It’s been almost a week since EgyptAir’s flight MS804 disappeared over the Mediterranean while enroute from Paris Charles de Gaulle International to Cairo, though numerous possibilities of why the Airbus A320 crashed still remain on the table. There’s conflicting information from varying sources regarding the ill-fated jet’s final moments, with little in the way of conclusive evidence being offered at this point in the investigation.
In the recent incident involving EgyptAir’s MS804, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister is leaning towards terrorism, and one Egyptian forensic official suggested an explosion based on the condition of human remains; however, this claim was later disputed even by the Egyptian government. The claims Egypt has made thus far are interesting, especially given the country’s history of trying to save face when it comes to airline crash investigations.
Before we delve into the specifics regarding MS804, let’s take a look at how Egypt has handled critical accident investigations in the past. Decades before last week’s disappearance of an Egyptair Airbus, another unusual accident off the coast of Nova Scotia soured relations between the United States and Egypt. On October 31, 1999, a Cairo-bound EgyptAir Boeing 767 departed New York’s John F Kennedy International disappeared off radar screens, plunging into the North Atlantic waters.
According to the US-based National Transportation Safety Board’s accident report, the probable cause of the crash was a suicidal relief pilot who intentionally pitched the nose over and shut down the 767’s engines, taking all 217 onboard to their deaths. Egypt however had its own ideas about the cause of the crash, instead choosing to blame the aircraft manufacturer in an attempted effort at trying to preserve the dignity of its crew.
Fast forward to late 2015, when a Metrojet Airbus was brought down on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula after departing for St. Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh. Russia has said that the evidence points to terrorism – more specifically a bomb – and the United States and United Kingdom also echo support for the theory. Egypt, continuing to show its colors when it comes to aircraft accidents, categorically denies the terrorism claim. With an economy that relies heavily on tourism, it’s no surprise Egypt would want to try and soften the impact of an act of terrorism that occurred on its own soil, yet their actions cast doubt on the ability of Egyptian teams to remain objective throughout the course of their investigation.
Prior to disappearing over the Mediterranean in the early morning hours last week, the EgyptAir Airbus A320 sent automated messages via its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that were received from the aircraft within a 3 minute period, before all automated messages ceased:
00:26Z 3044 ANTI ICE R WINDOW
00:26Z 561200 R SLIDING WINDOW SENSOR
00:26Z 2600 SMOKE LAVATORY SMOKE
00:27Z 2600 AVIONICS SMOKE
00:28Z 561100 R FIXED WINDOW SENSOR
00:29Z 2200 AUTO FLT FCU 2 FAULT
00:29Z 2700 F/CTL SEC 3 FAULT
While these failures are indicative of a fire onboard, more messages should have been displayed in that event so these failures are by no means a complete picture of what happened onboard MS804. Soon after these ACARS messages were sent, the final transponder signal was received at 0033Z. No distress call was received from the aircraft, and repeated calls from air traffic control to MS804 went unanswered as the flight was being handed off from Greek to Egyptian air traffic control.
Adding to the confusion, Greece’s Minister of Defense reported that their military radar had primary target data on MS804 making a descending 90 degree left turn, then right 360 degree turn before radar contact was lost at 10,000 feet. Egypt has denied any deviation from it’s straight and level cruise flight, instead asserting that the airliner disappeared from radar contact at 37,000 feet.
Regardless of the contradicting statements about the aircraft’s last minutes of flight, a large multi-national recovery effort consisting of British, French, US, Greek, and Egyptian assets is underway in the Mediterranean, combing the water for wreckage of the Airbus A320.
After a 2004 crash of a chartered Boeing 737 full of French tourists that had been vacationing in Egypt was supposedly “mishandled” according to families of the French victims, the calls for more transparency surrounding the forthcoming investigation of MS804 are not without merit. France is likely to offer assistance, especially now that Egypt is having to support both the Metrojet and Egyptair accident investigations.
As with the majority of aircraft accidents, there is almost always a lesson to be learned and sadly sometimes they are preventable. The MS804 crash and loss of life is tragic, but even more so if the investigation yields that Egypt is still unable to conduct an objective accident investigation.