- Plane was en route from Paris to Cairo with 66 people on board
- Lack of pilot distress signal suggests foul play, analyst says
The disappearance of an EgyptAir jetliner carrying 66 people over the Mediterranean Sea triggered a massive search for evidence amid concern that a deliberate act may have knocked the plane from the sky.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said floating materials found near Karpathos Island may have come from the plane wreckage, EgyptAir said in a tweet in Arabic. Athanasios Binis, chairman of the Greek Air Accident and Investigation Safety Board, said the debris didn’t come from the aircraft, broadcaster ERT reported on its website.
Egyptian Minister of Aviation Sherif Fathy said the possibility of a terrorist attack is higher than a technical failure, after French President Francois Hollande said the Airbus Group SE A320 jet had crashed.
“It is our duty to know everything about the causes,” Hollande said Thursday at a press conference. “As soon as we know the truth, we’ll have to draw all conclusions, be it an accident or any other hypothesis,” including terrorism.
Investigators focused on the last minutes of the flight, which took off at 11:09 p.m. in Paris with 56 passengers, 7 crew and 3 security personnel. The aircraft, a modern single-aisle jet manufactured in 2003, was traveling at cruising altitude before disappearing from radar off the Egyptian coast. The plane made sudden movements before swooping into a deep descent before air-traffic control lost contact, authorities said. Pilots sent no emergency signal, and their final contact with controllers revealed no signs of distress.
While the cause of the incident hasn’t been identified, mid-air emergencies are rare, especially for a relatively new plane. The weather in the area of the sea close to Egypt was also good, with no winds or clouds, the Hellenic National Meteorological Service in Greece said. The sudden disappearance of an airliner at cruising altitude and with no distress call from the pilot at least raises questions of foul play, said Paul Hayes, director of air safety at London-based Ascend, an aviation consultancy.
“I hate to say it but the immediate thing that comes to mind when you see something like this is the possibility of a bomb,” said Hayes. “And if it is a bomb, how did it get on board?”
Hollande said no hypotheses are being excluded on the EgyptAir incident, as debris is searched for. Fathy said separately in Cairo that it was too early to call the incident an accident. Search and rescue teams from Greece are contributing to hunt for the aircraft or its remains, joining crews from Egypt and other countries.
In Europe, from where Flight MS804 took off, authorities have been on high alert since terror attacks in Paris and Brussels prompted a review of security procedures. About 130 people died in the French capital after three teams of men linked to Islamic State blew themselves up outside a stadium and attacked a cafe and a concert hall in November. Bombings at the airport in the Belgian capital and on a subway in March killed 35 people.
As authorities pieced together the final moments of the flight, a picture of sudden disruption emerges. Before leaving Athens air space, the pilot was in a good mood and thanked local air-traffic controllers in their native language, according to the Greek aviation authority.
A short time later about 10-15 miles in Cairo air space, the plane swerved 90 degrees left, then 360 degrees right before dropping to 10,000 feet and being lost from radar, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos told state-run ERT TV. Communication with Flight MS804 was lost at about 2:30 a.m. Cairo time, according to the airline.
The EgyptAir plane had traveled around North Africa and back and forth to Europe in the days before the crash, according to jet tracker Flightradar24. After returning to Cairo from Paris on May 16, the A320 flew back and forth to Brussels and then made trips to Asmara in Eritrea and Tunis before heading to Paris on Wednesday.
The wreck of the Paris-Cairo plane follows a string of aviation-related incidents involving the North African country, including a Russian airliner en route from Sharm-el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg that crashed soon after takeoff in October allegedly after a bomb exploded, killing 224 people. An EgyptAir flight was hijacked to Cyprus in March by a man claiming to be wearing an explosive belt, but later found to be unarmed.
“You’d expect security to be very, very tight at a first-class airport, especially after what happened in Paris and Belgium,” said Nick O’Brien, associate professor for counter terrorism at Charles Sturt University in Canberra.
Salvage crews will focus on retrieving the flight and data recorders, so-called black boxes that store key flight metrics and voices and sounds from the cockpit that can help investigators pinpoint the cause of a crash. Finding a plane after an incident, particularly over water, can typically take hours if not days.
The MS804 pilot has 6,275 flying hours and the co-pilot 2,766 hours, according to the airline. The plane’s manufacturing date makes it a relatively young aircraft compared with EgyptAir’s fleet which has an average age of 20 years.
The A320 is Airbus’s best-selling aircraft series, which started operating in 1988 and has a global fleet of about 6,700 jets in operation, according to Ascend. There have been 13 fatal crashes of the series, including, most recently, the crash of a Russian Metrojet airliner brought down by a suspected Islamic State bomb over Egypt’s Sinai.
(A previous version of this story was corrected to say that EgyptAir reported the debris may have come from the plane wreckage.)