Egyptian authorities said they found wreckage and belongings from the missing EgyptAir plane that vanished en route from Paris to Cairo with 66 people on board, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation.
Egyptian military aircraft and naval ships Friday morning found personal items and parts of the plane about 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Alexandria, the country’s military spokesman said on an official Facebook page. The search, which has been ongoing since the plane disappeared early Thursday morning over the Mediterranean Sea, is continuing.
Salvage teams from Greece and Egypt have been joined by French investigators in the search for debris as authorities seek to piece together what happened to the Airbus A320 plane. The flight lost contact in the middle of the night in the wider area of the Strabo trench in the so-called Hellenic Arc in the sea south of Greece, where waters are as much as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) deep.
Authorities aren’t ruling out any possible cause for the disappearance, including a deliberate act or malfunction, though Egyptian Minister of Aviation Sherif Fathy said the possibility of a terrorist attack is higher than a technical failure. The Airbus jet made sudden movements before swooping into a deep descent before air-traffic control lost contact, according to Greek radar reports. Pilots sent no emergency signal, and their final contact with controllers revealed no signs of distress.
Salvage crews will focus on retrieving the flight and data recorders, so-called black boxes that store key flight metrics and voices and sounds from the cockpit that can help investigators pinpoint the cause of a crash. The condition of the debris and the way it is scattered may also offer early clues about the possible cause, with a wide field of small pieces pointing to a mid-air breakup of the plane, while large chunks might suggest the aircraft hit the water largely intact.
Retrieving the black boxes from the ocean bed can be an arduous process, particularly in great depths. It took salvage crews several years to locate and then pull up the devices from the doomed Air France AF447 flight that went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The missing Malaysian Air MH370 still hasn’t been found two years after it disappeared, with only some small pieces from the plane washed up thousands of miles from where crews continue to comb the sea bed.
The boxes, which are fortified and painted bright orange to facilitate their retrieval, typically emit a ping for several weeks to lead salvage crews to their location.
EgyptAir Investigators Race Against Time
Several factors come into play when searching for wreckage in an ocean. Sea currents, weather and the speed at which the jet hits the water are some issues to be taken into consideration, said Ken Mathews, a former accident investigators who’s worked with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as well as its U.K. and New Zealand peers.
“If they narrow down the likely area, then it’s only a matter of time,” Mathews said. “The Mediterranean is not a vast area, or so deep as an ocean.”
Investigators focused on the last minutes of the flight, which took off at 11:09 p.m. in Paris with 56 passengers, 7 crew and 3 security personnel. The aircraft, a modern single-aisle jet manufactured in 2003, was traveling a cruising altitude before disappearing from radar off the Egyptian coast. French air safety investigator BEA will dispatch three experts, accompanied by Airbus technical advisers, to help with the search and retrieve the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders.
While the cause of the incident hasn’t been identified mid-air emergencies are rare, especially for a relatively new plane. The weather in the area of the sea close to Egypt was also good, with no winds or clouds, the Hellenic Meteorological Service in Greece said. The sudden disappearance of an airliner at cruising altitude and with no distress call from the pilot at least raises questions of foul play, said Paul Hayes, director of air safety at London-based Ascend, an aviation consultancy.
“It is our duty to know everything about the causes,” French President Francois Hollande said at a press conference Thursday. “As soon as we know the truth, we’ll have to draw all conclusions, be it an accident or any other hypothesis,” including terrorism.
- Update: Massive Search Continues for Wreckage from Missing EgyptAir Flight
- EgyptAir Plane, Flying from Paris to Cairo, Vanishes from Radar with 66 on Board
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