Cairo // Smoke was detected inside an EgyptAir plane shortly before it plunged into the Mediterranean with 66 people on board, investigators said on Saturday.
Flight 804 sent automatic radio messages about smoke in the front portion of the cabin in the minutes before controllers lost contact with the aircraft on Thursday, French accident investigator BEA said. Two error messages, which started at 2.26am local time, suggested there was a fire on board, while later alerts indicated some type of failure in electrical equipment.
The Airbus A320 had been flying from Paris to Cairo when it plummeted and turned full circle before vanishing from radar screens, without its crew sending a distress signal.
A BEA spokesman said it was “far too soon to interpret and understand the cause of the accident as long as we have not found the wreckage or the flight data recorders”.
Search teams were scouring the eastern Mediterranean on Saturday for more parts of the plane and the black boxes, which will stop emitting a signal in a month when the batteries run out. Egypt’s army released images and video footage of debris recovered so far that show an intact yellow life jacket, seat cushioning, tattered clothes and EgyptAir-branded metal plane parts, quashing hopes of finding any survivors. Body parts have also been found.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, called Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to offer his condolences for the victims of the crash, the state news agency Wam reported.
EgyptAir’s chairman said priority was being given to finding the passengers’ remains and the flight recorders, or black boxes.
“The families want the bodies. That is what concerns us,” Safwat Moslem said. “The army is working on this. This is what we are focusing on,”
A French patrol boat carrying equipment capable of tracing the plane’s flight recorders is expected to arrive in the search area, about 290 kilometres north of Alexandria, on Sunday or Monday.
The crash-proof black boxes store key flight metrics and sounds from the cockpit that could definitively detail what downed the Airbus A320.
For now, the electronic signals from the aircraft offer a puzzling twist to what may have happened to the flight. While similar signals have preceded air accidents in past crashes, the warning messages are not associated with a sudden disappearance from radar.
“It’s too long for an explosion and too short for a traditional fire,” said John Cox, a former A320 pilot who is president of the Washington-based consultancy Safety Operating Systems. “It says we have more question than we have answers.”
Spanning three minutes, the warnings were followed by alerts that fumes were detected by smoke detectors, one in a lavatory and the other in the compartment below the cockpit where the plane's computers and avionics systems are stored, according to the Aviation Herald.
In the case of a mid-flight fire, the pilots would have been expected to radio a distress call and begin attempts to divert, Mr Cox said.
However, the fact that there was no distress call “doesn’t necessarily mean anything”, said Jean-Pail Troadec, a former BEA director.
“The pilots maybe had other things to do, reacting to the event. Sending a message is not the first priority,” he said.
The transmissions – which are sent automatically to ground stations so airlines can monitor whether a plane needs maintenance – will probably provide valuable clues once they are matched up against data from the flight recorders.
Another early clue would be the condition of the flight debris and the way it is found scattered, with a wide field of small pieces pointing to a mid-air break-up. Large chunks of wreckage might suggest the aircraft hit the water largely intact.
While Egypt’s aviation minister has pointed to terrorism as a more likely cause of the crash than technical failure, French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said nothing was being ruled out.
“At this time ... all theories are being examined and none is favoured,” he said after meeting relatives of passengers in Paris on Saturday.
The disaster comes just seven months after the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula in October that killed all 224 people on board.
The extremist group ISIL was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, but there has been no such claim linked to the EgyptAir crash.
Foreign governments issued travel warnings for Egypt and demanded a review of security at its airports after ISIL said it had smuggled a bomb concealed in a soda can on to the plane.
ISIL has been waging a deadly insurgency against Egyptian security forces and has claimed attacks in both France and Egypt.
* Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse