Summary of Facts: Egypt Air flight 804
Let me start by saying that the first week after a catastrophe is always a hotbed of rumours. When an aircraft is lost at sea, it usually takes a few days to a week to find the wreckage and recover any information; however ever since Malaysia Airlines flight 370, MISSING AIRCRAFT!! is headline news, with every major network offering minute-by-minute updates even though there’s nothing much to say, yet.
Meanwhile, I know that this post in its entirety will be out-of-date very soon, probably as soon as first thing tomorrow morning. It’s frustrating. And yet, as usual, I can’t stand to ignore the gossip as media outlets try to make sense of investigation reports which they only half understand.
So, here’s what we actually know so far.
On the 18th of May, Egypt Air flight MS804 departed Paris Charles de Gaulle airport normally and without issue for its scheduled flight to Cairo. There were 56 passengers and ten crew aboard the Airbus 320-200. The crew consisted of two flight crew, five cabin crew and three sky marshals.
The flight crew was experienced: The captain had 6,275 hours (with 2,101 hours on type), the first officer had 2,675 hours.
The flight was cruising at FL370 (37,000 feet) when it entered the Aithinai FIR.
One issue is that there seems to be some confusion about the difference between Flight Information Regions and airspace.
All airspace is divided up into Flight Information Regions. These regions are generally a large area controlled by a specific Area Control Centre. Some countries, like Greece, have a single FIR, others are split into a number of regional FIRs and sometimes a single FIR will cover the territorial regions of several countries. A controlling authority administers the FIR and offers a flight information service to flights within its region.
So for example, the Athens Area Control Centre offers a flight information service for the Athinai FIR.
The important point here is that a Flight Information Region is not the same as airspace. Generally, a country’s national airspace is defined by the country’s land and territorial waters. (Interestingly, Greek airspace goes beyond this, claiming 10 nautical miles (19 km) of airspace around its borders, instead of the boundary of its territorial waters at 6 nautical miles.)
Flight Information Regions, however, are assigned and the region is administered by a country’s aviation services.. So for example, Athinai FIR covers all of Greece and the entire airspace over the Aegean Sea.
The point is that if you are in a Greek or Egyptian Flight Information Region, then you are not necessarily in Greek or Egyptian airspace; an FIR extends beyond territorial waters.
Sorry, it’s been bugging me.
That said, Egypt Air flight MS804 entered the Athinai (Athens) FIR at 02:48 local time. The Greek air traffic controller cleared the flight to continue to the exit point. The pilot appeared to be in good spirits and thanked the controller in Greek. The flight continued. There was no further conversation because there was no need for it. The flight continued along its planned route.
At 03:27 local time, the Athinai Area Control Centre called the flight crew to tell them to transfer to Cairo FIR. This is a normal hand-off as the flight leaves the Greek FIR and enters the Egyptian one. The controller received no response.
A few pilots have brought up the fact that the boundary point of the Greek and the Egyptian FIR is a well-known dead spot, where it is often not possible to communicate. The boundary point is the farthest point from both Area Control Centres.
That means that it isn’t necessarily relevant that the flight crew were not in communication with ATC at that time. If they had made a call, it seems likely that another aircraft would have heard it, even if ATC could not. However, if they could not hear the Greek controller calling them, they may well have not called out.
Nevertheless, that leaves us with a 40-minute window there where something may have happened on the flight. All we know is that the aircraft was still flying at the expected height and route at that time.
At 03:29, the aircraft flew over the boundary point between Athinai and Cairo FIRs.
The radar returns show that the aircraft then unexpectedly began to manoeuvre. According to the Greek Defence Minister, the aircraft turned left through 90° and began a rapid descent. Then it turned towards right through 360° while still descending rapidly to 15,000 feet. These manoeuvres are very specific and thus appear to be deliberate, not the result of an aircraft out of control.
My understanding is that the 90° turn is part of a common standard drill trained at various airlines. In the case of rapid depressurisation, the flight-crew makes a decisive turn off of the airway along with an immediate and rapid descent. The 360° is odder but could be an attempt to signal loss of communications or some sort of holding pattern perhaps? I’m hoping that someone can elaborate on this in the comments.
At 03:29:40 the flight signal was lost. The last return from the aircraft was at 10,000 feet in Cairo FIR, just under 7 nautical miles past the boundary point.
An accident investigation is conducted by the country in which the accident occurred. If the accident occurred in international waters, then the investigation is conducted by the country in which the aircraft is registered. This means that Egypt is in control of the investigation. Also relevant to an investigation is the registration of the aircraft (Egypt), the base of the aircraft operator (Egypt Air in Egypt), and the country(ies) responsible for the design and manufacture of the aircraft. As it is an Airbus 320-200, this means France. The French BEA have already dispatched three investigators to Egypt join the investigation.
Debris from the aircraft has been positively identified today. There were no survivors. The search and salvage operation will be focused on finding the “black box”, that is, the bright orange container(s) holding the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder. This should be found relatively quickly although the Mediterranean has some very deep ridges in that area. If it isn’t found within a week, expect to see a lot of loud questioning as to why we still don’t have ejectable black boxes on commercial aircraft.
It is correct that the Egyptian civil aviation ministry have stated that Egypt Air 804 was probably downed by a terrorist attack; however I feel that I need to point out that recently Egyptian officials have shown a trend towards sharing sound bites before the facts are known. The French Foreign Minister has limited himself to stating that so far they have no indication as to the cause.