• BEA confirms automatic messages signaling smoke in cabin
  • Plane was enroute from Paris to Cairo with 66 people on board

EgyptAir Flight 804 sent automatic radio messages about smoke in the front portion of the cabin in the moments before controllers lost contact with the plane over the Mediterranean Sea, French accident investigator BEA said Saturday.

The Airbus plane’s so-called Acars transmissions were relayed from the plane to ground, a BEA spokesman said, without giving further details.

The messages will give investigators more information about events before the Airbus A320 went down early Thursday with 66 people on board. Pilots sent no emergency signal, and their final contact with controllers revealed no signs of distress. The Egyptian government has said a terrorist attack is a more likely cause of the crash than a technical failure.

The Egyptian military released a series of photos showing aircraft debris
The Egyptian military released a series of photos showing aircraft debris
Source: Egyptian Defense Ministry

Egyptian authorities said they discovered debris, body parts and personal belongings in the Mediterranean from passengers of the doomed plane, all but quashing any hope of finding survivors.

Trade publication Aviation Herald reported on Friday that at least two smoke alerts were triggered moments before controllers lost contact. Smoke was reported in the lavatory and avionics areas, the publication said, while CNN reported the time stamps of the alerts match the approximate time the aircraft went missing.

Debris from the crash, released May 21.
Debris from the crash, released May 21.
Source: Egyptian Defense Ministry

The search by Egyptian forces and supporting countries continues, the airline said in a statement. Among other pieces discovered were luggage and aircraft seats. No reference was made to the search for the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders, which could offer valuable information about what downed the plane on its flight from Paris to Cairo.

Salvage teams from Greece and Egypt have been joined by French investigators to find more debris as authorities seek to piece together what happened to the Airbus single-aisle jet. The flight lost contact in the middle of the night in the wider area of the Strabo trench in the so-called Hellenic Arc in the sea south of Greece, where waters are as much as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) deep. The debris was discovered about 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Alexandria, authorities said earlier.

Officials aren’t ruling out any possible cause for the disappearance, including a deliberate act or malfunction, though Egyptian Minister of Aviation Sherif Fathy said the possibility of a terrorist attack is higher than a technical failure. Flying at cruising altitude through clear skies, the Airbus jet made sudden movements before swooping into a steep descent and losing contact with air-traffic control, according to Greek radar reports.

An Egyptian plane flies over an Egyptian ship during the search.
An Egyptian plane flies over an Egyptian ship during the search.
Source: Egyptian Defense Ministry

Sea-search 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. The condition of the debris and the way it is scattered may also offer early clues about the possible cause, with a wide field of small pieces pointing to a mid-air breakup of the plane, while large chunks might suggest the aircraft hit the water largely intact.

Black Boxes

Retrieving the black boxes from the ocean bed can be an arduous process, particularly in great depths. It took salvage crews several years to locate and then pull up the devices from the doomed Air France AF447 flight that went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The missing Malaysian Air MH370 still hasn’t been found two years after it disappeared, with only some small pieces from the plane washed up thousands of miles from where crews continue to comb the sea bed.

The boxes, which are fortified and painted bright orange to facilitate their retrieval, typically emit a ping for several weeks to lead salvage crews to their location.

Several factors come into play when searching for wreckage in an ocean. Sea currents, weather and the speed at which the jet hits the water are some issues to be taken into consideration, said Ken Mathews, a former accident investigator who’s worked with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as well as its U.K. and New Zealand peers.

“If they narrow down the likely area, then it’s only a matter of time,” Mathews said. “The Mediterranean is not a vast area, or so deep as an ocean.”

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. French air safety investigator BEA will dispatch three experts, accompanied by Airbus technical adviser, to help with the search and retrieve the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders.

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.

“It is our duty to know everything about the causes,” French President Francois Hollande said at a press conference Thursday. “As soon as we know the truth, we’ll have to draw all conclusions, be it an accident or any other hypothesis,” including terrorism.

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