Evidence suggests a sudden fire broke out aboard EgyptAir flight MS804 immediately before it crashed into the Mediterranean Sea last Thursday, adding weight to a feeling among aviation experts that some sort of malfunction may have brought the plane down, rather than a terrorist act.
Not that there are any conclusions yet. The investigation is ongoing.
Pieces of the A320 aircraft, along with human remains, personal items and cabin fittings are being recovered from a crash zone about 300 kilometres north of the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.
For relatives of the 66 people aboard who died, and for airline passengers generally, catastrophic malfunction is just as dreadful as terrorism. Passengers just want to complete their journey safely, as scheduled.
Terrorism can’t be ruled out but evidence for malfunction is mounting. Some of the main reasons are outlined below.
- No terror group has claimed responsibility for causing the crash and that is unusual if it was a terrorist act. For comparison, when the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed in October last year on a flight from Egypt, killing all 224 people aboard, the Sinai Branch of terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility very soon after the crash – on Twitter, on video, and in a statement by Abu Osama al-Masri, the leader of the group’s Sinai branch. ISIS even posted pictures in Dabiq, its online magazine, of what it said was the bomb.
- EgyptAir flight MS804 started from Paris Charles de Gaulle, where security is generally tight.
- A fire now appears to have broken out in the toilet nearest the cockpit of EgyptAir flight MS804 minutes before the plane crashed. The highly respected Aviation Herald website, run by Simon Hradecky, confirmed the contents of ACARS data transmissions from the flight from three different sources. ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) is a widely-used automated flight performance monitoring system.
- ACARS indicates that smoke was detected in the front toilet, then in the aircraft’s avionics bay – the area beneath the cockpit that houses computer systems. A heat sensor on the cockpit window was set off a few minutes later. These findings suggest heat and fire in the front cockpit area of the aircraft.
- The erratic final movements of the plane – including a 360-degree turn – also indicate a problem in the cockpit.
- The area where the plane went down, the eastern Mediterranean, is heavily monitored by satellites for strategic reasons, because of its proximity to Israel and Middle Eastern countries. Satellite images “show no sign so far of an explosion on an airplane”, Reuters news agency reported a day or two after the crash, citing officials at several American government agencies whom it did not name. The “government agencies” might well include the CIA. Reuters said the officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. They said the review of the imagery was preliminary.
- Can an electronics fire bring down an aircraft? Certainly. Perhaps the best known example is Swissair Flight 111, operated by a MD-11, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from New York to Geneva in 1998, killing all 229 passengers and crew. Flight crew reported smoke in the cockpit beforehand. Subsequent investigation revealed evidence of arcing in the wiring of the in-flight entertainment system network, starting a fire above the ceiling on the right side of the cockpit near the cockpit rear wall. The fire spread and intensified rapidly, leading ultimately to loss of control of the aircraft.
- The final point is made by veteran aviation reporter Ben Sandilands in his Plane Talking blog on Crikey.com.au. Sandiland writes: “Fire risks have become of increasing concern to airlines worldwide because of numerous cases of lithium-ion batteries igniting in passenger devices like phones, or even worse, within checked underfloor luggage and cargo consignments. All fires in an airliner are difficult to extinguish, but those from current generation batteries have proven even harder to overcome in the few minutes before they can potentially spread far enough to destroy the structural integrity of an airframe.”
The investigation continues. Some people believe it might indeed have been a bomb that brought the plane down. A commercial pilot with a major European airline told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper at the weekend that some parts of the data log suggested that windows in the right side of the cockpit had blown out by an explosion inside the aircraft.
The cause may become clearer if the “black box” flight recorders are recovered. Egypt currently has a robot submarine hunting for them, and for the plane itself, in some of the Mediterranean’s deepest waters (about 3km deep). Questions that may be asked (and not for the first time in such events) include: Why are flight recorders not designed to float? and, Why do the locator batteries on flight recorders run out after just 30 days of operation?
Written by Peter Needham