Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

No hasty conclusions

There are still different scenarios for what may have caused this week’s tragic crash of a Russian plane in Sinai, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

Amidst an air of secrecy and grim determination, the first phase of an investigation has been launched to determine the cause of the tragic crash of the Russian passenger plane near Al-Arish, the capital of the North Sinai governorate, on Saturday morning, killing all 224 people on board.

Cairo responded instantly to the disaster, forming a crisis-management committee headed by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, who was on an official visit to Ismailiya at the time of the incident. He changed course and together with the defence minister headed to the scene of the crash in Al-Hassana.

Documentation of the crash site began soon afterwards, with the authorities cordoning off a 20-square-km area over which the plane either exploded or fell apart in mid-air.

Meanwhile, teams taking part in the investigation began to arrive from Moscow, France and Germany. Cairo immediately announced that it would welcome these teams and their participation in the investigations and take all possible measures to support their work.

Information then began to appear in the media regarding the possible causes of the crash. Kogalymavia, the airline that owned the plane, announced in a press conference that the crash of Flight 9268 from Sharm El-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg was due to an “external impact” that caused the plane to break up in the air.

According to the company, in its last moments the plane plunged uncontrollably towards the ground because of “major damage to the plane’s structure.” Alexander Smirnov, the company’s deputy director said, “The plane slowed by 300 km per hour in less than a minute as its altitude dropped by 1.5 km.” He ruled out the possibility of equipment failure or crew error.

The technical condition of the plane was “excellent”, he stressed, adding that the crew had made no complaints of technical problems during the plane’s previous five flights. He also pointed out that air-traffic controllers received no emergency signals from the crew during the flight.

Andrei Averyanov, Kogalymavia’s deputy general director for engineering, said that the plane was damaged in an incident in 2001 when the aircraft’s tail section struck the tarmac on landing. However, he insisted that the damage had been repaired and could not have been a factor in the crash in Sinai.

However, Alexander Neradko, who heads the Russian National Aviation Authority, dismissed the company’s claim of an “external impact” as premature and without foundation. He stressed that no conclusions could be drawn before an analysis of the plane’s two black boxes, which will take place in Cairo, had been done.

That process would begin after all the experts have arrived in Egypt, he said. In addition to the investigators from Russia and the Egyptian Civil Transport Ministry, there are also expert teams from France and Germany, as these are the home countries of the companies that designed and built the Airbus aircraft, and from Iceland, where the plane was registered.

Russia’s Emergencies Ministry has said that the two black boxes are in good condition, which has been confirmed by sources in Cairo. The political leaderships in both Cairo and Moscow have urged people to be patient while the investigation is carried out.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has emphasised the need to wait for the results of the investigation, which could take time. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, he said, “The Egyptian government is in full control of the Sinai Peninsula,” effectively refuting the claim by the Islamic State (IS) group for “Sinai Province”, made just seven hours after the crash, that it had downed the plane in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Syria.

President Al-Sisi stressed that it is still too soon to identify the cause of the crash and underscored the Egyptian government’s eagerness to work together with the other parties participating in the investigation to determine what caused the tragedy.

“It could take some time before we learn what caused the plane to crash,” he said, referring to the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie disaster, the cause of which was only determined years later.

In like manner, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, “No theories should be excluded at this phase in the investigation.” He urged people to remain patient until the experts have released their findings and cautioned against rushing into speculations, or issuing baseless statements on the possible cause of the disaster.

It is the policy of the major investigatory agencies in both Cairo and Moscow to not release any theories at this stage. In Cairo, sources said that no claims would be made before careful examination. Similarly, in Moscow, the Russian Investigative Committee (RIC) said that there were as yet no major theories regarding the crash of the plane.

RIC spokesman Vladimir Markin stressed that the committee will “consider all theories without exception, as would be the case with any airplane disaster.” He added that no possible cause would be prioritised until after various measures were taken, the most important of which is to analyse the recordings of the two black boxes.

Al-Ahram Weekly interviewed four pilots, two of whom have more than 20 years of experience. It also met with an aviation engineering expert, also with more than 20 years in the industry.

