BURNING QUESTION

Did a Copilot’s Phone Bring Down EgyptAir Flight 804?

Investigators reportedly focused on devices seen where the first alarm went off on a flight that killed 66 people. It’s another warning about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The dangers posed to airline safety by lithium-ion batteries in personal electronic devices took on an unexpected dimension with a new French report about what may have brought down EgyptAir Flight 804 over the Mediterranean a year ago, with the loss of 66 lives.

The French daily, Le Parisien, reports that French investigators are looking at the possibility that the airplane’s copilot plugged a device – either an iPhone or iPad - into a cockpit socket not intended for recharging, and that this led to a “spontaneous combustion” of the batteries and the subsequent disaster.

The same paper in January published a graphic that they said was based on information from video surveillance at the gate at Charles DeGaulle Airport, showing that the copilot, who occupies the right hand seat, had placed two devices on a ledge (similar to the space above a car’s dashboard) next to a cockpit window, along with a personal bag containing two bottles of aerosol spray perfume. (This detail was, the paper said, retrieved from the scanning of the pilots’ hand luggage at security.)

However, that merely showed that, probably before the pilots began going through the departure checklist, the copilot had those devices with him. They would never have remained there. They would have had to have been stowed more securely before departure.

Le Parisien itself has, oddly, made a point of stressing that the copilot was carrying Apple devices. Lithium-ion batteries don’t discriminate in their behavior between the many brands of personal devices and they are common to most of them.

An Apple spokesman confirmed to The Daily Beast that they have not received any request to assist the French investigators and that if they did they would readily collaborate. “We rigorously test our products to ensure they meet or exceed international safety standards” he added.

There is, for sure, substantial circumstantial evidence that an electrical fire of some kind initiated the disaster, just before the airplane began its descent to Cairo. If the copilot did seek to recharge one of his devices he would logically have done so before this, during the cruise phase of the flight, when the airplane was on automatic pilot.

At the onset of the emergency the Airbus A320 sent seven automatic failure messages via satellite to the airline’s maintenance center. The first two indicated a problem in the cockpit window de-icing system. That was followed by a warning of smoke in a toilet immediately behind the cockpit. A fourth warned of an electrical failure in the cockpit window.

This picture of a rapidly cascading emergency triggered by an electrical fire  was reinforced when wreckage of the Airbus was located at a depth of around 9,000 feet. Images of the forward fuselage including the cockpit showed heat damage.

The story of this disaster has been bedeviled all along by the behavior of the Egyptian authorities. Although the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were recovered from the wreck and the data from them was successfully retrieved no details of the story they told have been released.

Families of the 15 French victims of the crash complained of the lack of information from Egyptian pathologists who examined bodies and body parts recovered from the wreck. In December the Egyptians said that some bodies showed traces of explosive, hinting at foul play, and that they had opened a criminal investigation.

After more protests from Paris the bodies of eight victims were returned to France in January.

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Le Parisien reports that French investigators, frustrated with the lack of cooperation from Egypt, have worked around the absence of information by pressing on with their own investigation, resulting in the new focus on electronic devices in the cockpit.

As it happens, this coincides with a renewed focus on the risks of fire aboard airplanes that originate in the batteries of personal electronic devices.

It was provoked by the recent negotiations between officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and European Commission officials in Brussels about imposing a ban on tablets and laptops in carry-on luggage on all flights between Europe and the U.S. In this case the reason was intelligence suggesting that terrorists are now able to adapt the batteries in devices into an explosive charge powerful enough to bring down an airplane.

But the European authorities have pushed back hard on the idea of a cabin ban because of the fear that devices placed with checked baggage in the cargo hold would increase the risk of fires triggered in lithium-ion batteries – fires that the standard fire suppression equipment is incapable of dealing with. European airline pilots have also warned against a ban for the same reason.

The talks between the U.S. and Europe ended without a conclusion. In effect, the idea remains in limbo. A DHS spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “There is no timeline and there is no deadline for a decision.”

As The Daily Beast has reported, there are well-documented examples of serious fires being instigated by devices carried in the cabin, including one on a Delta flight from Honolulu to Atlanta in December 2016. This began in a laptop. After the cabin crew exhausted five extinguishers before putting out the fire they then put the laptop with ice in a cooler bag for the rest of the flight.

In the case of the EgyptAir emergency the warning of smoke coming from the toilet immediately adjacent to the flight deck could indicate that a crew member was attempting to extinguish a fire in one of the copilot’s devices or in a device that had been brought into the cabin by a passenger, but that this got out of control.

There is no doubt from those seven automatic warnings that whatever caused the emergency it rapidly overtook the crew’s capacity to handle it. The final fault warning showed that Airbus’s main computer, its “brain” that managed all the critical flight controls, went into meltdown and that failure sent the airplane spiraling from 36,000 feet into the Mediterranean.

There is no record of any aviation accident being caused by a pilot recharging an electronic device from a cockpit socket. What remains the most salient and most puzzling lacuna in this story is the absence of a mayday message from the cockpit. As in all air accidents, in the absence of a clear, thorough and entirely credible report from investigators the public and especially the families of victims are left with a trail of theories and speculation and no single convincing explanation.

Christopher Dickey contributed to this report.