The cause of the tragic crash of a Russian airliner over the Sinai this past Saturday which claimed the lives of all 224 souls aboard remains unknown as of today. There are suspicions that terrorism may have played a role yet Islamic militants in the Sinai are not believed to have the capability to shoot down a commercial airliner. On the other hand preliminary reports indicate that the aircraft broke apart mid-air raising speculation that perhaps a bomb may have been involved. Whatever the case may be, this terrible loss of life will bring more attention to Russia’s’ airline safety record and ISIS-linked militants in the Sinai.
Russian plane crash in Egypt
Departing from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Kogalymavia (Metrojet) Flight 9268, an Airbus A321-200 was headed to St. Petersburg, Russia with 217 passengers and seven crew onboard. As it headed north over the Sinai, it disappeared from radar only 23 minutes after take-off early morning. Flightradar24, a flight tracking website shows the aircrafts climb to 30,875 feet followed by erratic altitudes and speed indications. Its last recorded altitude on that site was 27925 feet at a speed of 62 knots.
The crash site is over a wide area with the forward fuselage and wings comprising the main impact zone and other debris including the engines and tail section being found away from the main zone. Black boxes retrieved from the crash site are in good condition and appear to have only sustained minor damage. A medical source in Sinai told CNN on Monday that so far Egyptian medics have retrieved 175 bodies from the scene with most of them being intact.
Due to the nature of the crash site, Alexander Neradko, head of Russia’s federal Air Transportation told Rossiya-24 news channel on Sunday that the “plane broke down in midair at a high altitude.” What is known is that the plane was flying in good weather and that there were no distress calls made. Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamel said “There was nothing abnormal before the plane crash.” He added “It suddenly disappeared from the radar.”
Company officials at Metrojet have repeatedly denied that the cause of the crash was related to pilot error or an issue with the plane itself despite not knowing the cause of the crash. On Monday, Deputy General Director of Metrojet, Alexander Smirnov, has said that die to revelations about the aircraft breaking up in mid-flight, “We rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error,” and “The only explainable cause is physical impact on the aircraft.” When questioned on the reason for this assertion, he stated due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, he was not at liberty to say. Meanwhile Viktor Yung, Metrojet’s deputy CEO has stated “The plane went out of control. It was not flying. It was falling.. Apparently, by that time it had suffered considerable damage that did not allow it to proceed with the flight” insinuating that an external force was responsible.
Without a doubt, such claims are grossly presumptuous when the details of the crash are yet to be fully known. Russian airliners have a less than stellar safety record, particularly smaller carriers such as Metrojet and the record of that airline is also poor. Regardless, the company had no right to make such claims and Russian civil aviation authorities agreed. Neradko said on the Rossiya-24 news channel, “Such a statement is premature and is not based on any real facts”. He added “Much more work will have to be done on a detailed study of the plane’s constructive elements; flight recorders will have to be deciphered and analyzed.”
As of now, the flight recorders are to remain in Egypt and the investigation is being overseen by the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation. Neradko said “The Egyptian commission is conducting the investigation, and is giving no records and transcripts, be it of the flight recorders or on-ground recorders or radar data, to anyone.” Investigators from Airbus and the governments of Germany, France and Ireland have all arrived in Egypt to assist in the investigation.
Numerous authorities were quick to deny possible terrorist involvement in the loss of the airliner. Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov came out in response to such allegations Saturday saying, “Various media are reporting that the Russian Airbus, flying from Sharm El-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg, was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile fired by terrorists. This information cannot be considered reliable.” U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper has said that there is “no direct evidence” that terrorism was involved though such a possibility is not ruled out.
The ISIS-linked Sinai Province which operates in the region has claimed responsibility for downing the aircraft though this claim has been widely dismissed. Numerous experts though believe that the group lacks the capability to shoot down a civilian airliner at high altitude. While this group does have access to shoulder fired missiles, such weapons have a limited altitude engagement range which the Metrojet flying at 31,000 feet, was out of. On the other hand, there is the possibility that a bomb may have been brought onboard the aircraft.
