Why Did the Russian Airliner Crash in Sinai?

Technical issue, maintenance problems, terror attack – airport accident investigators will be working frantically to ascertain the cause of Saturday morning’s crash that killed all onboard the Airbus 321 plane.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Egypt's Prime Minister Sherif Ismail looks at the remains of a Russian airliner after it crashed in central Sinai near e-lArish city, north Egypt, October 31, 2015.
Egypt's Prime Minister Sherif Ismail looks at the remains of a Russian airliner after it crashed in central Sinai near e-lArish city, north Egypt, October 31, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As with every major air disaster, the circumstances which caused a Russian charter flight to crash in Sinai on Saturday morning, with the loss of all 217 passengers and seven crew on board, will become clear only after investigators and representatives of the plane manufacturer, Airbus, analysis the black box flight recorders and wreckage strewn across the desert.

In this case, it may not be so simple to trust whatever details are published by the two involved governments – Egypt and Russia. Both have interests that could conflict with the findings. The statement by the Sinai branch of ISIS, Wilayat Sinai, that it shot down the Airbus 321 plane, about 20 minutes after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport, will also cast doubt over the final report. Every possible scenario will be raised in the coming days.

Maintenance problem – The plane had been operating for 18 years and carried out 21,000 flights, mostly in the service of Middle Eastern airlines. It is reported to have been involved in accidents on the ground in the past. In recent years, the Russian media has criticized the safety record of local airlines as not conforming to international standards. Even though most Russian airlines now operate Western-made aircraft, they suffer from a lack of governmental supervision and financial difficulties.

Some sources reported that there had been problems with one of the plane’s engines over recent days. The fact it succeeded to take off and climb to around 30,000 feet, before rapidly losing altitude, would indicate it lost power in one of the engines and the pilots decided to land in El Arish in northern Sinai (at least one report, denied later, said the pilot had sought permission for an emergency landing). The A321 can continue flying with one engine, but fire could have broken out and caused an explosion while preparing for an emergency landing. The spread of the debris on the ground will indicate whether the plane broke up in the air before impact. If an engine fault caused the crash, the likeliest reason will have been problematic maintenance.

Technical flaw – As in every crash, the manufacturers of the aircraft and engines will be eager to discover if there is a flaw that could affect other planes. The Airbus 320 family has been flying for 27 years, with an excellent safety record – over 7,000 are flying around the world. The longer A321 version is also regarded as very safe and, until now, only one had crashed, out of some 1,200 in service. The crash in Pakistan in 2010 was caused by a combination of bad weather (not a factor in this case) and pilot error. The fact that this was a relatively old plane will draw attention to questions of structural fatigue. But due to the large number of similar flying workhorses and Airbus’ strict regulations, it is unlikely that such an issue would not have been detected already. It could, however, turn out that the Russian airline, Kogalymavia (branded as Metrojet), has been using substandard parts or not replaced them regularly enough.

Pilot error – Since the takeoff seemed to be without a hitch and the weather was fair, by the time the plane reached its cruising altitude of around 30,000 feet, it would have been in automatic-pilot mode, so there was little that should have challenged the pilot. If one of the engines failed, the pilots should have been experienced enough to land with the one remaining engine. However, the combination of a failed engine and pilot error would be fatal.

Intentional crash – Since the suicide crash of a Germanwings Airbus last March in the French Alps by copilot Andreas Lubitz (in which 150 passengers and crew were killed), there is much higher awareness of the mental health of pilots. It is still a very rare occurrence, but the airline industry is now recognizing that there have been previous cases in which a pilot has locked out colleagues and intentionally crashed the plane. There is no indication yet that this might have been the case here, but the pilots’ personal situation will certainly be investigated.

Shooting down – The claim by Wilayat Sinai that it was responsible for bringing down the plane seems unlikely. The organization probably has shoulder-launched SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles, but these are useful against helicopters and low-flying aircraft and can’t hit a target at over 11,000 feet. The Russian Airbus had reached 30,000 feet: if it had been hit earlier, it would have reported this and tried to return for an emergency landing. Larger anti-aircraft missiles or an attack by a fighter jet could only have been carried out by a neighboring country, and there doesn’t seem to be one with a plausible motive.

Explosives aboard – The possibility that explosive charges stowed aboard could have caused sufficient damage to cause the plane to lose control and crash is plausible. The question is who had access to the aircraft and a motive. The immediate suspect is Islamic State, but its original statements seemed to be alluding to a missile. In addition, while the organization is active in northern Sinai, attacking Egyptian security forces there, it has not operated in the Sharm el-Sheikh region, largely due to the fact that Bedouin tribes that cooperate with it have an interest in preserving calm in the area, where many of their members work in tourism.

Egypt’s tourism industry has suffered deeply due to continuing unrest in the country, and the last profitable region is Sinai’s Red Sea, where large numbers of mainly Russian tourists continue to vacation, flying in on dozens of daily charter flights (like the one that crashed). The Egyptian government will be extremely anxious that terror is not seen as a reason for the crash, with the fear that it could lead Russian tourists to cancel their vacation plans.

The Russian government, meanwhile – currently heavily involved in the fighting in Syria – may have the opposite interest. For propaganda purposes, it could benefit from ISIS being seen as the culprit. Fifteen years ago, the series of massive explosions that were allegedly carried out by Chechen groups in Russian cities helped swing the Russian public behind then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s campaign against Chechnya. Former officers in the Russian security services claimed that some of the bombs, which killed dozens of civilians, were planted by an element in the security service. Intentional Russian sabotage of a Russian airliner may sound far-fetched but cannot be ruled out. For now, the Russian government is denying ISIS’ claiming responsibility, but it’s still early days.

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