The Airbus Crash in Egypt

UPDATE: November 7, 2015

U.S. AND BRITISH OFFICIALS are now saying, at least tentatively, that an explosive device likely downed the Kogalymavia Airbus over the Sinai peninsula last weekend. The thinking is that the local Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group, better known as ISIS, placed a bomb on board the A321 prior to its departure from the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh.

Mr. Smirnov (see original post, below) might be correct after all, albeit by default.

If so, this becomes the deadliest bombing of a civilian airliner since the downing of UTA flight 772 by Libya in 1989 (not long after the similar, Libyan-backed bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in December, 1988).

Most of you are thinking, UTA bombing? What’s that? It’s important to remember that the bombing of civilian jetliners isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Civil aviation has long been a target for politically motivated terrorists, and there have been dozens of serious attacks over the years — so many that we tend to forget even some of the serious ones.

Most of those attacks, it’s true, happened a long time ago. The nightmare of September 11th notwithstanding, we Americans, in particular, have been lucky. It’s been almost thirty years since the bombing of Pan Am 103. Whether we’ve been so fortunate because of, or in spite of, our cultural and political fixation with security, is debatable, but nevertheless it’s impressive.

I’m not suggesting we should view any violent attack nonchalantly, or that there shouldn’t be a price exacted against the perpetrators of mass-murder. But, if nothing else, let’s keep things in perspective, and not panic.

Already we’re hearing rumblings from TSA and other agencies, alleging that airport security needs to be tightened even further. This is worrying for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not yet clear this was a bombing. Unless they’re withholding some classified information, TSA’s comments strike me as a bit premature, and a little worrying. For one, we’re not yet sure this was a bombing. And if indeed it was, do we have any idea who the perpetrators were, precisely, or how they got the bomb on board? How do we fix it when we don’t even know what’s broken?

What I fear is this will spur yet another round of irrational and ultimately ineffective security measures that will serve little purpose beyond making the already-tedious air travel experience even worse. What were the lapses? What were the loopholes? What needs to be done? These were the same questions asked in the wake of September 11th — wrongly, it must be said, as the attacks has little or nothing to do with airport security in the first place. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

There is a certainly a need for passenger and baggage screening, don’t get me wrong. But that screening needs to be rational, efficient, and reasonably non-invasive. Beyond that, I can only repeat what I’ve said countless times: short of turning our airports into fortresses, there will always be a way for a determined and resourceful enough saboteur to circumvent whatever safeguards we put in place. In the end, the task of keeping bombs off planes is not really an airport security issue at all. It is the job of intelligence and law enforcement — FBI, the CIA, Interpol, and so on — working to disrupt plots and plotters before they ever get to the airport.


November 3, 2015

THE RUSSIANS are crack investigators, that’s for sure. First they solved the MH17 disaster, and now, with the wreckage still smoldering and before the data or voice recorders have been analyzed, they’ve figured out the crash of the Kogalymavia Airbus A321 in the Sinai desert.

More specifically, they’ve determined what did not cause the accident: pilot error or mechanical malfunction. This according to various news reports, including a somewhat lazy article by the New York Times, quoting officials of Kogalymavia. “The plane was in excellent condition,” said Alexander Smirnov, the carrier’s deputy general director. “We rule out a technical fault and any mistake by the crew.”

I’m unsure what possessed Mr. Smirnov to say such a reckless and unfounded thing. An airline executive should know better, and his indiscretion does not reflect well on his company. There is no reason at all, at this juncture, to outright dismiss any potential cause, including, or even especially, mechanical failure. To their credit, Russian government investigators acknowledge this and have responded more reasonably. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the statements from Kogalymavia have been taken seriously by the media and are making headlines worldwide.

“Most people assume if someone knows about aviation they know about aviation safety,” says Christine Negroni, aviation blogger and author of the upcoming book Lost and Confounded. “It is not the case. Safety and accident forensics are part of a separate specialty. Metrojet’s Alexander Smirnov may know airlines, but he doesn’t know squat about air crash investigations. Had his comments been subjected to the smell test they would not have led the news cycle.”

