Update: July 6, 2016
Information from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) of EgyptAir flight MS 804 indicates the crew was battling a fire. The cause of the fire isn’t known, but it seems to have been concentrated in the area of a forward lavatory and/or in the jet’s underfloor avionics compartment — an underfloor bay that houses electronic equipment. No transcript has been released yet, and details are still sketchy. The Airbus A320, bound from Paris to Cairo, crashed into the Mediterranean on May 18th.
Avionics bays are sometimes accessible from the cockpit or through a hatch in the forward cabin alcove, but most do not have built-in fire suppression or extinguishing systems the way cargo holds do.
The newest findings contradict the theory that a bomb brought the plane down — something that Egyptian authorities were insisting from the start, even with little or no evidence to support it.
The CVR was found under 10,000 feet of seawater. Vital as this recovery was, inflight emergencies can be complicated, and what the pilots say aloud doesn’t always paint the full picture. We’ll need the flight data recorder (FDR) logs to help with that. The CVR records conversation in the cockpit and between the pilots and air traffic control; the FDR tracks dozens, even hundreds, of status inputs from the plane’s internal systems and flight controls. Details from the FDR, which was damaged and had to be repaired by investigators in France, haven’t been made public yet. Even with all of the data available, it’s possible we will never know the exact source of the fire.
Update: May 22, 2016
Automated messages sent from the aircraft suggest that some type of fire had broken out prior to the crash. Whether this fire was caused by a bomb or other incendiary device, or by hazardous cargo, or by a malfunction in one of the plane’s systems, is so far unknown.
Meanwhile, some in the media have been making an issue over the lack of a distress call from the crew. This isn’t something to focus on, and is most likely meaningless. Communicating with air traffic control is not a priority when dealing with an onboard emergency. The task hierarchy calls first for dealing with the emergency itself: keeping the aircraft under control, troubleshooting the problem, running the checklists and so on. If and when time permits, ATC is brought into the loop. This is especially true if something happens during the cruise portion of flight — as it did in EgyptAir’s case — when communication matters are less urgent than they’d be during landing or departure.
Update: May 20, 2016
This again. David Soucie was on CNN this afternoon asking why we don’t have live streaming video from the cockpit of all commercial flights — something that CNN regular Miles O’Brien often advocates as well. Let me get this straight: you want to install live video feed, in real time, from each of the thirty thousand or so commercial airline flights that operate every day of the week. This data would be banked where, and by whom? And in the aftermath of a disaster, what would it show us? We’d see grainy footage of pilots dealing with something that the voice and data recorders (CVR and FDR) will tell us about in much greater detail later on. Even most serious malfunctions wouldn’t appear particularly dramatic, revealing themselves through system failures and whatnot depicted on the various cockpit screens and dials — data that would be difficult for cameras to record, and that, in any case, is already being recorded by the FDR. And in the event of something catastrophic, like a bomb, all you’re likely to see is the screen instantly going black. Or, if soemthing nefarious is going on, like a hijacking or other intentional act, the cameras could easily be disabled or covered over. To the media it’s a fantastic idea, because the cable channels would quickly have more pictures to tantalize us with. From an investigative point, however, this would be a gigantically expensive and complex investment for something that’d be of marginal help, and only in those exceptionally rare instances when the black boxes can’t be recovered.
I’m unsure how well, or how poorly, the cable networks been covering this particular crash. For the most part I haven’t been watching. CNN invited me on last week, but I was flying and unable to make the show. MSNBC called me as well. They asked me a few questions, then booked a different guest instead.
May 19, 2016
Some brief notes on the crash of flight MS804, the Airbus that disappeared late yesterday en route from Paris to Cairo.
At this point there’s little to go on, and the possibilities are many: sabotage, fire, hijacking, mechanical failure, crew error. It’s simply too early to know. People want fast and complete answers, but air crashes don’t yield to the insatiable demands of today’s 24/7 media. Evidence will reveal itself, literally piece by piece. It’s a slow process.
The jet reportedly made “sudden swerves” shortly before it disappeared from radar. Something, apparently, was going wrong, but such maneuvering is not, by itself, indicative of anything specific.
That said, the focus for now is on sabotage. Not because of any specific information — at least none that has been made public — but because, for better or worse, that’s the way we’re wired nowadays. (According to at least one online story, a threat was made against EgyptAir only days ago, targeting the exact aircraft — tail registration SU-GCC — that operated flight 804, but this story is unconfirmed and possibly a hoax.)
EgyptAir, meanwhile, has what many would describe as a spotty safety record. Among its fatal accidents was the 1999 pilot suicide that brought down flight MS990 after takeoff from JFK airport. I’m not entirely comfortable bringing this us up, however, as airline-to-airline safety comparisons are tricky. All large commercial carriers are safe. Some are statistically safer than others, but with accidents so few and far between, this is mainly an academic distinction. (For what it’s worth, which isn’t much, I flew EgyptAir only once, on a 60-minute hop up the Nile from Luxor to Cairo, and found the carrier no more or less professional than most other airlines.)
More worrisome, perhaps, is how the Egyptian authorities can be expected to handle the investigation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Egyptians still refuse to acknowledge the flight 990 findings, insisting that a bizarre malfunction, and not pilot suicide, was the culprit. And we still don’t have a clear understanding of what happened to the Russian jetliner that was bombed over the Sinai earlier this year.
The Airbus A320, which debuted in the late 1980s, is one of the most popular commercial jetliners ever built. Thousands are in service around the world. Catastrophic malfunctions can never be ruled out, but it’s unlikely that a defect in the aircraft itself was to blame.
Founded in 1932, EgyptAir is among the world’s oldest airlines. It flies a mixed Boeing/Airbus fleet of about sixty aircraft. The airline’s IATA code “MS” comes from the word Misr, the Arabic name for Egypt.