A humble beach cleaner has told of the moment he stumbled across plane wreckage on an Indian Ocean island, sparking a storm of speculation around the world that it belonged to missing flight MH370.

Johnny Begue was strolling along looking for a pebble to grind up chillies when he suddenly discovered a "weird thing on the shore".

The wing flap, which experts believe comes from a Boeing 777 like the Malaysian Airlines plane, was half covered in sand and had barnacles encrusted on its edges.

He and some colleagues dragged it further inland to avoid it being swept away by the sea and then made the connection to MH370 after Googling "plane disasters".

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Little did they know that their discovery would draw the world's attention to their tiny island home and may have just solved one of aviation's greatest ever mysteries.

Further adding to the riddle, Mr Begue also found what appeared to be a piece of battered suitcase in the same place as the plane wreckage.

"It is really weird, it gives me the shivers," he said. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention."

Officers carry the wing flap found on Reunion island.
Officers carry the wing flap found on Reunion island.

Begue leads a team of eight people charged with cleaning up the coastline and a popular fitness trail in the town of Saint-Andre on the east of the French island of La Reunion.

During an early morning break on Wednesday he wandered off to find a pebble which he planned to use as a pestle to grind up chillies - a key feature of the melting-pot cuisine on the island whose white, palm-fringed beaches are a favourite among tourists.

"It was then that I saw a weird thing on the shore," said Begue, who called his colleagues over to check it out.

"I immediately saw that it was a piece of a plane," said his colleague Cedric Gobalsoumy, who added that the group dragged it onto solid ground "to avoid it being swept into the sea".

In the moments after their discovery, they thought they would just leave the piece of wreckage for "people walking along the fitness trail and tourists to see".

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But Gobalsoumy said he quickly realised "we can't do that".

"A piece of a plane in the sea is not normal. We told ourselves that people could have died in this aircraft and that their families would want to know."

They decided to alert local police forces.

"Then a colleague went online with his cellphone and searched for information on plane accidents and found the Malaysian story," said Begue.

The small group of cleaners were not the only ones to make the connection with the missing Malaysian flight and the news quickly spread around the world as investigators scrambled to inspect the debris.

"I didn't know that by going to find a pestle to crush my chillies I would become famous," said Begue.

His remarkable story came after Malaysian officials said it was "almost certain" the wing flap came from a Boeing 777 - the same model as the Malaysian airlines jet.

The dramatic developments have fuelled hopes across the globe that one of aviation's greatest mysteries could move closer to finally being solved.

The wreckage found on the beach. Investigators are confident it comes from a Boeing 777.
The wreckage found on the beach. Investigators are confident it comes from a Boeing 777.

Aviation investigators are heading to the island to verify the findings after identifying the six-foot-long piece of debris as a "flaperon" from the edge of a plane's wing.

It also emerged that the code 657-BB that was reportedly found on the debris matches that for a flaperon on a Boeing 777 in the manufacturer's manual, according to AirLive.net.

Reunion authorities have asked France's aviation investigative agency, known as the BEA, to coordinate with international investigators, notably Malaysian and Australian authorities.

The discovery is unlikely to alter the seabed search, said Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, who is heading up the hunt. If the find proved to be part of the missing aircraft, it would be consistent with the theory that the plane crashed within the 120,000sq km search area, 1800km southwest of Australia, he said.

"It doesn't rule out our current search area if this were associated with MH370," Dolan told The Associated Press. "It is entirely possible that something could have drifted from our current search area to that island."

Dolan said search resources would be better spent continuing the seabed search with sonar and video for wreckage rather than reviving a surface search for debris if the part proved to be from MH370.

Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at Australia's James Cook University, said there is precedence for large objects traveling vast distances across the Indian Ocean. Last year, a man lost his boat off the Western Australia coast after it overturned in rough seas. Eight months later, the boat turned up off the French island of Mayotte, west of Madagascar - 7400km from where it disappeared.

Beaman believes experts could analyze ocean currents to try to determine where the plane entered the water, though given the time that has elapsed and the vast distance the debris may have traveled, it would be very difficult.

If the part belongs to MH370, it could provide valuable clues to investigators trying to figure out what caused the aircraft to vanish in the first place, said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The nature of the damage to the debris could help indicate whether the plane broke up in the air or when it hit the water, and how violently it did so, he said.

The barnacles attached to the part could also help marine biologists determine roughly how long it has been in the water, he said.

- Daily Mail and AP