As some have noted, the Airbus involved in the crash had been involved in a tail-strike incident some years ago. That’s when the plane’s tail section contacts the the ground during takeoff or, more commonly, landing. Most tail strikes are harmless, but occasionally there’s damage to the skin or inner structure.

This may or may not have anything to do with the plane breaking up over the Sinai. However, we can’t help remembering the Japan Airlines flight 123, catastrophe in 1985 — the second-deadliest disaster in airline history. More than five-hundred people were killed when the 747’s aft pressure bulkhead blew out, disabling the plane’s rudder. That aircraft, too, had suffered an earlier tail strike, and investigators determined that the damage had been improperly repaired.

Airbus and Kogalymavia say the A321 was repaired correctly and has been routinely inspected ever since.

The plane had been bound for St. Petersburg from Sharm-el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort city popular with Russian and European tourists.

And pardon my snarkiness with respect to MH17. But here we are more than a year after the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down, killing over three-hundred passengers and crew. The Russians still deny culpability and nobody has been held accountable. I hate to say it, but owing to geopolitics, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be held accountable.

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38 Responses to “The Airbus Crash in Egypt”
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  1. Dave says:

    Today isis published pictures of the bomb they used. It was inside a pop can. That’s how easy it is to take down a jet

  2. Catherine says:

    Since this happened, I have been bothered by the plight of those innocent passengers and crew. I was hoping that they would have died instantly, painlessly and without experiencing trauma and fear. At 31,000 feet they would have succumbed to hypoxia and gone peacefully. I should have left it at that. But I decided to Google it and this is what I found. My fear of flying has not been eased in the least. And no disrespect to the victims and their families is intended by sharing this in this forum. Patrick can delete this post if he feels that it is inappropriate. It is an article written with humour about a dire situation.

    • Rod says:

      “Don’t land on your head.” Sound advice. And the chances of being in an air crash are “slim”. Good to know.
      Catherine, you’re right to be bothered by the plight of the passengers, as you also are by the plight of the endlessly more numerous people who die endlessly more agonizing deaths on this sorry planet.
      Just remember that, whatever happened, apparently the tail was ripped off the Russian A321. Anyone not killed by the presumed explosion would have been subjected to a hurricane-force decompression from front to back. That air would have been filled with fast-flying objects (anything not tied down in the cabin). Yes, a few luckless people might have found themselves in conscious freefall. Doesn’t bear thinking about.
      I write this the day after the events in Paris. All we can do is hope we’re not in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time.

      • Skeptical says:

        “hurricane-force decompression…That air would have been filled with fast-flying objects (anything not tied down in the cabin).”

        I hoped that the Mythbusters would have conclusively put this myth to rest.

  3. Rura says:

    I sang this tune before, but here it goes again…

    Machines. they do not take bribes, they do not get lazy, strike, or try to take sides with a cause. granted they can be hacked but thats more of a proactive problem to deal-with.

    Imagine an airport where every bag, every staff member, every passenger, every item of food – is scanned and controlled by properly built robots, drones etc?

    Sounds like something out of Sci-Fi i know, but we are capable of building pretty sophisticated machines right now. They dont get tired, they dont focus on human emotions or needs and certainly cannot be bribed or coursed into doing something outside of their programming.

    I would feel safer flying from an airport where is 60% less human security and 60% more robotic and machine-enforced security. Chasing down a running criminal? Guess what, a drone can do that pretty well.

    People can’t complain about sexism or abuse either if your TSA pat-down is being performed by a 400 pound robot designed to do the job perfectly….(and not interested in the shape or size of your body parts)

    • Rod says:

      And robotic baggage handlers, of course. Because imagine that the Russian A321 was downed by a bomb in a suitcase that was never checked in at all but simply plopped, with the appropriate tags, on the appropriate baggage cart in the baggage shed.