Despite there being any direct proof in the aftermath of the crash suggesting the aircraft was downed by terrorists, German and French carriers, Lufthansa and Air France immediately suspended flights over the Sinai and rerouted them until the actual cause of the crash is determined. Lufthansa spokeswoman Bettina Rittberger said, “We will keep that measure in place as long as we are not sure of the circumstances and the reasons of the Metrojet crash”. An Air France spokeswoman said “Air France confirms it has set up, as a precaution, measures to avoid flights over the zone of Sinai”. On Sunday, these airlines were joined by Dubai-based Emirates, FlyDubai and Sharjah-based Air Arabia in avoiding the region.
The Aircraft and Metrojet
The aircraft that crashed was 18 years old and throughout its history, had only suffered one incident when in 2001 its tail struck the runway during a landing in Cairo. Andrei Averyanov, Metrojet’s deputy director general on the technical and manufacturing issues told journalists “The crew’s captain, who was on the ill-fated flight, did not register any complaints in the log book before the flight and the copy of the page is kept by the airport’s service.”
Reports though have emerged that seem to contradict Metrojet’s statements on the serviceability of the aircraft. Egypt’s local daily Al-Masry Al-Youm cited an unnamed source from Egypt Air on Monday who said that Egypt Air’s contract on maintenance service of aircraft belonging to Metrojet expired three months ago. The source said “inspection of the aircraft [by Egypt Air] did not take place before its flight.” Russian state television channel NTV on Saturday interviewed Natalya Trukhacheva, the wife of co-pilot Sergei Trukachev. She said that prior to the flight, over the phone he complained that the state of the aircraft “left much to be desired.” Furthermore, on Monday, reports emerged that Kogalymavia, the legal entity that owns Metrojet owes its staff two months in unpaid wages up to 70 million rubles (over $1 million USD).
Safety Record of Russian Civil Aviation
Over the past 20 years, 20 fatal events involving passenger flights on Russian airlines have occurred, with the loss of a total of 1,330 lives. Not all of the incidents have been due to aircraft human error or technical issues though; several have been the result of terrorism. On August 24 2004, Volga-AviaExpress Flight 1353 and Siberia Airlines Flight 1047 blew up in mid-air as a result of suicide bombers who were on board. Islamic separatists from Russia’s North Caucuses were found to be responsible for these acts of terror. In 2010 and 2011, aircraft owned by Kogalymavia were involved in two serious accidents
What is known is that Flight 9628 broke up in mid-air in its cruising phase. Many airline disasters occur during take-off or landing which are the most critical points in time during the flight of an aircraft. Metrojet does not have an appalling safety record yet reports have emerged that it has been without a maintenance contract for some time. In addition, the wife of the co-pilot has said that there were concerns over the maintenance of the aircraft. The erratic movements of the plane, its sudden loss of altitude and its mid-air break up suggest a sudden, catastrophic disaster which gave the aircrew little to no time to resolve.
Terrorism cannot be ruled out. ISIS linked militants have reason to strike at a Russian airliner due to Moscow’s involvement in Syria’s Civil War. While most talk on terrorism has been focused on the inability of terrorists in the Sinai to shoot down a civilian airliner, little has been on the possible placement of a bomb on the aircraft. An onboard explosive device could most certainly cause an aircraft to break up in mid-air.
On the other hand, Metrojet has been quick to explain the cause of the crash as anything but human error or a maintenance issue. With allegations about issues at the company, officials could be attempting to cover-up their own mistakes and in the process, trying to avoid the inevitable negative repercussions. Only time will tell though and a full investigation is being carried out including a detailed analysis of the planes black box flight recorders.
Ultimately, even if unwarranted, this unfortunate disaster will bring more scrutiny on Russia’s civilian air carriers. Additionally, more attention will now be provided to Islamic militants in the Sinai even if they were not responsible for the crash. Regardless the crash of Flight 9628 is a terrible tragedy.