EgyptAir flight data show smoke alerts before crash; some remains, seats found

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CAIRO — New clues emerged Friday about EgyptAir Flight 804, but there were no answers as to what caused the plane to go down in the Mediterranean Sea.

There were smoke alerts near the airliner cockpit early Thursday in the minutes before it crashed, according to flight data CNN obtained Friday from an Egyptian source.

The data was filed through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), a data link for sending messages between planes and ground facilities. A screen grab of data has time stamps that match the approximate time the aircraft went missing.

The data doesn’t mean a fire occurred on the plane or that the crew even knew about the alerts, which are automatically transmitted, aviation experts cautioned.

Still missing are the most important clue: the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, sometimes called the “black boxes.”

“(The data) doesn’t tell us anything, whether it’s an explosion because of a bomb or because of a mechanical fault, but immediately it narrows down the area that we’re looking at,” CNN aviation analyst Richard Quest said. “We’re now no longer worried about wings or what else might have happened, or other flight control surfaces.”

The plane carrying 66 people disappeared while flying from Paris to Cairo.

Egyptian officials say they suspect terrorism, but no group has come forward to claim credit.

No survivors have been found, but searchers in the Mediterranean Sea located debris on Friday, including suitcases and human remains.

Data sent over a few minutes

Aviation experts held different views of what the ACARS data may signify.

There were indications of problems with a heated window in the cockpit, a sliding window in the cockpit, smoke in the lavatory, smoke in the avionics compartment below the cockpit, a fixed window, the auto pilot and the flight control system.

“It could have been either something mechanical that had failed, a short circuit, or it could have been an incendiary device of some kind as well,” CNN aviation analyst David Soucie said.

He said it was significant that the data was sent over a period of one to two minutes.

“Now if it it was a bomb, the characteristic bomb … (it) would have ruptured the skin of the aircraft,” Soucie said. “This is not the indication you would have had, because a bomb that would do that would be instantaneous, and these reports would not have gone over two minutes like they do.”

According to an aviation official and a former FAA official, the ACARS data, however, could be consistent with a catastrophic failure — be it from an intentional act or mechanical breakdown.

The aviation official said if there was a fire on board a plane, it would tend to burn slow enough for pilots to send an emergency message. These messages could have been a result of wires shorting out and malfunctioning as the plane broke apart.

The aviation official said the messages, while random, would be consistent with what would be sent by a system on a plane that is falling apart.

There have been electrical problems with window anti-ice heaters in A320s. In 2003, the FAA required windshields replaced in all A320s in the United States. It’s not known whether Egypt followed the FAA directive.


Confusion over debris

On Thursday, the airline’s vice chairman said wreckage of the plane had been found at sea, but those initial reports turned out to be false.

When searchers got close to the debris, they realized it was not from the missing airliner, EgyptAir’s Ahmed Adel said.

Hours after Adel retracted his statement, the military announced the sighting of the wreckage Friday.

“The presidency, with utmost sadness and regret, mourns the victims on aboard the EgyptAir flight who were killed after the plane crashed in the Mediterranean,” the Egyptian presidency said in a statement.

The airline expressed its condolences.

“The most important thing at this point in time is that we should make no speculation about what has taken place,” said Yehia Rashed, Egyptian tourism minister. “The situation should be based on facts.”

He stressed the importance of finding the so-called “black boxes” — the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder — to determine precisely what happened.

What went wrong?

While no theory has been completely ruled out, speculation on what caused the flight to crash centered on the possibility of a terror attack.

At some point before dropping off radar, the plane swerved 90 degrees to the left and then made a 360-degree turn to the right before plunging first to 15,000 feet, then 10,000 feet, and disappearing from radar, Greek officials said.

That sudden change in what had been an uneventful flight is why Egyptian officials are focusing on terror as the likely cause, a senior Egyptian official told CNN on Friday.

“The nature of the way the plane went down — the way it veered and then fell out of the sky leads us to believe this,” the official said.

