Pilot: What the wreckage tells us

Story highlights

  • Les Abend: It would be a relief if debris found off La Reunion island is flaperon of missing MH-370; but reports have been wrong before
  • Based on pictures, flaperon looks too wide for 777, he says; but if that's what it is, then it belongs to MH370

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Nothing would be more poignantly encouraging for 239 families than to know that the piece of aircraft part found on La Reunion Island east of Madagascar connects with MH370 -- the Boeing 777 that disappeared in March 2014, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The world wants to know. And as a 777 pilot, I want to know.

But let's all take a deep breath and stand by until we have absolute confirmation. Remember, the information provided at this outset of the tragic event was sometimes wrong.
Les Abend
What happened to MH370 is still very much under active investigation. It's important that we allow the Malaysian accident investigation team to scrutinize the airframe debris piece. After all, the airplane belongs to its country. Regardless, when the French BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses) -- the French government agency in charge of investigating aviation accidents -- arrives on scene at La Reunion Island, a French department in the western Indian Ocean where debris was found in the water, I have no doubt that they will quickly have an answer. The BEA is a well-respected organization.
    As for the airframe part itself: My initial gut reaction was skeptical. Why? From the photographs, the piece looked too bulky to have been attached to a 777 wing. In addition, it appeared too wide if it was being considered a flaperon.
    What is a flaperon exactly? It is a combination of flap and aileron. Flaps are the trailing edge surface on the wing that is extended for landing. Flaps increase the curvature of the wing, providing more lift at slower speeds in addition to creating drag to slow the airplane.
    Ailerons, (also located at the trailing edge of the wing), bank the airplane and assist in a turn. Each side of the 777 wing has two sets of ailerons, the longest being at the outboard edge and the shortest being toward the inboard edge. The inboard aileron is also a flap, and thus called a flaperon. The flaperon automatically extends with the other flaps during approach and landing.
    The reason for two sets of ailerons is that at slower speeds additional control surfaces aid in maneuvering the 200-foot wingspan. At higher speeds additional control surfaces becomes overkill, so the outboard ailerons have limited movement, leaving only the flaperons to bank the airplane.
    If the piece of airframe debris just discovered is indeed a flaperon unique to a 777, then it simply belongs to MH 370. Why? Because there have only been two significant 777 accidents in the airplane's 21-year history, and none of them have been over water. That's not to say the accident investigation team shouldn't maintain due diligence and match part and component numbers with appropriate records.
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    Although the flaperon would be a tremendous discovery, it would also be only a small piece of the accident investigation jigsaw puzzle. This piece of the puzzle would at least dispel the conspiracy theory suggesting the airplane was flown to a remote terrorist-friendly nation. Examination could reveal some clues as to impact speed and/or impact angle with the water, but it would not be a complete picture. Finding more debris would be helpful to corroborate such things.
    Finding debris that is related to MH370 would be a validation of the Immarsat data and the flight path trajectory assumptions that the investigation team has used to define the search area. A discovery would certainly be a morale booster for the search crews, affirming that their mission is not in vain.
    In addition, the world's interest has been re-energized. With renewed interest, perhaps funding will continue from current sources for the immediate future.
    Regardless, let's all have some patience, as hard as this might be for the passengers' loved ones. The investigation will continue in a methodical process. Even though initial evidence points to the debris on Reunion Island as being a piece of MH370, it should be absolutely confirmed so there is no doubt.
    Stand-by for now.