  4. Dave says:

    You have to think they are dying to bomb a USA plane. Probably just a matter of time before it happens very little can be done to prevent such an attack

  5. Bob Palmer says:

    I may have missed this, but who are the investigators? Who will review the findings? Will there be a public hearing?

    I just returned from a symposium in Duluth on the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald forty years ago. (Hear me out, I know the Fitz was a ship and not a plane, and forty years ago is ancient.)

    My point is, it now appears that the formal investigation of the sinking discounted clear evidence that the Fitz had a history of structural problems and unscheduled repairs beginning soon after her launch. Instead investigators settled on a theory with little supporting evidence that the captain had made a navigation mistake and scraped the ship’s bottom on a shoal off Caribou Island sometime before the sinking. Why would investigators do that? I don’t know, but the conclusion fixed responsibility on men who died in the accident and absolved the naval architects and constructors who built her.

    There is an old joke that the cause of any aviation accident in which the pilot dies is likely to be found to be pilot error. Maybe the same with the Fitz. Point is, there are vested interests in outcome of the investigation.

  6. Tod Davis says:

    We have to remember that though the American airport security is tough and over the top, not every country has the same standards.

    • Rod says:

      But, as Patrick has pointed out before, while they’re busy confiscating harmless objects and x-raying the bejeezuz out of pilots’ shoes, there’s apparently ample scope for smuggling things aboard aircraft by barely screened staff scurrying on and off those planes between flights.

  7. Matthew Barich says:

    This crash actually is much more like China Airlines Flight 611 than Japan Airlines Flight 123.

    China Airlines Flight 611 disintegrated in midair on May 25, 2002, as a result of an improper repair to the tail after a tailstrike 22 years earlier.

    This aircraft also was damaged from a tailstrike and repaired (in 2001). It is possible that this crash also was caused by the repair not being done properly. But that it unlikely; it clearly was caused by a bomb.

  8. l. citro says:

    At the very least, anyone who has access to the airplane or anything loaded on to the airplane (I.e. cleaning crew, catering personnel, ramp service workers, etc.) Should be subject to the same basic explosives screening that passengers and flight crew (even the pilots, who could just crash the thing if they want) go through. It amazes me that they aren’t and that this gaping loophole has not yet been exploited, or perhaps it was in Egypt.

  9. Paula Stevens says:

    On CNN yesterday, during a discussion about the possible reasons for the crash of Metrojet A321, Anderson Cooper replayed a clip that they had previously aired in March. I found this information to be fascinating in so many ways\

    It sounds such an eminently simple plan that that I don’t understand why only two of the major airports have implemented it. Don’t quote expense to me. In the grand scheme of things the cost would be just a drop in a bucket.
    I live in South Florida and MIA is the airport that I use most frequently so this is nice to know.
    We, the population, the media and even our tourists are so used to and even amused at being the butt of so many “ Only in Florida” jokes that it is nice to see somebody recognize that some of us do have a few brain cells to rub together.

  10. ecw0647 says:

    The reaction seems now seems to be to prevent passengers returning from Egypt from checking any bags, the airlines accepting only carry-ons. Seems to me that a bomb could have been placed very easily by one of the airport crew who load luggage on the plane, cleaning staff, etc. Are those folks really screened thoroughly before being allowed close to an aircraft?

    • Rod says:

      Well that’s the question, isn’t it? You can x-ray all the pilots’ shoes you want, it won’t prevent a cleaner or meal-deliverer from planting a bomb in a well-chosen place.

  11. MS72 says:

    While this event was not on American soil, look at the preparedness going on here. I’m sure they are not paranoid that a bomb could come into this country.

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – FBI officials said a Washington, D.C.-based bomb squad defused a simulated nuclear device at the Port of Anchorage during a training exercise this week.

