CAIRO/MOSCOW/DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – The Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt killing all 224 people on board appears to have broken up in midair, scattering debris over several kilometers of rugged terrain, according to senior aviation officials who visited the crash site.
Parts of the crashed jet fell over an area about 8 km long and 4 km wide, Alexander Neradko, the head of the Russian Federal Aviation Authority, told Russian state television. Evidence suggests the plane broke apart at high altitude, he said.
Viktor Sorochenko, executive director of the Interstate Aviation Committee, which includes nearly a dozen ex-Soviet states, gave a similar appraisal, according to Interfax.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday sent a message of condolences to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the families of those affected.
The Metrojet Airbus A321 crashed on Saturday 23 minutes after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El- Sheikh, bound for St. Petersburg. Egyptian officials have indicated technical issues were the cause, and have dismissed a claim of responsibility issued by the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate. The flight’s data recorders have been recovered and are being studied.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said the investigation must be allowed to run its course.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” El-Sisi said in televised comments. Egypt doesn’t “have a problem cooperating with the different sides to find out the truth,” he said.
His call for patience came amid conflicting reports about the plane’s condition, and questions about preliminary indications it was wildly fluctuating in altitude in the final seconds of the flight. Amid the uncertainty, several airlines diverted their aircraft from the area, at least temporarily.
Egyptian and Russian officials have largely discounted the possibility that the Islamic State was able to shoot down the jetliner, which had reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet, given the group’s limited capability and access to the weaponry that would be required. Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, an army reserves general, however, said “other scenarios also have to be considered, especially the possibility that the plane was sabotaged at the airport before taking off.”
Debris was scattered over a wide arc in central Sinai’s remote Al-Hassana area, about 60 km south of the city of Al-Arish, where security forces have been waging a concerted fight against militants. Authorities have recovered at least 173 bodies, according to Egypt’s state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper, with most already transferred to Cairo’s main morgue. A flight carrying the bodies of 100 of those who died was expected to leave for Russia Sunday evening, Interfax reported.
Midair breakups are very unusual on large airliners and have almost always been linked to some extreme event, such as a bomb or a significant structural failure, according to accident investigation experts.
“It’s very rare with a modern airplane,” said Steve Wallace, former chief of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s crash investigation division.
Airbus builds its planes with computerized flight protections designed to prevent pilots from accidentally losing control, making it even more unlikely, said John Cox, chief executive officer of aviation consultant Safety Operating Systems.
Previous airliner midair breakups include Pan Am Flight 103, which fell from the sky over Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988, after a bomb exploded in a cargo hold; and TWA Flight 800, which blew apart over the ocean when its fuel tank exploded on July 17, 1996, soon after departing from New York.
An Airbus team, along with the Russian officials, arrived in Egypt. The country’s Civil Aviation Ministry issued a statement saying Egypt had the necessary equipment and expertise to carry out the investigation and the analysis of the black box data.
Information gleaned from the devices — one of which records cockpit conversations while the other tracks the route and monitors equipment aboard the flight — could prove pivotal in determining the cause of the crash of an aircraft that had been in service for about 18 years.
Russian authorities set up an investigation committee to study all possible reasons for the crash, Interfax reported, citing the body’s spokesman Vladimir Markin. Investigators have taken possession of all documentation regarding the downed plane from the airline. Authorities also banned Metrojet A321 flights.
The co-pilot’s former wife told Russia’s NTV channel that her husband had been worried about the aircraft’s technical condition. While Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said the pilot hadn’t made an SOS call, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel reported he had sought permission to land at a nearby airport.
Air France, the French unit of Air France-KLM Group, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Emirates Airlines and FlyDubai said they would avoid flying over the Sinai area until the cause of the crash is known.
Flight paths came under public scrutiny following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, an area some airlines skirted because of fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists. Investigators said that crash, which killed 298 people, was caused by a missile.
In its final seconds Saturday, the Metrojet plane appeared to be bucking wildly, abruptly climbing and descending before communication was lost, according to unverified data from FlightRadar24.com, which tracks flight routes. At times it dropped as fast as 6,000 feet per minute, only to reverse and climb even faster, repeating that pattern several times. It also slowed dangerously. In the final 24 seconds before losing contact, it dropped to 71 miles per hour from 470 mph, according to the data. Jetliners such as the Airbus 321 cannot stay aloft at such a speed.
Two other accidents occurred with Airbus aircraft climbing sharply before losing speed and falling. In June 2009, an A330 operated by Air France went down in the Atlantic Ocean and in December 2014, an A320 operated by AirAsia Bhd. crashed in the Java Sea.
The A320 family is Airbus’s most popular plane, a single-aisle, twin-engine type that allowed the company to create a global duopoly with Boeing Co. for large passenger aircraft. The A321 is the longest variant.
The plane, operated by Metrojet since 2012 and produced in 1997, had logged about 56,000 flight hours over the course of nearly 21,000 flights, according to a statement from Blagnac, France-based Airbus.
Metrojet is not attributing the crash to human error, Interfax reported, citing Oksana Golovina from Tourism Holding & Consulting, which owns Kogalymavia, as the carrier is known in Russia.