What Greek officials described as swerving was likely pieces of the aircraft being picked up on radar as they fell from the sky, U.S. officials told CNN on Thursday.

As of now, investigators have found nothing implicating the flight crew or security officials aboard the plane, the Egyptian official said.

Miles O’Brien, a CNN aviation analyst, said that “it’s very difficult to come up with a scenario that jibes with some sort of catastrophic failure. (The evidence so far) leads us down the road to a deliberate act.”

French officials urged caution, saying it’s still too early to draw conclusions.

“All assumptions are reviewed, but none is favored,” Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France 2 network Friday. “We have absolutely no indication on the causes of this event.”

Ayrault said his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, was not leaning toward terrorism as the cause of the crash.

“He said he wanted all possibilities to be examined,” he told France 2.

Ayrault defended security measures at the Paris airport, saying they have been intensified since the November terror attacks.

Passengers and crew

Most of the passengers were Egyptian — 30 in all. But also aboard were 15 French citizens, including an infant. There were also passengers from Iraq, Britain, Belgium, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Chad, Portugal, Canada and Algeria, according to the Egyptian aviation minister.

Canada said two of its citizens were on the plane.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the British passenger had Australian citizenship as well. It is unclear whether any other passengers were dual citizens.

The search

Greece, France, the United States and other nations were searching about 130 nautical miles southeast of the Greek island of Karpathos, Greek aviation officials said.

The United States has three P-3 Orion aircraft involved in the search, the U.S. Naval Forces Europe said on its website, with more expected to relieve them throughout Friday and into Saturday.

Greece has offered the nations involved in the search the use of military bases on the island of Crete, Greek Defense Ministry spokeswoman Jorgo Poulos said.

The European Space Agency said Friday that its Sentinel-1A satellite had spotted a 2-kilometer (1.24-mile) oil slick near where the plane is believed to have crashed. The agency said it’s possible the slick could be from another source.

As crews searched, somber relatives gathered in Cairo and Paris airports, seeking word on their loved ones.

The investigation

The Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry has formed an investigative committee to look into the crash.

It will be led by Ayman al-Moqadem, the investigator who is also heading up the inquiry into the October crash of a Russian Metrojet airliner over the Sinai, the agency said in a statement. That disaster, which killed all 224 aboard, is widely believed to be the work of terrorists.

Earlier Friday, three French technical safety investigators and a technical expert from airplane manufacturer Airbus arrived in Cairo to help with the investigation, according to the French Embassy in Egypt.

The investigation will include looking at the aircraft’s flight crew as well as the ground crew members and anyone who had access to the plane in Paris, U.S. officials told CNN.

French investigators will focus on that aspect first, the U.S. officials predicted. It will be up to Egyptian officials to scrutinize the crew, security and passengers on the flight, the officials said.

Investigators looking at the wreckage will want first to locate the nose, tail and wings of the aircraft, Deborah Hersman, a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told CNN.

“They are going to be looking to check those control surfaces to make sure that they are intact, and certainly if there is any sign of an explosion or foul play, they are going to look for markers of that,” Hersman said.

“The flight data recorder is going to have potentially hundreds or a thousand parameters, everything from speed and direction to kind of control surface positions,” she said. “The cockpit voice recorder can be tremendously helpful because they can hear the communication not just between air traffic control and the pilots, (but also) between the pilots and each other, between the pilots and cabin crew.”

Other developments

— The plane’s captain had about 6,000 flying hours, EgyptAir’s Adel said. Maintenance checks on the plane had reported “no snags.”

— Checks of the passenger manifest have so far resulted in no hits on terror watch lists, officials with knowledge of the investigation said.

— An initial theory is that the plane was downed by a bomb, two U.S. officials told CNN. Officials said the theory could change, with one senior administration official cautioning it is not yet supported by a “smoking gun.”

— The jet had routine maintenance checks in Cairo before it left for Paris, the airline said. Earlier Wednesday, the jet was also in Eritrea and Tunisia, data from flight tracking websites show.

— The plane has been part of EgyptAir’s fleet since November 2003, according to Adel.