep it in perspective,” Gibson said of his find. “This is about the families of the 239 victims, who haven’t seen their relatives for two years now.”
Gibson, who is from Seattle, said the piece of debris is now in the hands of civil aviation authorities in Mozambique, and that he expects it to be transferred to their Australian counterparts.
He said that he had come to Mozambique as part of a dream to see every country in the world.
“It has been my ambition since I was 7 to visit every country in the world. Malawi was number 176, Mozambique was number 177,” he said.
According to New York Magazine, Gibson has also spent much of the past year searching for traces of the missing airliner. Gibson has traveled to the Maldives Islands to investigate reports of a plane flying low at the time of the disappearance, Reunion Island to interview a man who found another section of the plane, and met with Australian Prime Minister Warren Truss to discuss Australia’s seabed search for the plane.
The location of the debris matches investigators’ theories about where wreckage from the plane would have ended up, according to Australian officials.
The plane disappeared on March 8, 2014 and is believed to have crashed somewhere in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean, far off Australia’s west coast and about 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) east of Mozambique. Authorities have long predicted that any debris from the plane that isn’t on the ocean floor would eventually be carried by currents to the east coast of Africa.
Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester said Thursday the location of the debris in Mozambique matches investigators’ drift modeling and would therefore confirm that search crews are looking in the right part of the Indian Ocean for the main underwater wreckage. Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai also said the location of the debris lines up with investigators’ predictions.
People who have handled the part, called a horizontal stabilizer, say it appears to be made of fiberglass composite on the outside, with aluminum honeycombing on the inside, the U.S. official said.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is running the search for the plane in remote waters off Australia’s west coast, said the part is expected to be transported to Australia for examination.
Malaysian representatives from the nation’s Civil Aviation department and Malaysia Airlines were heading to Mozambique to discuss the find, Liow said.
Australia will work with Malaysian investigators to examine the object once it arrives in Australia, he said.
Some have expressed skepticism that the part could be from the missing aircraft because it appears to be remarkably clean and free of sea life — unlike the barnacle-encrusted wing part that washed ashore on the French island of Reunion last year. That part, known as a flaperon, remains the only confirmed trace of Flight 370.
But Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanographer with the University of Western Australia, said if the part was discovered on a sandbank, the motion of the waves pushing it against the abrasive sand may have shaved any sea life off it.
“If somebody actually found it in the middle of the ocean while they were sailing and picked it up, I would say, ‘Well, that should have some barnacles,'” he said. “But if it’s been on a beach, it’s basically been sandblasted.”
Also, the part appears to be very flat and barnacles need something to grip, he said.
Last year, Pattiaratchi met with Gibson. Pattiaratchi has used computer modeling to predict where floating debris might end up and Gibson wanted to get Pattiaratchi’s opinion on where to look. Pattiaratchi’s models showed it would likely end up around Madagascar or Reunion Island, and possibly in the Mozambique Channel. The Paluma sandbar is in the channel.
Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Authorities who scrutinized data exchanged between the plane’s engine and a satellite determined that after veering sharply off course, the jetliner continued on a straight path across the Indian Ocean, leading them to believe that it flew on autopilot for hours before running out of fuel and crashing into the water.
Gelineau reported from Sydney. Associated Press writers Joan Lowy in Washington and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.