In the 16 months since its disappearance on March 8, 2014, investigators still have not determined what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Finally, a promising lead has emerged. On Wednesday, a fragment of a plane’s wing measuring 9 feet by 3 feet washed ashore in Reunion Island, a French territory in the western Indian Ocean. Investigators say the item—called a “flaperon”—is from a Boeing 777 aircraft, the same type of aircraft as the missing plane. If it’s confirmed to be from MH370, the flaperon would be the first piece of physical evidence discovered since the plane’s disappearance last spring with 239 people on board.
Warren Truss, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, said it was too early to judge whether the fragment belonged to plane. “But clearly we are treating this as a major lead,” he said. The flaperon—which contained a number written on its surface that may refer to the item’s maintenance—will be sent to an aviation office in Toulouse, France, for further investigation. Officials say it will be at least a week before the precise identity of the fragment is known.
Even if, as expected, the fragment is confirmed to have once belonged to MH370, investigators are far from determining what happened to the aircraft. The discovery in Reunion Island, more than 2,000 miles west from the main search area, doesn’t mean the rest of the debris will be nearby: Ocean currents may have pushed other fragments of the plane toward the main search area near Australia, or even somewhere else entirely. And even the recovery of much of the aircraft may not reveal what, precisely, brought the plane down last March.