Skip to main content

What could wreckage tell us about Flight 370's fate?

By Matt Smith, CNN
March 24, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
  • Bent, deformed or scorched metal could reveal clues to investigators
  • The search area suggests Flight 370's crew wasn't in control of the jet, analyst says
  • The flight data recorder is likely on the bottom, but would be a "gold mine"

(CNN) -- With the search for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 now concentrated in the southern Indian Ocean, any debris found could give investigators some clues as to what happened to the jetliner.

Scorch marks or soot would indicate there was a fire on board. How pieces of metal were bent or torn could tell investigators how the plane hit the water or whether it broke up in mid-air, several experts told CNN.

But the real prize is the doomed jet's flight data recorder, which may be far more difficult to recover.

"The debris that's floating is valuable. It can give us some information for the investigation," retired U.S. Navy Capt. Bobbie Scholley told CNN. "But we really still want to get the priority, which are the 'black boxes' of course, which will be on the bottom."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Monday that a new analysis of satellite data puts Flight 370's last position "far from any possible landing sites." The airline notified the families of the 239 passengers and crew that "all lives are lost," as one of those relatives told CNN.

Aircraft and ships have been watching the seas far off Australia in search of possible wreckage from the Boeing 777 for days now after satellite photos turned up what could be debris from the doomed plane.

How 'groundbreaking' number crunching found path of Flight 370

That the search is concentrated so far off its planned Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing course strongly suggests the crew was incapacitated, former pilot Alastair Rosenschein told CNN's "New Day."

"Let's be very clear about this: The aircraft would not have been in that location had the pilots had control of the aircraft, had they been conscious and had they had the desire to save their lives and land somewhere," Rosenschein said as the search commenced last week.

"So I would go on the premise that if the aircraft went down there, it was uncontrolled and ran out of fuel," he said. "And in fact, that location is consistent with the full length of time the aircraft could fly with the fuel load it had."

Former Air Force accident investigator Alan Diehl said the wreckage may show signs of a fire or explosion. The cockpit itself, if recovered, might reveal signs of fire or whether the jet's emergency oxygen system had been activated.

"Impact damage, certainly at the visible and especially at the microscopic level, looks a lot different than an explosion," he said.

And former commercial pilot Shawn Pruchnicki said pieces should reveal whether the plane plunged nose-first into the ocean, whether it gradually descended or whether it disintegrated overhead.

"We're going to be able to tell that by looking at the wreckage and looking at the deformity, now not only (how) it's compressed but how it's torn," said Pruchnicki, who teaches aviation safety at Ohio State University.

'They have told us all lives are lost'

Another marker of the tragedy -- bodies -- may yield more clues if found, Diehl said. Autopsies would reveal signs of smoke inhalation, while the extent of trauma might indicate how hard the aircraft hit the water, he said.

But why the aircraft ended up in the middle of nowhere is something the wreckage is unlikely to answer. That's what makes finding the flight recorders, especially the flight data recorder, so important, said Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector-general and CNN aviation analyst.

"If the pilots were not speaking and there is no clicks or sounds of equipment, the cockpit voice recorder is not going to be a lot of help," Schiavo said. "But the data recorder will be a gold mine of information and it will literally tell everything that the plane did."

Another problem is the battery life on the locator beacons attached to the flight recorders. They are designed to transmit for at least 30 days, but could last up to five days longer, the manufacturer's president told CNN.

Finding those recorders will get more difficult with time, as debris starts to sink or get spread around by wind and ocean currents, former Navy captain Scholley said. The flight recorders are likely on the bottom already, she said: Searchers need to get ships into the suspected crash area "and try to get those eyes on any debris that we can find before that debris sinks and we lose that part of this search forever."

"Some of this debris may go on forever and end up washing ashore eventually, but by that time it is just too late for the investigation," she said.

Part of complete coverage on
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 0033 GMT (0833 HKT)
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 0731 GMT (1531 HKT)
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2105 GMT (0505 HKT)
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0742 GMT (1542 HKT)
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.