All spoke on condition of anonymity, except for Hisham Al-Halabi, a scholar at the Higher War College at the Nasser Military Academy in Cairo, who revealed details of the investigation.


CONDITIONS TO BE MET: In answer to the question of why the investigative process is expected to take some time, Al-Halabi said that there are a number of conditions that must be met in order for there to be an investigation.

First, all the participants from the country where the incident has occurred, namely Egypt, must be assembled, as well as from the country or countries that suffered the losses, namely Russia and Ukraine, and from the country where the firm that manufactured the plane is based, which in this case is France, the headquarters of the Airbus Company. Additionally, there must be officials from Germany, which represents the EU, as the plane was technically built in the EU, with France contributing only about 20 per cent to the manufacturing process.

In addition, an investigatory team from Iceland needs to be present, as this is the country where the Airbus plane was registered, and the company that insured the plane, though the identity of the company has not been released.

“All these companies and states must be represented at the start of the investigation, in addition to representatives from the international agencies concerned with civilian airlines and aviation,” Al-Halabi said.

Second, the proper equipment needs to be available before the investigation can begin, this being a multi-tiered process, he said. The investigation will include a minute examination of the body of the aircraft and the debris and the production of a forensic report, as well as the examination of the two black boxes in the presence of representatives of all the parties and agencies involved and the production of a report on the findings.

One of the boxes records signals exchanged between the cockpit of the aircraft and the airport, and the flight control instructions from the Sharm El-Sheikh observation tower to the flight commander. The other box records the technical performance of the plane.

In addition, another report has to be prepared at the airport, detailing communications with the plane from the moment it landed at Sharm El-Sheikh. This report will include the flight plan, signed by the relevant officials, a report on the examination of the condition of the plane by the aviation engineer at the airport, a report prepared and signed by the pilot himself (made after he landed in Sharm El-Sheikh), and a report by the aviation officials that monitored the flight during its 23 minutes between take-off and the crash.

In addition to the foregoing, a forensic report needs to be made from an analysis of the area of the crash, which the Russian Transport Authority and the Egyptian authorities have established is a 20-square-km area in Al-Hassana near Al-Arish. Then there is a report on the passengers, their identities and belongings, and a report on the pilots and other crewmembers.

“All these reports are preparatory to the investigations that will be conducted to determine the causes of the incident and exactly how it happened,” said Al-Halabi.

According to the sources interviewed by the Weekly, the boxes will be analysed in Egypt in accordance with international rules. Some sources have suggested that the rule is that the black boxes should be examined in a country other than that in which the incident took place.

But in this case, the investigation, supervised by the committee created by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, will be undertaken in the presence of representatives of all the investigatory parties in Egypt.

Al-Halabi added that the companies that manufactured the aircraft would provide the Egyptian authorities with the equipment necessary to examine the contents of the black boxes. Legally, the black boxes are analysed under the authority of the Egyptian Public Prosecution, which issues the instructions to investigate. Accordingly, they are considered to be the property of the Egyptian government.

What is crucial in this case, Al-Halabi said, is that the boxes are opened and analysed in the presence of all the relevant parties and that a detailed report is produced on the incident.


WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FLIGHT: Some aerial images published by news agencies have indicated that the Airbus changed its original course, showing that the plane flew parallel to the Red Sea coast but then shifted northwards, entering Sinai airspace and heading towards St Petersburg in Russia.

There are two possible interpretations of this information, according to Al-Halabi and an expert on aviation affairs who has been at the scene of the crash. The first holds that the plane may indeed have changed course but that the pilot would not have done so on his own initiative. He would have had to receive instructions from the aviation control officials on the ground first.

It is difficult, if not impossible, under normal circumstances for a flight captain to depart from an established course, whether in direction or altitude. In the event of any unusual situation, the pilot immediately contacts ground control, which is in charge of guiding flights. It is hard to conceive of a pilot heading off in a direction that had not been pre-established first.

