Egyptair Flight 804, an Airbus A320, went missing on the 19th of May 2016, crashing into the Mediterranean between Greece and Egypt. The aircraft was 12 years old and the crew were reasonably experienced.
On the day of the loss, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry stated that Flight 804 was probably attacked. Did the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry know something that had not been released to the media, since nothing in the publically available information supported that conclusion? On the same day, US Presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted, “Looks like yet another terrorist attack. Airplane departed from Paris. When will we get tough, smart and vigilant? Great hate and sickness!”, but later that day his comments were supported by a CNN report where US officials suggested this was an act of terrorism.
Again on the 19th, Jean-Paul Troadec, former president of the French air accident investigation bureau (BEA) said, “We have to remain very careful after the disappearance from the radars of the Egypt Air aircraft. The priority is to begin the investigation and to find, if possible, debris from the aircraft and eventually, the site of the wreckage. We can make certain hypotheses… there is a strong possibility of an explosion on board from a bomb or a suicide bomber. The idea of a technical accident when weather conditions were good, seems also possible but not that likely. We could also consider a missile, which is what happened to the Malaysia Airlines aircraft in July 2014.
“If the crew did not send an alert signal, it is because what happened was very sudden. A problem with an engine or a technical fault would not produce an immediate accident. In this case, the crew did not react, which makes us think of a bomb.”
What he said was reasonable and he suggests that it is prudent to wait until all of the evidence is available, but he all but said it was an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).
The 19th was a busy day for speculation and, since then, there has been an endless line of people speculating about, and reacting to, a terrorist incident.
I have said many times before that we do not speculate about incidents until there is proof. To some extent that is true, but we do speculate within our circle of acquaintances. So I am going to start with a bit of speculation, if only to show that the ‘facts’ can support a range of circumstances and, until all of the evidence has been collected, none of it is anything more than a mind game.
On the 21st of May, the media reported the following Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) messages from Egyptair 804. (ACARS is simply a link between the aircraft and the ground.)
00:26Z 3044 ANTI ICE R WINDOW
00:26Z 561200 R SLIDING WINDOW SENSOR
00:26Z 2600 SMOKE LAVATORY SMOKE
00:27Z 2600 AVIONICS SMOKE
00:28Z 5611100 R FIXED WINDOW SENSOR
00:29Z 2200 AUTO FLT FCU 2 FAULT
00:29Z 2700 F/CTL SEC 3 FAULT
No further ACARS messages were received.
I did not take much interest in the messages on the 21st since it was my birthday, but I did look on the 22nd, which was a Sunday and reasonably quiet, so l decided to look at Egyptair. Some of the experts were still saying that the smoke mentioned in the ACARS messages was a sign that this was a terrorist IED.
I looked at the available evidence and considered what else would ‘fit the facts’. My speculation could be way, way off, but I thought these messages could reasonably support another hypothesis.
The first message says that there is a fault with the anti-ice on the right window, the first officer’s side of the aircraft. The next indicates that there is a fault with the sliding window next to the first officer, then almost immediately (I say then because, although the times are almost the same, the order of the messages would suggest an order of events) there is ‘smoke’ in the lavatory and then ‘smoke’ in the avionics bay. Then another report of an error in the fixed window on the first officer’s side of the aircraft, then an issue with one of the autopilot control units (there are two control units) and finally something has happened to the system that controls the wings spoilers.
A few weeks ago, my business partner, Bill Dent, and I were returning from Bhutan after conducting an assessment of the country’s aviation security when our aircraft was hit by hail and, among other things, both pilot’s windows were cracked, so the idea of what could happen if a window on the flight deck blew is something I have considered recently.
So here is a story (pure speculation) that could fit the reports from the ACARS; but I will start with a narrative about a previous incident.
In 1990, a British Airways BAC 111 had a window blow out at 17,400 feet; it was the window immediately in front of the captain. The explosion immediately filled the fuselage with condensation (mist/fog), the flight deck door blew into the flight deck jamming the throttles and the captain was sucked from his seat so that his upper body was outside of the aircraft. He was saved by a flight attendant grabbing him and holding him while the first officer flew the aircraft. This was all at 17,400 feet; 20,000 feet lower than the Egyptair aircraft. The accident was caused by incorrect screws being used to secure the window following a repair.
