What We Know about the Russian Airliner Crash in Sinai

On Saturday, an Airbus A321 plane operated by Russia’s Kogalymavia under the brand name Metrojet crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula after losing radar contact twenty-three minutes after takeoff, according to Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry. Metrojet Flight 9268, which was flying from Sharm al-Sheikh to St. Petersburg and was at an altitude of 31,000 feet when it disappeared from radar screens, was carrying 217 passengers and seven crew members, all of whom were killed in the crash. The passengers included 214 Russians, four Ukrainians, and one Belarusian.

According to FlightRadar24, a flight tracking service based in Sweden, the airliner was descending rapidly at about 6,000 feet per minute before the losing contact with traffic control.

Officials said the wide distribution of debris over an area of approximately of 7.7 square miles was a strong indication that the plane did not hit the ground in one piece. Executive Director of Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee Viktor Sorochenko, told journalists that “disintegration of the fuselage took place in the air, and the fragments are scattered around a large area.”

Following the crash, an Egyptian search and rescue team and at least fifty ambulances were dispatched to the crash sight to search for survivors. Russia’s Emergencies Ministry sent five planes to the site of the crash, according to the Russian Embassy in Cairo. An Egyptian officer told Reuters that the Egyptian search and rescue team heard voices in a section of the plane. However multiple sources reported that no passengers or crew members survived.

Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported that seventeen children and teenagers were among the passengers. Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that the passengers included 138 women, sixty-two men, and seventeen children. The Ministry said a medical team had given serial numbers to the bodies of the dead who were found at the crash site and started taking measures to identify the bodies. A medical source told Al Ahram that military planes had transported some of the bodies to hospitals in Cairo and Suez.

On Saturday evening, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said that 129 bodies had been extracted from the crash site and that a Russian search and rescue team would join Egyptian efforts.

Earlier in the day, Ismail traveled to Sinai with several ministers, including Minister of Health Ahmed Emad El-Din Rady and Minister of Tourism Hisham Zazou, to monitor the rescue efforts and meet with Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhi before returning to Cairo.

On Monday, a medical source in Sinai told CNN that 175 bodies had been retrieved  from the crash site, most of which were intact.
Also on Monday, a Russian plane carrying the remains of 144 of the deceased passengers arrived in St. Petersburg. Another plane bringing more bodies was expected to depart Egypt later on Monday. Family members have been providing DNA samples at a crisis center close to the Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, the site of an impromptu memorial for the victims.

About the Plane

The Airbus A321 was built in 1997 and had been operated by Metrojet since 2012. The aircraft had flown 56,000 hours over the course of almost 21,000 flights. The A321-200 model, a highly automated aircraft that relies on computers to help pilots stay within safe flying limits, has been in service since 1994. The Irish Aviation Authority said that the plane was registered in Ireland to Wilmington Trust SP Services Ltd, which leased the aircraft to Metrojet.

A statement by Metrojet said that the plane’s captain, Valery Nemov, had  12,000 hours of experience in the air, including 3,860 hours in Airbus A321s.

CNN’s Aviation Analyst Richard Quest said that the fact that the plane was eighteen years old should not necessarily be a concern. “There are many aircraft flying around the United States that are as old, if not older,” he noted. More important is whether the plane had been properly maintained and the crew properly trained.

Russian Reactions and Investigation

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a day of national mourning on Sunday for the victims of the crash. He ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the crash, which has launched a criminal case against Metrojet under an article of the criminal code regulating “violation of rules of flights and preparations.” Metrojet officials say they have provided documents to the committee. Committee Spokesman Vladimir Markin also said a group of investigators and crime experts had been put together and was being sent to Egypt. “They will operate in agreement with the competent organs and together with the representatives of the Republic of Egypt in accordance with the norms of national and international law,” he said. Russian investigators also searched Metrojet’s Moscow offices and questioned Metrojet employees in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Markin said investigators also took samples of fuel from the airport in Samara where the plane had last been refueled.

The Russian Embassy in Cairo said it had been told by Egyptian officials that the pilot reported technical problems and had been trying to make an emergency landing at al-Arish, however Egyptian authorities, including Civil Aviation Minister Kamel, dispute that claim.

