At approximately 3:30 a.m. this morning local time in Greece — or 8:40 p.m. yesterday Eastern time — EgyptAir flight 804 vanished from air-traffic-control screens over the Mediterranean Sea. The plane, an Airbus A320 short-haul jet carrying 66 passengers and crew, was three and a half hours into a regularly scheduled flight from Paris to Cairo.
The airliner’s last known position was midway between Crete and the Egyptian mainland, ten miles past the boundary between Greek and Egyptian air-traffic-control zones. The plane’s flight crew had been in radio contact with Greek controllers half an hour before, when first entering Greek airspace, but did not acknowledge calls made three minutes before the disappearance.
Flight data automatically transmitted by the aircraft’s GPS locator — officially known as an ADS-B system — was recorded by the flight-tracking site FlightAware and showed that the plane was flying normally at 37,000 feet and 613 mph when transmissions suddenly ceased at 3:29:21 a.m. This type of data is considered highly unreliable, however, and Greek authorities have reported that during the period from 3:27 to 3:29 a.m. that the plane was detected on military radar as it “made a 90 degree swerve left and dropped from 37,000 feet to 15,000 feet before swerving 60 degrees right and vanishing at 10,000 feet.”
The plane’s abrupt loss of contact and apparently steep rate of descent suggest a catastrophic event — something abrupt and highly destructive — took place onboard. But that could mean a number of things:
A bomb attack is one possibility. Two months ago, a man wearing a fake suicide belt hijacked an EgyptAir flight from Alexandria to Cairo and was arrested after the plane landed in Cyprus. And last October a Russian airliner crashed shortly after takeoff from Cairo when a bomb exploded. But Stratfor analyst Fred Burton notes: “EgyptAir Flight 804 originated in Paris. Security measures at Charles de Gaulle Airport are stringent compared with those of many other airports, and security has been raised since the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.”
A surface-to-air missile attack cannot be ruled out yet, according to Burton. “Though militants in Egypt and surrounding areas are not believed to have access to missiles capable of hitting an aircraft at that altitude,” he says.
Murder-suicide is also on the table. In air-crash circles, the name EgyptAir is synonymous with EgyptAir 900, which crashed off Nantucket in 1999 when one of the junior pilots deliberately steered into the ocean.
Spontaneous mechanical failure is also a possibility. In 2002, a 747 flying a China Airlines Flight 611 experienced catastrophic decompression at 35,000 feet when an old repair to its pressure hull suddenly failed; the airframe came apart so quickly that the flight crew had no time to issue a distress call.
Given that the plane’s final moments were captured on military radar, the weather was fair, and the Mediterranean is highly trafficked by both ships and aircraft, it stands to reason that the wreckage would be found pretty quickly. But as of Thursday afternoon, sources are giving conflicting reports about whether debris has been recovered.
Egyptian officials have claimed that debris from the missing aircraft has been found floating in the ocean. Shortly after 1 p.m. Eastern time EgyptAir tweeted that “the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation has just received an official letter from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declaring the finding of wreckage of the missing aircraft No. MS 804.near Karpathos Island.”
But Greek officials are denying that account, saying the wreckage doesn’t belong to the missing jet — or maybe to any plane at all. Athanasios Binis, the head of Greece’s Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board, told reporters “the analysis of the debris indicates that it does not come from a plane.” He added that his “Egyptian counterpart also confirmed to me that it was not yet proven that the debris came from the EgyptAir flight when we were last in contact.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, is reporting that the debris was found more than 200 miles to the south, just off the Egyptian coast.
If either of those locations prove correct, they are more than 100 miles from the last known position of the missing airliner, suggesting that the plane could not have been immediately destroyed, as initial reports suggested, but must have flown on for several minutes before hitting the sea.