Mystery continues to surround the cause of the deadly crash which brought down an Airbus A321-200, operated by Russian tourist airline Metrojet, last Saturday. The crash killed all 224 people aboard: 192 adults, 25 children and seven crew.
It is known that the plane broke up at high altitude before coming down and a bomb aboard is a possibility. Even while the flight recorders are still being examined, the Russian airline has blamed “external influence” for the crash.
At a news conference in Moscow, the airline’s deputy director ruled out “a technical fault or a pilot error”, the BBC reported.
“The only [explanation] for the plane to have been destroyed in mid-air can be specific impact, purely mechanical, physical influence on the aircraft,” Alexander Smirnov said.
“There is no such combination of failures of systems which could have led to the plane disintegrating in the air,” he added.
That is not quite correct, however. Mechanical failure is a possibility.
The crashed plane was 18 years old and had suffered a “tail strike” accident on 16 November 2001 on landing at Cairo (while owned and operated by Middle East Airlines) when its tail had struck the tarmac forcefully, causing significant damage and necessitating major repairs that took three months. Whether that had anything to do with the crash so long afterwards is something investigators are examining.
In at least two previous cases, large passenger planes have either broken apart or become unmanageable, with deadly results, many years after similar tail repairs were completed. They crashed because the repairs failed – in one case 22 years after being completed.
A China Airlines B747 flying to Hong Kong from Taiwan in May 2002 broke into several pieces as it was climbing to 35,000 feet, killing all 225 people aboard. Analysis by the Taiwanese government later found that repairs made 22 years earlier on the tail had failed, causing a sudden and explosive decompression.
In 1985, a Japan Airlines B747 suffered a similar failure on a domestic flight – seven years after a tail strike had been repaired. In that notorious case, the crew battled to control the plane for 46 minutes after takeoff before the aircraft crashed, killing all but four of the 524 people aboard in the worst single-plane catastrophe in history.
In the latest crash, the Metrojet aircraft’s tail is detached from the rest of the wreckage, though it is not known at which point that occurred.
Other possibilities are that the plane was hit by something external, like a missile or a meteor, or that a bomb was aboard. The first is considered increasingly unlikely. The second, authorities admit, is possible.
Meanwhile, the investigators continue their work, with an Egyptian technical team being joined by experts from Russia and also from the Republic of Ireland, where the A321-200 was registered.
Written by Peter Needham