On Monday, Putin met with Minister of Transport Maxim Sokolov, who is heading the Russian investigation, for an update on the investigation’s progress. “I want to thank the people of St. Petersburg for the way they have responded,” Putin said in a statement. “The whole country has seen this, everyone in Russia, and I want to thank you for your words of sympathy and condolence. In such tragic hours, it is certainly very important to feel the support of those close to you and know you have the entire country’s sympathy over this terrible disaster.”

Egyptian Reactions and Investigation

Egyptian Cabinet Spokesman Hossam al-Qawish announced that a working group was formed in response to the crash under Prime Minister Ismail and includes the Ministers of Civil Aviation, Tourism, Interior, Social Solidarity, Health, and Local Development. The group also includes representatives from the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, and the ambulance Authority.

Speaking to high-ranking army officers in Cairo on Sunday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked for a moment of silence before urging the public not to jump to conclusions about the causes of the crash. He emphasized that determining the cause of the crash will require a lengthy investigation. “These are complicated matters that require advanced technologies and wide investigations that might go on for months,” he said. Sisi added that the Egyptian government has no plans to provide frequent updates about the investigation’s progress.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed his condolences for the victims of the crash and stressed Egypt’s commitment “to uncover the circumstances surrounding the incident, in full cooperation and coordination with the Russian side.”

Egypt’s general prosecution agreed to cooperate with Russian representatives while investigating the crash. Sisi spoke with Putin and promised to allow for cooperation in the investigation.  According to the New York Times, investigators from Russia and in Europe, where the Airbus was manufactured, flew to Egypt to assist in the investigation. Investigators from Egypt, Russia, France, and Airbus are all looking into possible causes of the crash.

On Sunday, Egypt’s top prosecutor Nabil Ahmed Sadek declared the crash site off limits while the investigation is underway. The decision bans the removal of any parts from the plane debris in the area without a permit and not until inspection is complete.

Safety Questions

Several claims about the safety level of the plane and the airline were made following the crash. Interfax, a Russian news agency, said that Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency had found violations when it last conducted a routine flight safety inspection of Metrojet in March 2014. However, according to Reuters, the airline reportedly remedied the breaches following the inspection.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, a project of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, the plane’s tail struck a runway while landing in Cairo in 2001 and required repairs for damages. The Daily Beast reported that the damaged occurred because the plane’s nose was pointing at too high an angle and hit the tarmac. The Wall Street Journal reported that it is not clear exactly what repairs occurred after this incident. On Saturday, sources said that the tail section of the plane was found separate from the rest of the fuselage, suggesting it could have split off in the air. At the time of the 2001 incident, the aircraft was operated by Netherlands-based Aercap and leased to Metrojet. However, Metrojet rejected the possibility that the incident could have caused fatal structural flaws to the airliner. Metrojet said the plane’s tail was checked every twenty-four months and any cracks or other problems would have been detected. However, a spokeswoman for Airbus could not immediately confirm the airline’s claim that it had conducted the repair, and a spokeswoman for AerCap did not immediately return calls from the New York Times requesting information.

The New York Times also said that there have been at least two previous cases in which planes either broke apart or became unmanageable long after similar tail repairs were completed. However Metrojet’s Deputy Director for Engineering Andrei B. Averianov said he was “absolutely confident” that the tail repair was not the reason for the crash.

Meanwhile, Russian state-controlled NTV on Saturday interviewed Natalya Trukhacheva, the wife of co-pilot Sergei Trukachev. She said her husband had complained about the plane’s condition. “Our daughter had a telephone chat with him just before the flight,” Trukhacheva said. “He complained before the flight that one could wish for better technical condition of the plane.” Averianov dismissed the claims, noting that the plane had taken off on time and had not been held up by technical problems.

An aviation team retrieved the plane’s black boxes—a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder—in order to determine the reason behind the crash. The data recorder stores information about the flight, including airspeed, altitude, engine performance, and wing positions. The voice recorder captures sounds on the flight deck that can include conversations between the pilots and warning noises from the aircraft.

On Saturday, Egypt’s Minister of Civil Aviation Hossam Kamel said the black boxes will be analyzed by a committee inside the ministry, noting that Russian representatives would participate in the process. On Sunday, Al-Ahram reported that the black boxes were in the possession of North Sinai prosecution, along with debris from the plane. However, Aswat Masriya reported Russian Ambassador to Egypt Sergei Kerbachenko as saying that the black boxes would be transferred to Moscow for analysis.  Kerbachenko said Egyptian and Russian authorities are fully coordinating on the investigation. Russia’s state-run official TASS news agency reported Monday that the black boxes had been inspected by Russian officials and were said to be in a good condition. A source from the committee analyzing the black box recorders said that the plane was not struck from the outside and that the pilot did not make a distress call before it disappeared from radar.

