Once more Egyptian officials have managed to add mystery rather than light to an air crash investigation. The country’s Civil Aviation Ministry said Thursday that traces of explosive have been found on some victims of EgyptAir Flight 804 that dived into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19 this year.
The officials said that they are now launching a criminal investigation into the disaster, which killed 66 people.
This obviously implies an act of terrorism—that a bomb had been planted on board the Airbus A320.
But the brief announcement is an extraordinarily inadequate step in publicly addressing questions of what happened to the flight. The Egyptians must have a great deal more evidence than is revealed by this one statement; they have had six months in which to examine the airplane’s two black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.
As well as having retrieved bodies from the crash site deep in the Mediterranean they also have a visual record of the condition of the airplane’s wreckage, and a detailed map of the debris field.
And they also have crucial evidence from seven failure messages sent automatically from the Airbus in the final seconds before it entered its death spiral.
In the case of this disaster the deep sea search for the wreckage was unusually swift and successful, pinpointing the airplane’s position, at a depth of around 9,000 feet, retrieving the flight recorders, making a visual record of key airplane parts, retrieving bodies and completing the mapping of all of the debris all within less than a month of the crash.
This operation, led by the Mauritius-based company DeepOceanSearch, yielded a faster and far more comprehensive picture of the physical condition of the airplane and the invaluable flight recorder data than anyone could have expected. Nothing has been seen like it in previous over-the-water disasters.
And yet only silence has followed.
Contrast this with the case of Air France Flight 447 that disappeared over the southern Atlantic Ocean in 2009. That tragedy happened on June 1 and only a month later, on July 2, French investigators were able to release a preliminary report based only on the evidence gathered from floating debris, 50 bodies and a similar burst of automatic failure messages.
Not only that, but the report was able to give a clear indication of what had caused the disaster, a shutdown of the airplane’s computerized flight controls as a result of a flawed instrument—and this was confirmed two years later when the wreck was located.
So in this case, during those six months that have elapsed since the evidence was retrieved from the Mediterranean, the Egyptians must have been able to fully interrogate the evidence in order to understand what happened—and there are really only two possibilities given the speed of the disaster, an act of terrorism or a technical failure.
We already know from those seven automatic failure messages that a rapid cascade of events played a part in the airplane’s fate. The first two messages indicated an electrical problem in the cockpit window de-icing system. The next was a warning of smoke in the forward toilet immediately behind the cockpit. There was a third warning of a further cockpit window electrical failure and then, far more serious, of a failure of the Flight Control Unit.
What had happened was that the airplane’s electronic “brain”—computers directing its control systems—had for some reason been fried. And the final message, inevitably following that failure, was of the flight controls themselves going crazy, which would explain why air traffic controllers in Greece noted a violent and sudden departure from the Airbus’s cruise altitude of 37,000, feet and a subsequent spiral downward.
It all happened so fast that the pilots were unable to send a Mayday message.
The other salient missing message in this catastrophe is of any claim by a terrorist group to have been responsible.
The Airbus’s routes in the previous hours had taken it from Asmara, Eritrea, to Cairo, from Cairo to Tunis and from Tunis the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
It’s obvious that any suggestion of foul play immediately turns attention to this route—where could a bomb have been planted without being detected?
The warning of smoke in the forward toilet could indicate a location where a relatively small explosion could be devastating. Not only is it immediately behind the flight deck, but it is also above the electronics bay, where the plane’s brain is vulnerable to a blast from above.
This is, however, difficult to reconcile with the Egyptian announcement of explosive residue found on bodies. (The human remains retrieved during the underwater operations were examined first aboard the ship by medical professionals and then stored in a refrigerator unit.) A small and expertly planted explosive in a toilet would not generate the kind of blast that could leave a trace on passengers seated in the cabin—if the explosion were that powerful it would have ripped open the cabin and that would have been sufficient to cause sudden decompression, whereas the failure messages clearly show that the decisive damage was in the electronics bay.
(On the other hand, if residue was actually on the bodies of the pilots, this would confirm a more targeted explosion, and possibly why there was no Mayday call.)
None of this kind of speculation would be necessary if the Egyptians were confident enough in their evidence to release a preliminary report of the complete forensic analysis they have made.
In fact, they have not even been willing to release the bodies of those who died. France repeatedly has asked that the cadavers be repatriated, repeating the request to the Egyptians again on Thursday, and offering once again to help in the investigation.
Through these long months of confusion and obfuscation, the families of the French victims have grown quite bitter. Stéphane Gicquel, head of a French organization representing the survivors of terrorist attacks and catastrophic accidents, called the Egyptian statement a “manipulation,” a falsification or twisting of the information.
“There is nothing to support the idea of a terrorist trail. It’s extorsion on the part of the Egyptian authorities to make this hypothesis credible and protect EgyptAir by pushing the responsibility back onto Paris.”
The Bureau of Investigations and Analysis (BEA), which did such extraordinary work in the Air France 447 case, greeted the news out of Cairo with circumspection, to say the least: “In the absence of detailed information about the conditions under which samples were taken and the measures that lead to the detection of traces of explosive, the BEA considers that it is not possible at this stage to draw conclusions about the origin of the accident.”
This is another disturbing example of the lack of transparency, contradictory statements and general confusion shown by Egyptian officials following the crash of a Russian-owned Airbus over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.
— Additional reporting by Christopher Dickey in Paris.