The crash site of EgyptAir Flight 804 deep in the eastern Mediterranean has given up all its secrets. Investigators into the crash now have a complete and detailed map of the field of debris. The Daily Beast can reveal that the specialized deepsea search vessel John Lethbridge has completed its mission and left the area after completing the mapping.
Although Egyptian officials have yet to announce what has been disclosed by data downloaded from the flight recorders of the Airbus A320, the picture of the debris field is equally important to understanding what happened. Small details can provide big clues—in this case the role that control surfaces played when pilots lost control of the flight.
Whether the debris is spread across a large area or more concentrated should also help to explain a highly unusual feature of this crash: There was very little debris left floating on the surface, nor were any bodies recovered floating in the days immediately following the crash in May. This suggests that most of the airplane and all of the passengers and crew went to the sea bottom at the site some 180 miles north Alexandria, Egypt.
Experts have been impressed by the speed and success of the search carried out by the John Lethbridge, owned by the Mauritius-based company DeepOceanSearch.
Although the John Lethbridge is a relatively old vessel—it was built in 1965 as a fishing trawler in the northern England port of Hull—it was fitted out in 2006 with some of the world’s most advanced deepsea search equipment. Its team of 20 specialists includes mine warfare veterans from the French navy.
Nicolas Vincent, the operations manager of DOS, told The Daily Beast that the John Lethbridge was working off the coast of Ireland when they received the Egyptian request to search for the wreck. The ship was resupplied and left for the eastern Mediterranean within six hours of the call.
It took 12 days to reach the site where it joined a French naval vessel, the Laplace, that had sailed at speed from the port of Toulon immediately following the crash. The Laplace was on station at a location that had been indicated as the probable crash site by signals received by a satellite from a device on the Airbus, an emergency locator transmitter, ELT. Within days the French vessel picked up a signal from a beacon on one of the flight recorders, confirming that this was the crash site.
In less than a week, in the early hours of June 17, the crew of the John Lethbridge, using a sonar-scanning towfish, with state-of-the-art navigation aids similar to those used on submarines, located the cockpit voice recorder and, soon afterwards, the flight data recorder at depths believed to have been around 10,000 feet.
The John Lethbridge then deployed its Comanche remotely operated vehicle, ROV, capable of reaching depths of up to 18,000 feet, to retrieve the black boxes and these were then passed to investigators in Alexandria. The cockpit voice recorder was found to be damaged by exposure to seawater and was sent to Paris where investigators were able to repair it so that conversations between the pilots could be retrieved.
First priority of the search after the retrieval of the flight recorders was to use the ROV to get close-up images of the forward section of the A320’s fuselage, including the flight deck. This quickly established that there was evidence of heat damage, possibly from a fire, which is consistent with data sent in seven brief bursts from the airplane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, ACARS, before it plunged into the Mediterranean.
The DOS team was then given the grim task of mapping and finding human remains. A team of Egyptian and French pathologists was on board the John Lethbridge. All the human remains that were located have been retrieved and sent to Cairo.
Egyptian investigators are using DNA analysis to identify victims, but the condition of the human remains will also be a crucial part of the forensic investigation into the crash. The kind of injuries sustained can give important clues to the role smoke and fire may have played.
This is vital because one of the most pressing questions has always been why there was no distress call from the pilots. One possible reason could be that the airplane’s communications system in the electronics bay beneath the flight deck had already been disabled by a fire before the pilots realized they had an emergency.