Data show rapid Egyp­tAir dis­as­ter

Prob­lem in cock­pit, smoke in bath­room

SundayXtra - - WORLD - By Raphael Satter and Hamza Hendawi

CAIRO — Leaked flight data show­ing trou­ble in the cock­pit and smoke in a plane lava­tory are bring­ing into fo­cus the chaotic final mo­ments of Egyp­tAir Flight 804, in­clud­ing a three­minute pe­riod be­fore con­tact was lost as alarms on the Air­bus 320 screeched one af­ter another.

Of­fi­cials cau­tion it’s still too early to say what hap­pened to the air­craft — France’s for­eign min­is­ter said Satur­day “All the hy­pothe­ses are be­ing ex­am­ined” — but mount­ing ev­i­dence points to a sud­den, dra­matic catas­tro­phe that led to its crash into the east­ern Mediter­ranean early Thurs­day.

The Egyp­tian mil­i­tary Satur­day re­leased the first im­ages of air­craft de­bris plucked from the sea, in­clud­ing per­sonal items and dam­aged seats. Egypt is lead­ing a multi-na­tion ef­fort to search for the plane’s black boxes — the flight data and cock­pit voice recorders — and other clues that could help ex­plain its sud­den plunge into the sea.

“If they lost the air­craft within three min­utes that’s very, very quick,” said avi­a­tion se­cu­rity ex­pert Philip Baum. “They were deal­ing with an ex­tremely se­ri­ous in­ci­dent.”

Au­thor­i­ties say the plane lurched left, then right, spun all the way around and plum­meted 11,582 me­tres into the sea — never is­su­ing a dis­tress call.

The Face­book page of the chief spokesman for Egypt’s mil­i­tary showed the first pho­to­graphs of de­bris from the plane, shred­ded re­mains of plane seats, life-jack­ets — one seem­ingly un­dam­aged — and a scrap of cloth that might be part of a baby’s pur­ple-and-pink blan­ket.

The spokesman, Brig-Gen. Mo­hammed Samir, later posted a video show­ing what ap­peared to be a piece of blue car­pet, seat­belts, a shoe and a white hand­bag. The clip opened with aerial footage of an uniden­ti­fied navy ship fol­lowed by a speed­boat head­ing to­wards float­ing de­bris.

Flight 804 left Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Air­port Wed­nes­day night en route to Cairo with 66 peo­ple aboard. The first avail­able au­dio from the doomed flight in­di­cates all was rou­tine as the pi­lot checked in with air traf­fic con­trollers in Zurich, Switzer­land, around mid­night, be­fore be­ing handed over to Ital­ian air traf­fic con­trollers in Padua (Padova): Pi­lot — “This is 0-7-2-5 Padova con­trol. (Un­in­tel­li­gi­ble) 8- 0- 4. Thank you so much. Good day... er, good night.”

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion, taken from liveatc.net which pro­vides live air traf­fic con­trol broad­casts from around the world, oc­curred about 2½ hours be­fore Greek air traf­fic con­trollers lost con­tact with the plane.

Greek of­fi­cials say at 2:24 a.m. lo­cal time, the flight en­tered the Athens sec­tor of Greek airspace. Twenty-four min­utes later, con­trollers chatted with the pi­lot, who ap­peared to be in good spir­its. In Greek, the pi­lot re­marked: “Thank you.” At 3:12 a.m., the plane passed over the Greek is­land of Ka­sos be­fore head­ing into the east­ern Mediter­ranean, ac­cord­ing to flight data main­tained by FlightRadar24.

Less than 15 min­utes later, about mid­way between Greece and Egypt, a sen­sor de­tected smoke in a lava­tory and a fault in two of the plane’s cock­pit win­dows, ac­cord­ing to leaked flight data pub­lished by the Avi­a­tion Her­ald.

Mes­sages like th­ese “gen­er­ally mean the start of a fire,” said Se­bastien Barthe, a spokesman for France’s air ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion agency. But he warned against in­fer­ring too much more from the read­ing. “Ev­ery­thing else is pure con­jec­ture.” At 3:27 a.m. Greek time, air traf­fic con­trollers in Athens at­tempted to con­tact the plane to hand over mon­i­tor­ing of the flight from Greek to Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to Greek of­fi­cials. There was no re­sponse from the plane de­spite re­peated calls, in­clud­ing on the emer­gency fre­quency. At the same time, a sen­sor de­tected smoke had reached the air­craft’s avion­ics, the net­work of com­put­ers and wires that con­trol the plane, ac­cord­ing to the leaked flight data.

