Russian plane crash: Theories on why jet disintegrated in midair – CNN

The flight

Flight 9268 was on its way from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg early Saturday when it dropped off radar about 23 minutes into the flight, Egyptian officials say.

Air traffic controllers apparently didn’t receive any distress calls.

“There was nothing abnormal before the plane crash,” Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamel said Saturday. “It suddenly disappeared from the radar.”

The website Flightradar24, which tracks aircraft around the world, said it had received data from the Russian plane suggesting sharp changes in altitude and a dramatic decrease in ground speed before the signal was lost.

The crash

The midair heat flash detected by the U.S. satellite over Sinai could suggest a number of scenarios, though U.S. officials say intelligence has ruled out a missile strike.

Analysts say heat flashes could be tied to a range of possibilities, including a bomb blast, a malfunctioning engine exploding or a structural problem causing a fire on the plane.

“The number of heat signatures is crucial,” said CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien. “If, in fact, only one was detected, that in some respects might steer one away from a missile launch and onto some idea of an explosion on board the aircraft.”

Russian jet crash investigation: The key questionRussian jet crash investigation: The key question

A top Russian aviation official has said the plane broke apart in midair.

Metrojet official Alexander Smirnov said the airline had ruled out technical problems and human error. Protection systems on the plane would have prevented it from crashing, he said, even if there were major errors in the pilot’s control equipment.

CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz said the disaster 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.”

Explosives expert Chris Owen, from Alford Technologies, told CNN that if swabs had been taken from plane debris quickly — while the wreckage was dry — it could be possible to identify any explosive residue in a lab.

“However, there would probably be quicker and more obvious evidence from the type of damage sustained by bits and pieces around the bomb,” he said. “Surfaces in the vicinity of any explosion would be expected to be bent, perforated, petaled, spalled, sheared, frayed, charred (especially fibers), melded by impact, and otherwise characteristically damaged.”

Owen said it would be hard to rule out a bomb blast just because evidence of one had not been discovered. “If a bomb is ruled out, it will likely be because another cause has been found,” he said.

Richard Quest: Russian plane crashed at what should have been flight's safest pointRichard Quest: Russian plane crashed at what should have been flight's safest point

The plane

The A321-200 was built in 1997, and the airline company Kogalymavia, which flies under the name Metrojet, had been operating it since 2012, Airbus said. The aircraft had clocked around 56,000 flight hours over the course of nearly 21,000 flights, the plane maker said.

So far, officials have said all its inspections were in order.

The aircraft passed a routine inspection before takeoff, Egyptian Airports Co. chief Adel Al-Mahjoob said Saturday.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aircraft incidents, the same plane’s tail struck a runway while landing in Cairo in 2001 and required repair. At the time, the aircraft was registered to the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, registration records show.

Kogalymavia’s Andrei Averyanov said the plane had been damaged in 2001, but had most recently been thoroughly checked for cracks in 2013. Not enough time had passed for major cracks to develop to a critical size since then, he said.

Smirnov, the Metrojet official, said that he had personally flown the plane in recent months and that it was “pristine.”

The victims

There were 217 passengers and seven crew members on board Flight 9268. Of the passengers, 209 were Russian, four were Ukrainian and one was Belarusian. The citizenships of three other passengers are unknown.

Russian media reported that the disaster created a large number of orphans in Russia, as a lot of parents left their young children with relatives while they took vacations in Sharm el-Sheikh.

‘Tragedy to lose so many children’

Most of the bodies retrieved at the crash site are intact, a medical source in Sinai told CNN on Monday, and showed no major burns.

The photo of 10-month-old Darina Gromova posted by the baby's mother before a family trip to Egypt.The photo of 10-month-old Darina Gromova posted by the baby's mother before a family trip to Egypt.

The investigation

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will allow “the broadest possible participation of Russian experts in the investigation,” according to the Kremlin.

Russian officials have joined their Egyptian counterparts at the crash scene. Putin has also ordered a Russian investigation, the Kremlin said.

Aviation investigators from France and Germany, the countries where the plane was manufactured, are also taking part.

The aircraft’s engines were manufactured in the United States. If the plane’s engines become a focus of the investigation, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will likely dispatch a team to Egypt as well, a U.S official with knowledge of the investigation said.

Egypt has begun to analyze data off the plane’s flight data recorders known as “black boxes,” Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry announced Tuesday. Experts started retrieving data from the recorders on Monday, the ministry said.

Photo of one of Flight 9268's "black boxes" released by Egypt's Ministry of Civil Aviation.Photo of one of Flight 9268's "black boxes" released by Egypt's Ministry of Civil Aviation.

The region

Sharm el-Sheikh, where Flight 9268 began its journey, is a beach resort dotted with palm trees at the southern tip of Sinai. The plane crashed about 300 kilometers (185 miles) farther north, near a town called Housna, according to Egyptian authorities.

Sinai has been a battleground between ISIS-affiliated militants and Egyptian security forces in recent years. Hundreds have died in the fighting.

Is it safe to fly over war zones? How low can planes go?

The militants appeared to claim responsibility for bringing down the Russian passenger jet in a statement posted online Saturday, but officials in Egypt and Russia disputed it.

Russian jet crash investigation: The key questionRussian jet crash investigation: The key question

Mahjoob, the airport official, said there was no evidence of a terrorist attack. And Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim that terrorists brought down the plane with an anti-aircraft missile “cannot be considered reliable,” according to RIA Novosti.

The Egyptian military said militants in Sinai have shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft weapons that shoot only as high as 14,000 feet, far short of the more than 30,000 feet at which Flight 9268 was flying when it dropped off radar.

Metrojet executives also said Monday that it was too early in the investigation to speculate or draw any conclusions. But Smirnov referred to purported footage of the crash posted by militants, saying: “Those images you have seen on the Internet; I think they are fake.”

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