Competing Claims Over Technical Problems

On Saturday, a North Sinai security source said an initial examination found that the crash was due to a technical problem, but provided no further details. “I now see a tragic scene,” another Egyptian security officer told Reuters on Saturday at the crash site. “A lot of dead on the ground and many who died whilst strapped to their seats.” He said “the plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rock.”

An official from the Egyptian government’s Aviation Incidents Committee Ayman al-Mokadem said that the pilot was experiencing technical problems and had requested to land at the nearest airport. He said the plane seemed to have crashed during an attempt to shift directions in order to land at al-Arish Airport in North Sinai. However Civil Aviation Minister Kamel told a press conference in Cairo that communication between the plane and air traffic control seemed normal prior to the crash. “The crew didn’t even send an SOS and suddenly the plane disappeared off the radar,” Kamel said. He added that it is too early to determine the cause of the crash. Nevertheless, Egyptian Airports Company Chief Adel Mahgoub told CNN Arabic that the crash was mostly likely the result of a technical failure, even though the plane passed a routine check before takeoff. He said experts were going to Sharm al-Sheikh airport to view security camera footage of the plane. Egyptian security sources also maintained the crash was due to a technical malfunction.

Senior officials at Metrojet, the charter company that operated the aircraft, insisted that the plane and its crew were not at fault for the crash. “We absolutely exclude the technical failure of the plane, and we absolutely exclude pilot error or a human factor,” Metrojet’s Deputy Director for Aviation Aleksandr A. Smirnov said at a press conference in Moscow on Monday. Smirnov said that the crash could have been caused by “an external impact” or “a mechanical impact.” Although he said he did not believe that the the crash had been caused by a terrorist attack, he said an investigation was needed to determine the exact cause of the crash. He added that he had personally flown the plane in recent months and called it “pristine.”

Metrojet officials said that the pilot gave no indication that the plane was facing problems and did not send a distress call. The New York Times reported that the officials did not provide any documentation to support their claim that both the plane and its crew were not culpable.

Head of Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency Alexander Neradko said that Metrojet’s statements were premature and not based on facts. “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,” he said. He added that Egypt is maintaining control over the data from the flight recorders and is not providing records or transcripts to anyone, “be it of the flight recorders or on-ground recorders or radar data.” He agreed with other reports that “all signs prove that the structure of the plane disintegrated in the air at a high altitude.”

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said that the plane received a certificate of airworthiness this year. The IAA “conducted an annual review of the aircraft certifications in support of its annual Certificate of Airworthiness renewal process and all certifications were satisfactory at that point in time.” However, the authority added that oversight of the operation of the aircraft, including daily and monthly checks, was Russia’s responsibility under International Civil Aviation Organization rules. IAA Chief Inspector Jurgen Whyte, who is leading a three-person team joining the investigation into the crash, said readings from the black boxes, which are due in the next few days, would direct the investigation.

Meanwhile, RIA Novosti reported that Metrojet owes its staff two months worth of unpaid salaries. The Telegraph reported that Metrojet has experienced at least two serious accidents in the past five years, in 2010 and 2011. Metrojet, which was branded as Kogalymavia up until 2012, rebranded itself under its new name following the accidents.

ISIS Claims

The Sinai State, the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), claimed responsibility for the crash, stating that the plane was carrying “over 220 Russian crusaders.” The statement said the targeting of the plane was aimed at avenging the death of “dozens of Syrians on a daily basis by your air missiles,” referring to Russia’s recent air campaign in Syria. Both Egyptian and Russian officials have refuted the militant group’s claim.

However, on Monday, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in response to a question about whether a terror attack could have caused the crash, said that there are no grounds yet to rule out any theories for what caused the crash.

Egyptian security advisor Sayed Ghoniem told Daily News Egypt that the Sinai State could not have shot down the plane because they would have needed to possess accurate radars and anti-aircraft missiles. “How could they track a specific plane in a very crowded airspace?” he asked. He noted that the pilot would have been able to discover and report any guided missiles targeting the plane in advance of an attack.