    Anchorage-based bureau spokeswoman Staci Feger-Pellessier said that the two-day logistics training began with a “deployment of forces” Monday. The simulated bomb response began Tuesday morning and continued through the evening, reported The Alaska Dispatch News (

  12. Guy Hamilton says:

    Everyone, including David Cameron, refers to the crash of this “Russian” airliner. Actually, it was a “Russian-operated” aircraft; all of the crew and most of the passengers were Russian but it was leased from and owned by the Irish branch of an international aircraft leasing company, I believe, and was definitely registered in Ireland (EI-ETJ).
    I don’t think this point is simple pedantry. Surely, since it was an “Irish aircraft”, the enforcer of airworthiness, compliance with airworthiness directives and all other regulations relating to the aircraft itself would be the government of the Republic of Ireland, not that of the Russian Federation? Presumably, Ireland would also stipulate where the aircraft may and may not be operated? I don’t know that, however.
    Irish investigators have joined the inquiry, obviously because the aircraft is Irish-registered.
    However, the news media have been remarkably silent on the relevant government responsibilities. Ireland hardly gets a mention. I would have thought that it had overall responsibility for the aircraft’s condition and compliance with regulations.

  13. Ian says:

    Air India Flt 182 bombing off the coast of Ireland in 1985 resulted in loss of 329 souls. Not sure how this massive event was overlooked by Patrick. Many of the passengers were Canadian citizens of south asian descent. Far greater loss than Pan Am or UTA. Bombing of a civilian airliner is a cowardly act and the perpetrators always seem to get away with it.

    • Patrick says:

      It was not overlooked at all. I’m well aware of the Air India incident. I’ve written about it in the past, and it is referenced in my book. What I said in the post is that the Russian bombing (if it was a bombing) is the worst since the UTA bombing in 1989. And that is true. Air India was three years prior to that.

  14. Mo says:

    Patrick — based on the intelligence “reports” coming out now the theory appears to be that someone working at the airport may have bene involved. CNN quotes one of their “safety analysts” as saying:

    “Like most airports in the world, Sharm el-Sheikh Airport doesn’t do a very good job of controlling access outside the terminals.”

    I note this only because you have, in the past, pointed out that, despite the theater of security confronting passengers (and aircrews), there is hardly the same level of security devoted to those who work the tarmac . . .

  15. Jerome says:

    Regarding MH17, EVERYTHING points to the Russian rebels (although in my opinion they thought it was a Ukrainian plane and thus the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane was a deadly mistake).

    • Rod says:

      I also think it was Russian, well REBELS? Did they possess the expertise required to fire on of those things? Maybe Russian military personnel.
      But, yes, a mistake. Why on earth would they do such a thing intentionally?

      But then the Ukrainians apparently also have the Buk. And they had a motive: make it look as if the Russians did it. Good propaganda move.

      Also, I’ve heard that a Ukranian airstrike was taking place just as MH17 was passing overhead. Could this timing have been intentional?

      It’s impossible to be too cynical.

  16. Mitch says:

    It will be months before we know the probable cause of the Metrojet A321 accident. However, if there is any truth in the current reports, [a big if] then it appears the aft fuselage and tail separated from the airplane. If the break was at or behind the aft entry doors, then it may have been a pressure bulkhead failure. If the break was in front of the aft entry doors, then there may have been an explosion in the aft cargo compartment below the cabin. Any explosion will leave unmistakable signs – shrapnel, residue, blast damage, etc

    As far as disclosure, note that the airplane was built in France and registered in Ireland. Both countries are part of the investigative team; both will strongly resist any cover-up attempts by other parties to the investigation.

    Patrick – about the 1985 JAL catastrophe: the pressure bulkhead failed due to a faulty repair. The entire vertical tail was blown off, not just the rudders. All four hydraulic systems were ripped open and all Skydrol was lost. None of the flight controls worked. [Similar to the United DC-10 at Sioux City Iowa in 1989]. Since then hydraulic systems have been modified to prevent fluid loss if a line breaks.

  17. Pete Arthur says:

    Hi Patrick.
    You’ll no doubt be delighted to hear that the Office of the Prime Minister in Downing Street have issued a statement saying that the Airbus COULD have been brought down by a bomb, and all UK to Sharm flights have been suspended pending a security review of Sharm Airport. How far sighted of them, given, that as far as I know, the investigators haven’t even released a preliminary report yet. I sometimes wonder why we go to the expense and bother of having investigations, we could just leave it all to the politicians and their crystal balls.

