EgyptAir: An Untimely End

Search and rescue operations were able to recover items like this debris of the EgyptAir jet that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian Military/Handout via Reuters

As an international team of investigators scrambles to ascertain the cause of the crash, will we ever learn what happened to the doomed Egyptian airliner?

By Sarah El Shaarawi

On May 19, tragedy struck over the Mediterranean as EgyptAir’s flight MS804—en route from Paris to Cairo—crashed into deep blue waters without sending any distress signal. All 66 passengers including 10 crew members perished in the incident.

Authorities from Egypt, France, Greece and Turkey are collaborating to ascertain the nature of the crash.
So far none of those on board have been publicly implicated in the incident, but many questions as to what really happened remain unanswered.

Much speculation can be put to rest if and when the flight recorder—commonly known as the black box—is found. In the case of flight MS804, the search for two of its black boxes is ongoing.

On May 22, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said his country had dispatched a robot submarine in an effort to locate and recover the flight recorders.

However, at the time of going to press, five days after the crash, the location of the black boxes was still unknown.

A Race Against Time
Without the black boxes, it may be nearly impossible to determine what brought down EgyptAir MS804.
Pings emitted by the recorders usually last for around 30 days, but locating them, particularly in deep water, proves challenging.

And despite the fact that it remains a race against time, the recovery of the recorders may take years. In the case of Air France flight 447, which crashed in 2009, the recorders were not recovered until 2011.

Reports have so far indicated that not one distress signal was sent from the pilot of flight MS804. However, according to the French authorities who are supporting Egypt with the investigation, the Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS) sent several warning messages indicating smoke in multiple locations in the aircraft, mechanical malfunction and alerts from window sensors.

This information doesn’t offer any insight into the source of the smoke or whether intentional sabotage, mechanical failure, or some other issue caused the crash.

While Egyptian and French officials have both maintained they are entertaining all possible explanations, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy said on the day of the crash that based on the information available at the time, the “probability was greater that the crash was the result of a terrorist act [rather] than a mechanical failure.” While statistics indicate that sabotage accounts for a minority of aviation disasters, his statement was not without credence.

R. John Hansman, Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics and Director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation tells Newsweek Middle East that the likelihood of a sudden mechanical failure while a plane is at cruising altitude, as MS804 was, is highly unlikely.

“Most crashes happen during takeoff and landing, so to have something happen suddenly in cruise is very, very rare,” he explains.

“If you look at the statistics over the history of jet aviation, there has been more mechanical errors; [but] if you look through the last few years it turns out we have made huge progress in making the traditional causes of aviation accidents go away and we have had an increase in man-made events. In the past five to 10 years, the portion of major aviation catastrophes that are due to intentional acts on the part of either terrorists or intentional agents has grown significantly,” he says.

Meanwhile, both Fathy and Vice President of EgyptAir Ahmed Adel assert there were three air marshals on board the flight, as it is standard practice to have at least two air marshals on board. The third was in training. But it seems the marshals were unable to prevent the flight’s fateful end as the dreadful incident adds insult to injury for a country that has suffered three aviation related incidents—two of them fatal—in less than seven months.

Missing Information And Media Speculation
As information began to trickle in about the circumstances surrounding the crash, speculation and conflicting narratives developed. By the afternoon of May 19, it was confirmed that the search and rescue effort had become search and recovery, as ships and planes combed the waters where the plane is believed to have crashed.

Unconfirmed reports claimed that a ball of fire was seen streaking across the sky around the time of the crash by Greek islanders and ships at sea. Early statements that the wreckage had been recovered were quickly retracted, and in the initial chaos, there seemed to be contradiction between EgyptAir officials and the Egyptian minister of civil aviation over what exactly may have happened and how the situation was being handled.

Leading the recovery effort was Egypt, backed by France, Greece, and Turkey. The U.S. Navy also dispatched a surveillance aircraft to assist the search and retrieval operation. The Egyptian navy ultimately located the wreckage not far from the last known position of the aircraft, some 180 miles off the coast of Alexandria.

In the days that followed, official images began to emerge of debris from the wreckage as well as of personal belongings like shoes and bags. Human remains were also recovered.

Speculation On The Rise
However, conflicting statements and a lack of information seem to have fueled media speculation.

The unusual movements of the aircraft, a sharp 90 degree turn to the left followed by a 360 degree turn to the right, as per the Greek aviation authorities’ statement, immediately before it dropped off the radar has left many perplexed about the aircraft’s final moments.

Some Egyptian media outlets claimed the Israeli air force was carrying out military training exercises and maneuvers in a nearby location at the same time as the EgyptAir crash. They further speculated that the sharp maneuvers of the Airbus 320 may have been consistent with the pilot attempting to avoid approaching danger.

But Egyptian military sources rule out this theory and see it as far-fetched.