According to the Associated Press, militants in northern Sinai have not shot down any commercial airliners or fighter jets to date, but there have been media reports that they have acquired Russian shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. These missiles, however, are only effective against low-flying aircraft or helicopters.

Reactions From the West

The State Department said that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to express his condolences and offer American assistance if needed. He described the crash as a tremendous tragedy and loss.

Meanwhile, US intelligence officials expressed skepticism regarding the Sinai State claiming responsibility for the crash. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.  and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas J. Rasmussen separately told a security conference in Washington on Monday that American intelligence and security agencies so far have no evidence that points to terrorism as the cause of the crash.

European Council President Donald Tusk expressed his condolences to the Russian people, saying “I would like to express my heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and my sympathy with the Russian authorities and people.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Putin to offer her condolences. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called Lavrov to express his sympathies. “The British people who know and love Sharm al-Sheikh will be especially sad that what should have been a happy holiday trip has ended in such tragedy for so many families,” he said.

Experts Weigh In  

Investigators will be looking into the weather at the time of the crash, the pilots’ experience, maintenance records, and other signs of irregularities. Experts say a combination of factors, both human and technical, could have caused the crash. CNN Aviation Analyst Peter Goelz said the fact that the plane broke into two pieces while in the air narrows down the causes of the crash. He suggested the crash could have resulted from “some sort of catastrophic failure, perhaps caused by an earlier maintenance problem. It could have been a center fuel tank that might have exploded.” Goelz said officials will have to examine the plane’s entire maintenance history to determine whether all repairs that had been ordered were completed. On Sunday, Russian prosecutors said that the quality of the fuel used by the airliner had met all necessary requirement.

CNN Aviation Correspondent Richard Quest wrote that it was “unusual” for an aircraft to plummet after only about twenty minutes in the sky. At that point, Quest said, the plane is on autopilot. “There is little that can or should go wrong,” he said. Quest noted that most accidents occur at takeoff or landing, and only about 10 percent take place when the plane is in the cruising phase, which he said should be the safest part of the flight.

Alain Bouillard, a former French accident investigator, said he could not think of a plausible scenario in which a mechanical problem could lead to midair breakup of the plane. “A rupture in flight after a technical fault seems to me highly improbable,” he said. 

Former Vice Chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board Robert T. Francis said he was surprised by Metrojet’s assertions that human and technical error were not to blame just as the investigation was getting underway. “Without the flight recorders having been read, and without more investigation of the fuselage, which is spread all over the place, I don’t think you can rule out anything,” he said.

Paul Hayes, Director of British aviation consultancy Ascend Worldwide, also said a midair breakup of the plane did not rule out mechanical faults or pilot error as a cause. He said that while terrorism was an unlikely possibility, it could also not be discounted. “Airplanes have broken up as a result of sabotage or a bomb on board, and also during efforts to recover that overstressed the airframe,” he said, referring to a pilot’s efforts to recover from a stall or spin at a high speed. “The breakup could have occurred during an out-of-control descent.”

Russian Institute for Civilian Aviation Research expert Alexander Fridland said the crash could have been due to problems with the plane’s electrical system, but discounted engine trouble as a reason. “If something is wrong [with the engine], the crew won’t take off,” he said. “They are not suicidal, after all.”

Industry Reactions

Several airline carriers suspended flights over the Sinai Peninsula follow the crash, including Lufthansa and Air France-KLM. “We took the decision to avoid the area because the situation and the reasons for the crash were not clear,” a Lufthansa spokeswoman told Reuters. “We will continue to avoid the area until it is clear what caused the crash.” A spokesman from Germany’s Ministry of Transport said a broad warning was issued against flight routes in the southeastern Sinai and that an already existing flight warning for northern Sinai would be kept in place.

On Sunday, Air Arabia, Emirates, and FlyDubai airlines announced that they would also be rerouting flights around the Sinai as a precaution until the risk of a surface-to-air missile attack could be discounted.

British Airways, EasyJet, and Virgin Atlantic all said they are continuing to operate normally in the region and will not cancel any routes or comment on flight paths.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency ordered Metrojet to suspend its fleet of Airbus A321s pending the ongoing investigation into the cause of the crash. The Agency said Metrojet must thoroughly analyze the situation and weigh all risks before a decision is made whether or not to allow the airline to resume flights.

Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Image: Photo: An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner which crashed at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)