The second possibility, according to both sources, is that the reports are based on a conjectural flightpath based on the theory that the pilot independently changed course. How could the news agencies, or any other agency, obtain information on the flight path given the secrecy surrounding the investigation? Only radar readings and the black boxes can reveal the plane’s course, and none of that information has been made public.

It is also unlikely that the plane was impacted externally, by a missile, for example, as IS Sinai Province claims. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, as the terrorist group was initially called, downed an Egyptian military plane with a missile on 25 January 2014, but that plane was flying at a very low altitude. The terrorist group has also suffered debilitating blows during the Martyr’s Right Operation, which is still in progress.

Analysis of the video clip posted by the group does not reveal a solid connection to the crash, in the light of what is known about it so far and the comments made by eyewitnesses on the ground, who say that the plane did not plummet to earth intact and that it seemed to have burst into flames while still in the air.

According to the American CBS TV news channel, an American satellite operating in the infrared range picked up heat-flash signals over Sinai at the moment of the A321 disaster. The report added that further analysis is still required to understand the cause of the heat spike. While a bomb cannot be ruled out, there is also the possibility of an explosion in the fuel tank or engines due to a technical flaw, it said.

According to a Pentagon official interviewed on the US TV channel ABC news, the heat flash recorded by the US spy satellite over the area where the Russian plane crashed could have been connected to an explosion after the aircraft crashed onto the ground.

“If the flash was connected with the plane, this means that something happened in the air or when the plane hit the ground,” he said, adding that the fact that there were military engagements with Islamists in the area could mean that the flash picked up by the satellite was not connected to the plane at all.

NBC, another US TV news channel, reported that the aircraft fell from a very high altitude, and quoted a Pentagon official as saying that at the time of the crash the satellite had not picked up any heat signals of the sort emitted by the launch of missiles. Such statements have put paid to the missile theory, and, hence, to the IS claim regarding the incident.

Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper said on Monday that there is no direct evidence of any terrorist involvement in the crash and that it is unlikely that IS extremists could have brought the plane down. But the possibility cannot be entirely excluded, he said.

As mentioned earlier, Al-Sisi said, in his interview with the BBC, that the Egyptian government is in full control of Sinai and that the terrorist organisation could not have taken down the plane.

An aviation expert interviewed by the Weekly drew the same conclusion. “It is impossible to accept the external impact or missile theory,” he said. “It is very difficult to hit a plane with a missile. You need the capacities of the superpowers to do that. The terrorist IS group simply wants to capitalise on the incident, but it is not just unlikely that it was responsible for the crash, it is even more than just unlikely.”

He continued, “It is impossible for IS to possess a launching pad for surface-to-air missiles and the ability to track a plane travelling at an altitude of 10,000 metres. It simply wants to vent its vengefulness against Russia.”

Russian officials have said that they have not ruled out any scenario from the investigation, including sabotage. Nevertheless, the expert source who saw the debris of the plane on the ground told the Weekly that, on the basis of his experience, it is unlikely that the aircraft was sabotaged from the inside.

“From my perspective, after 20 years in the field of aviation, the plane could only have exploded in the air the way it did under two conditions. The first is that there was a crack in the plane. This possibility has to be considered in the light of the tarmac accident 15 years ago, when the plane was owned by a Lebanese company and the tail section had to be repaired.”

He continued, “There was a similar case recently concerning a Korean airplane. The validity period of the repair had lapsed, and the airplane fell apart in the air, crashed to the ground, and exploded. The second possibility is a terrorist attack inside the aircraft.

“This scenario has to be ruled out, however, as it is impossible to smuggle a bomb on board a plane at Sharm El-Sheikh where the security measures are very strict.”

Airbus and other airline companies in the Gulf have suspended flights over Egyptian airspace in Sinai. Al-Halabi said that the precaution is technically unwarranted as the crash site and airspace over Sinai are not a danger zone.

“All parties agree that it is unlikely that the plane was targeted by a missile, especially at that altitude. The missiles of the armies in the area cannot reach that high, let alone the missiles in the hands of these groups,” he said.

“I believe that what has encouraged the companies to suspend their flights are the insurance companies, which are taking advantage of the incident to raise their premiums.”


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