  18. Nat says:

    There’s been a pretty thorough investigation of MH17, concluding that it was almost certainly a SA-11 “Buk” surface-to-air missile that shot down the plane. This was determined by the type/shape of shrapnel found as well as the damage to the plane. Here’s a pretty good writeup, with video:

    This type of missile is fired by a tank-sized tracked vehicle (not a shoulder launcher) that the Ukranian military does not own, but the Russian military does. In fact, photos were taken of a SA-11 being trucked out of the area shortly after the plane was downed. It was missing two of its missiles:

    The evidence seems indisputable, but I don’t expect the Russian government to fess up any time soon.

  19. Ken says:

    I forget the name of the website with the speed and altitude track that I saw early on. But it showed a steep climb and drop in speed right before crashing. This appears consistent with a sudden loss of aircraft weight and a subsequent stall (similar to TWA800). If the passengers in the rear of the plane had their clothes ripped off, then explosive decompression from failure of the aft bulkhead is the most likely cause (IMHO).

  20. Anonymous says:

    There should be a whole separate minor for Aviation Journalism. How could they screw this up? Kogalymavia saying they’ve ruled themselves out is no different than a criminal defense attorney saying his client is innocent. We never see headlines that proclaim someone’s innocence based on an attorney’s press release, yet they ran full steam ahead on this. A conflict of interest is a conflict of interest regardless of the industry.

  21. Marton says:

    Prior to MH17, scores of military aircraft have already been shot down, one of them as high as 6500 meters.
    The parties ultimately responsible for this tragedy are those that allowed civilian airliners to overfly a war zone.

    • Rod says:

      But (posting here for the third time today, sorry) who was supposed to deem the Sinai a “war zone”? Such missiles — especially since the Libya adventure — could conceivably be waiting in a LOT of different places.
      Apparently BA and EasyJet have announced that they will continue overflying the Sinai thank-you-very-much.

      • Marton says:

        Mobile air defense systems are very complex and a random hodgepodge of islamist insurgents has effectively zero capability to operate and maintain one. Also, the vehicles are large and not easy to hide in a desert.
        My bet is on mechanical failure.

    • Siegfried says:

      Sorry, but the party ultimately responsible for shooting down this aircraft is the party that pulled the trigger. Whichever party that was.

  22. Fry says:

    It’s not just Russia. Egypt has an interest in obscuring the facts in this case if terrorism proves to be the cause, and neither country has a positive history of managing politically independent accident investigations.

    This isn’t likely to go well.

    • Rod says:

      A missile (especially one that goes that high) would constitute a humiliation for the Egyptians, who supposedly control the Sinai.
      A bomb would make their security precautions look lousy.

      A missile would be tricky for Putin. On one hand, he could brandish it in his anti-jihadi crusade. On the other hand, average Russians might conclude that maybe the Syria operation isn’t such a great idea.

      I’m wondering if there wasn’t perhaps a Malaysian naval vessel in the Gulf of Aqaba last Saturday …

  23. Rod says:

    The Russian government may dismiss the airline’s claim … but they haven’t dismissed the “photo” I saw supposedly of a Ukrainian fighter shadowing MH17. Only problem: the aircraft was a Boeing 767, not a 777. (Oops.) Especially as this photo was introduced to the world on Russian STATE television.

    I’m certainly glad there’s a Western component to this investigation.
    The Russian authorities can’t be trusted (see above) and neither can the Egyptian authorities (see the EgyptAir 990 investigation).

  24. Janet says:

    I hate to take the side of “the Russians”, but really. It’s the people at the airline (admittedly all Russians) who made those comments. At least one spokesman for the Russian government itself (also a Russian) forcefully pushed back (per this morning’s NYT). I hate to interrupt a good snarky rant, but really…