“Based on the behavior of the plane and what I know about military training exercises, it is very unlikely,” a senior military source asking not to be named tells Newsweek Middle East.

“Everyone should wait until we have the evidence in our hands before jumping to conclusions,” he adds.

Media speculation also caused an official outcry in Egypt. The foreign ministry’s spokesperson sent a tweet criticizing CNN for its fallacies that insinuated that the pilot, who had 6,275 hours of flight under his belt, was responsible for the crash.

The tweet read: “It’s disrespectful that @CNN insinuates pilot suicide in #EgyptairMS804 tragedy while families are mourning.” For its part, in a press release EgyptAir expressed “deep dissatisfaction” with the conduct of a number of media outlets and discussions on social media.

While officials have implored the media to wait for the recovery of the flight data recorders, there have also been reports that the black boxes may not be operational or emitting the ping used to help establish their location. However, these claims may not have much basis either.

Hansman explains that while the “pingers” are supposed to be automatically activated, depending on the nature of the event, they could be damaged or nonfunctional.

“They are fairly robust but they can get damaged. There is also no way to really tell if they are working or not,” he adds.

“They only have a limited range, depending on the water conditions, [and so on], so you have to get reasonably close to them with a sensor that would be able to pick up the ping. I don’t know that we have hard evidence that they are not working.”

Another Blow To The Economy?
The most widely speculated cause of the crash has been terrorism and beyond any technical explanation, this is not without reason. In the last year, in addition to a long list of economic and social challenges, Egypt has witnessed several terrorism-related incidents, most notably the downing of Metrojet flight 9268, a Russian airliner bound for St. Petersburg from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh on Oct. 31, 2015. The plane, carrying 224 passengers and crew, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board. Daesh claimed responsibility for the crash, despite Egyptian authorities’ statements that they had not found any evidence linking the crash to terrorism.

In March, EgyptAir flight 181 was hijacked by a man claiming to be wearing an explosive belt and diverted its route from Alexandria to Cyprus. While the incident was not terrorism related, it was yet another stain on the image of a country facing economic hardship.

Egypt’s reputation since the 2011 uprising as a risky travel option is perhaps best exemplified by the MS804 incident.

Fewer people are flying the airline. It’s worth noting that this flight had 55 passengers on board—it was only a third full, with typical seating on an Airbus 320 at 150 and a maximum seating of 180 passengers.
Widely criticized for its handling of the Metrojet disaster, Egypt has so far handled this incident with greater finesse, says Bahgat Korany, Professor of International Relations at the American University in Cairo.

“The most important thing so far is that Egypt is dealing with the issue much more professionally than with the incident of the Russian plane over Sinai. I hope this tendency will continue.”

What We Know So Far
EgyptAir flight MS804 departed from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport departed at 11:09 pm on May 18, and was scheduled to land in Cairo the following day early in the morning. But the Airbus 320 never arrived.

At 1:24 am, the flight entered Greek airspace, at 1:48 am the pilot communicated with air traffic control; he was apparently jovial, thanking his counterparts on the ground in Greek. At 2:27 am Greek air traffic controllers attempted to make contact several times but in vain. Two minutes later the flight entered Egyptian airspace and less than a minute later, the flight’s signal dropped. The plane disappeared from radar screens as it exited Greek airspace. Repeated attempts by Greek air traffic controllers to contact the crew were met with silence.

By 2:45 am, search and rescue efforts were launched to find the plane.
Of the 66 people on board, 30 were Egyptians, 15 French nationals, 10 other nationalities from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Chad, Portugal, Sudan, the United Kingdom and Canada were also present. As the flight manifest was released, stories began to emerge about the lives that were lost.

In Remembrance
The co-pilot of flight MS804, Mohamed Assem, was remembered by family and friends for his resilience and humor.

According to a childhood friend, Assem always wanted to become a pilot. “He used to write on his exams ‘Captain Mohamed Assem,’” a childhood friend told Newsweek Middle East, “His mother had passed a few years ago and he always said she was watching over him and protecting him.”

Marwa Hamdy, one of the two Canadians on board, was an IBM executive and mother of three who had relocated to Cairo a few years ago. Friends, work and childhood colleagues mourned her on social media, saying she was “an optimistic, kind and helpful person with a loving heart” a “kind, beautiful soul” and “a devoted and loving mother.”

Ahmed Helal was a plant manager at Procter & Gamble who held dual citizenship of Egypt and France. He was traveling to Egypt for a short holiday, according to his family. And British geologist Richard Osman was returning to Egypt for work, as his wife had given birth to the couple’s second child just two weeks prior to the crash.

Couple Ahmed El Ashry and Reham Mossaad, parents to three small children, had traveled to Paris for medical treatment as Reham had cancer. Their children had remained with their paternal grandmother in Egypt while they traveled.

Editors’ note: The original article has been edited to reflect an updated number of casualties in the EgyptAir crash. 

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