So, on the 22nd of May, I started to speculate that the evidence from the ACARS also supported the hypothesis that a window on the side of the aircraft next to the first officer, possibly the sliding window, was damaged and blowing out from the aircraft. Remember, the aircraft is flying at 37,000 feet, so this would be a rather violent event.
Many years ago, when I was in the Navy, part of my training was at RAAF Base Point Cook where one of the subjects was Aviation Medicine. As part of that subject, we had a number of exercises in a hypobaric chamber. One of those exercises was a rapid decompression and I remember the chamber filling with a reasonably thick mist; as happened in the British Airways aircraft. I do not believe that the sensors in the toilets and avionics bay can tell the difference between mist and smoke.
So why did the crew not put on their oxygen masks immediately and bring the aircraft down to a safe altitude? A window blowing out at 37,000 feet would not be like a simulator exercise or a hypobaric chamber. In the British Airways incident, the whole flight deck door flew off! So here you are at 37,000 feet with a maelstrom and everything not tied down trying to fly out the hole in the side of the flight deck. Even worse, at that altitude you have about 30 seconds of useful consciousness. At this point, I thought this was a reasonable fit for most of the ACARS messages, but it was still just a mind game. I mentioned the speculation to some friends, but that was about it.
Then on the 24th I was talking to someone and they made the comment that even if the crew were killed or incapacitated, the autopilot would keep flying the aircraft, which I thought a reasonable point. I called a friend who was a training captain and ran through my speculation and the question of the autopilot. He said that the autopilot would continue to fly the aircraft but added that it used to be the practice that in the event of a rapid decompression with the possibility of an aircraft below your flight level, crew were to disconnect the autopilot and turn the aircraft 90 degrees from the airway and descend. He added that this was no longer the case, that now the autopilot should remain engaged and crew use it to get the aircraft to a safe altitude, but he thought that the previous method may still be included in some airlines’ training.
I still had questions, like why the crew did not grab their oxygen masks first. I do not know, maybe they were injured and not thinking clearly, maybe they thought they had longer and just wanted to get the aircraft down quickly – 30 seconds is both a long and a short time. Similarly, I do not know about the fault with the slats. What I do know is that I had a hypothesis that fit more facts than the idea of an IED.
Anyway, to the point of the article. Every time there is an aviation incident, all the talking heads put their speculation forward, generally on little evidence, and lately the first call is a terrorist incident. I understand the public’s thirst for news, but speculation can result in large amounts of money being spent (often in the wrong places), it alarms the public and makes them suspect that security at all airports is poor, it can adversely affect the economy of a country (Egypt’s tourism accounts for about 12 percent of gross domestic product – three times that of the US and Australia and it was already suffering after the loss of the Metrojet aircraft) and it can cause unnecessary grief for families as in the case of MH370 when the crew were accused on no evidence that they brought the aircraft down.
As I said, I have laid out a perfectly feasible theory about what happened to Egyptair 804. It is based on a few supportable facts and I would suggest fits the facts better than the theory that an IED destroyed the aircraft.
Could it be true? Certainly.
Could an IED have destroyed the aircraft? Certainly.
Could one of the pilots have committed suicide? Certainly.
Could there be a terrorist device that has not been seen before and this was simply a test? Certainly.
Should people have speculated on the 19th that this was almost certainly a terrorist event? Certainly not.
Should people be speculating now about what happened? Certainly not.
Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. As a security executive with Qantas Airways, Steve held a number of senior management roles covering all aspects of aviation security from policy development to airport operations. He was sent to New York immediately following the 9/11 attacks to manage the Qantas response and undertook a similar role following the 2002 Bali Bombings. On his return to Australia, he was appointed Security Manager Freight for the Qantas Group. Since 2007 he has been a director of AvSec Consulting in partnership with Bill Dent, a fellow former Qantas security executive. Today, AvSec Consulting provides consultants from the US, NZ, ME, Israel and Europe. Steve can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0404 685 103.