Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Concealed in smoke: MS804

Mechanical fault or terrorism? One week later, the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 in the Mediterranean remains a mystery, reports Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

With each day that passes since the EgyptAir plane plunged into the Mediterranean in the early hours of Thursday 19 May, the search for the wreckage, including the plane’s black boxes and the remains of its ill-fated passengers and crew, grows more challenging.

Scenarios of what could have happened remain as opaque as the moment the aircraft disappeared. Early, and unfounded, speculations have been dismissed, and some seemingly established facts contradicted just days after they were first announced.

As the paper was going to press on Tuesday, DNA was being collected from the families of the victims to begin the process of identifying body parts. A source close to the investigation said the priority is to find the plane’s black boxes, which will stop transmitting detection signals after 30 days.

On Sunday Egypt sent a robot submarine to search in Mediterranean waters as deep as 3,000 metres, according to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. “All scenarios are possible and none can be ruled out,” he said in a speech on Sunday, alluding to the storm of speculation in Egypt and elsewhere on what could have downed the Airbus.

An anonymous forensic official cited by AP on Tuesday claimed that the tiny body parts retrieved from the sea and received at Zeinhom morgue point to an explosion, though no other evidence of one has emerged. The statements fed rumours that an act of terrorism, possibly a bomb, had downed the aircraft. The Forensic Authority said any such assumptions are mere speculation.

Egypt’s aviation minister was the first to lean towards the terror theory during a press conference held soon after the plane disappeared. Five days later he appeared to adopt a more cautious approach, backtracking on any speculation.

EgyptAir MS804 took off from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport with 66 people on board at 11:09pm local time and was scheduled to arrive in Cairo at 3:15am local time. It disappeared from radar minutes after leaving Greek airspace and entering Egyptian airspace, without issuing a distress signal.

Thirty Egyptians, 15 French passengers, 2 Iraqis, a Sudanese, a Saudi, a Kuwaiti, a Canadian, an Algerian, a Belgian, a Chadian and one Portuguese were among the passengers.

Egypt is leading the investigations with the participation of three French aviation experts and a technician from Airbus, currently in Cairo. They may be joined later by other technical experts to analyse the debris.

France, the US navy, Greece, Italy and Britain have joined the search efforts. The search area is halfway between Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria and the Greek island of Crete, where the water is up to 3,000 metres deep.

For now, debris, luggage, fragmentary human remains and six warning messages sent from the Airbus’s computer system constitute the only clues as to why the plane plunged to the sea. Greece’s defence minister said that the plane swerved sharply and fell 22,000 feet before plunging into the sea.

A host of scenarios were built on these details before they were denied by Egypt five days later. According to Ehab Azmy, head of the National Air Navigation Services Company, the plane didn’t swerve or deviate, or lose altitude, according to radar readings.

Citing the technical investigation team, the source close to the investigation could not confirm that the plane had swerved.

On Tuesday Greece said it will start sending key information on the EgyptAir flight to the Egyptian authorities, including its radar tracking, Reuters reported. A source close to the investigation and a second Defence Ministry official told the agency that Greece stuck by its account that the plane had swerved before disappearing from radar screens.

In a leaked audio recording shortly before the flight’s disappearance, the pilot sounded cheerful during routine communication with Zurich’s traffic controllers and then their Greek counterparts.

The leak also included flight data showing trouble in the cockpit and one flight control spoiler in the right wing (there are seven on each wing). When Greek air traffic controllers attempted to communicate with the pilot at 3:27am, after the plane had entered Egyptian airspace and to hand over monitoring of the flight from Greek to Egyptian authorities, there was no response.

The seven messages from MS804’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) are automatically sent from the plane to both the France-based Airbus and the ground station, in this case, EgyptAir.

The messages cover a period of three minutes and were sent midway between Greece and Egypt. Because they are automatically sent from the plane’s system the pilot may not have been aware of them, experts say. Written in abbreviated technical jargon, the messages indicate smoke detected in the lavatory and parts of the cockpit, in addition to a problem with the heater for the first-officer’s window.

A statement by Airbus described the data as limited and insufficient to establish the sequence of events that would explain the crash. “Airbus has no specific recommendation to raise at this stage of the investigation,” the statement said.

The ACARS is a clear indication of a serious problem that could have been caused by either an electrical fault or a bomb, according to a source at EgyptAir who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press. His personal assessment leans towards the former as the only common factor connecting warnings emanating from two different places, the cockpit and right wing.

All hopes are pinned on locating the plane’s data in the two black boxes. One box contains the last 30 minutes of all recordings inside the cockpit, including anything communicated to air traffic control. The second box stores all the data of the plane’s systems in sequence. If recovered, the black boxes will be analysed by civil aviation officers and experts.Egypt's aviation minister said EgyptAir will contract a Frenc and an Italian company to conduct deep-sea searching .

“It is imperative to know what happened so we can learn from it,” said the source. “Be it a mechanical fault or something else, we cannot afford not to know.”

With so little data to hand experts are struggling with obvious questions, including the absence of a distress signal. “The pilots could have been too busy trying to extinguish a potential fire on board or clear the smoke from the cockpit and didn’t have time to send a distress message,” said Anil Padhra, a senior lecturer in aviation studies at Kingston University, London.


It may also be that the onboard communication system failed and that even if the pilots had tried to send a distress message, it was not received on the ground, he said. “This would explain why the Greek air traffic controllers did not receive a response from the pilots when they tried to contact them.”

No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the plane’s downing, leading some to put more weight on a possible technical problem aboard the plane.

“When there is no evidence, any speculation is just that until we have the facts,” said Hisham Al-Halabi, a veteran former air force pilot. “The facts and data are collected from the debris, the black box and all the documents of the Airbus A320 since it was manufactured.”

But many in Egypt are convinced that a bomb brought down the plane. Last October Islamic State claimed responsibility for downing a Russian Metrojet that took off from Sharm El-Sheikh Airport. In May a mentally unstable Egyptian with a criminal record hijacked an internal EgyptAir flight after claiming he was wearing an explosive belt — it turned out to be fake — and ordered the pilot to fly to Greece.

“I understand why Egyptians fear that terrorism downed the flight since both Egypt and France were targets,” said Padhra.

On Sunday Egypt’s prosecutor-general officially requested that Greece and France provide all data on the plane from the point of its departure from Paris, including transcripts of calls between the pilot and Greek air traffic controllers.

Claims by a French TV channel that the pilot communicated with Egypt’s air traffic controllers for three minutes were denied by the Egyptian authorities.

Pilots the world over are trained to control the aircraft, navigate and communicate in that order. EgyptAir’s pilots are no different which explains why, if MS804’s pilots did have a second to send a Mayday message but were also attempting to save the plane at the same time, they might not have prioritised the distress message.

“EgyptAir’s pilots are subject to rigorous Category-A checkups and simulations every six months or risk not getting their licence renewed,” said the EgyptAir source. Transit and the more thorough and detailed base maintenance of planes are done “by the book”, as per the instructions of the manufacturer, in this case the Airbus manual.

The plane's technical log viewed by Al-Ahram and signed by the pilot in Paris at 8:30 pm GMT did not mention any technical problems.

Because the Airbus A320 took off from Charles de Gaulle airport and French passengers were on board, France is leading its own investigation, but a joint Egyptian-French commission might be formed.

In the 24 hours before the crash the plane had flown from Asmara, in Eritrea, to Cairo, then to Tunis in Tunisia before heading to Paris via Cairo.
Additional reporting by Ashraf El-Hadidi

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