Two min­utes later, the air­craft reached Egyp­tian airspace. Alarms went off warn­ing about the plane’s au­topi­lot and wing-con­trol sys­tems, sug­gest­ing se­ri­ous struc­tural prob­lems. Within sec­onds, the plane fell off the radar (about 2:30 a.m. Egyp­tian time, which is be­hind Greek sum­mer time). Air traf­fic con­trollers in Cairo sought as­sis­tance from the Egyp­tian air force to track the miss­ing plane — to no avail.

David Lear­mount, a widely re­spected avi­a­tion ex­pert and edi­tor of the au­thor­i­ta­tive Flight­global magazine, said the Avi­a­tion Her­ald’s re­ported read­ings from the plane’s air­craft com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­dress­ing and re­port­ing sys­tem, or ACARS, sug­gested a quick-spread­ing fire.

On his web­site, Lear­mount wrote: “The ques­tion now is whether the fire that caused the smoke was the re­sult of an elec­tri­cal fault — for ex­am­ple a short-cir­cuit caused by dam­aged wiring — or whether some form of ex­plo­sive or in­cen­di­ary de­vice was used.”

In the ab­sence of a claim of re­spon­si­bil­ity, it’s still un­clear whether the crash was the re­sult of a fault or an at­tack, Lear­mount wrote.

Egyp­tian avi­a­tion ex­pert Hos­sam El­hamy Shaker said the pres­ence of smoke on board alone does not solve the mys­tery.

“It just leads us into an area where smoke is a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to the in­ci­dent, ei­ther by de­stroy­ing the air­craft’s equip­ment or suf­fo­cat­ing the pi­lots,” he said.

Baum was skep­ti­cal a fire alone was the rea­son the plane went down. “Fires hap­pen aboard air­craft, but they don’t usu­ally re­sult in the de­struc­tion of the air­craft in three min­utes,” he said.

Some have won­dered at the lack of a may­day sig­nal, but Baum said that could make sense if the crew were un­con­scious or strug­gling to re­gain con­trol of the air­craft.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have been por­ing over the plane’s pas­sen­ger list and ques­tion­ing ground crew at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle air­port, where the air­plane took off. Ships and planes from Bri­tain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece and the United States have taken part search­ing a wide area of sea 290 kilo­me­tres north of the Egyp­tian port city of Alexan­dria.

The wa­ters in the area are 2,440 to 3,050 me­tres deep. Pings from the plane’s black boxes can be de­tected up to a depth of six kilo­me­tres.

Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties have said they be­lieve ter­ror­ism is a more likely ex­pla­na­tion than equip­ment fail­ure, and some avi­a­tion ex­perts say the er­ratic fi­nale to the flight sug­gests a bomb blast or a strug­gle in the cock­pit — though no ev­i­dence of that has emerged.

“All the hy­pothe­ses are be­ing ex­am­ined — none are be­ing favoured,” French For­eign Min­is­ter Jean-Marc Ayrault told re­porters Satur­day af­ter meet­ing with about 100 fam­ily mem­bers of the victims to ex­press “our pro­found com­pas­sion” over the crash.

At Charles de Gaulle air­port Satur­day, dozens of pas­sen­gers — mostly Egyp­tians — queued up for the lat­est Egyp­tAir flight to Cairo. Checks were thor­ough, but there were no overt signs of ex­tra se­cu­rity in the wait­ing area. A French se­cu­rity team did walk through the plane’s aisles, how­ever, be­fore the air­craft took off.

What­ever caused the air­craft to crash, the tragedy deep­ens Egypt’s strug­gles to re­vive a bat­tered econ­omy. While the Egyp­tAir crash may not re­flect di­rectly on Egypt’s air­ports — un­like a Rus­sian jet bombed in Oc­to­ber by the Is­lamic State group that took off from an Egyp­tian re­sort — the coun­try’s as­so­ci­a­tion with yet another air dis­as­ter will fur­ther dam­age tourism and the flow of for­eign in­vest­ment.

AMR NABIL / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An Egyp­tAir plane flies past minarets of a mosque as it ap­proaches Cairo In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Cairo, Egypt, Satur­day.

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