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Mechanical Failure or Terrorist Attack? Russian Plane 'Disintegrated' Mid-Flight

An Egyptian official concedes that the plane could have been brought down by a bomb, but there is plenty of evidence that still points to mechanical failure


This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Let's just get this out of the way: It is still far too soon to make any concrete conclusions about why Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed in Egypt on Sunday. Yes, the black boxes have been retrieved; yes, Russian emergency and transportation personnel are already at the crash scene. But we are days — probably weeks — away from knowing what actually happened to this plane. 

We are now being told that the plane "broke apart" in the air, made evident by the debris field which covers 20 square kilometers. 

<figcaption>Too soon to know.</figcaption>
Too soon to know.

Only hours after the plane crashed, Egyptian and Russian officials claimed that "mechanical failure" was the likely cause of the accident. But they now seem to be less insistent. Which leads us to this

The Islamic State group (ISIS or IS) has claimed credit for destroying the aircraft, saying it was revenge for Russia's intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. The claim was quickly discredited by Russia and Egypt.

While experts believe it was flying too high to be hit by an ISIS missile, an Egyptian official in the civil aviation ministry said it was possible the plane was brought down by an explosive planted on board.

Just to be perfectly clear: Even though the plane broke apart in the air, a sound case can be made for mechanical failure. According to reports, the pilot requested an emergency landing shortly after takeoff. And according to Russian media, the wife of the co-pilot said that her husband complained about mechanical problems before the plane left the ground. The New York Times explains one possible scenario

A plane that was fully loaded with passengers and fuel, ascending too rapidly through the warm desert air, might have risked an aerodynamic stall, some analysts said. Depending on the speed of the descent, the aircraft might have been ripped apart as it tumbled toward the ground.

Older aircraft in particular are vulnerable on very rare occasions to structural failure during ascent, as the passenger cabin is pressurized with more air inside than outside. Each time the cabin is pressurized, it is being slightly pushed outward like a balloon, and that puts stress on the fuselage.

The most famous recent crash linked to this problem was a China Airlines Boeing 747-200 that broke into several pieces during the last stages of its ascent to 35,000 feet on a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong on May 25, 2002. The same aircraft had struck its tail when the pilot took off too steeply in 1980, causing a crack near the back of the fuselage that was later poorly repaired with a series of rivets.

The Metrojet that crashed on Sunday had a similar accident in 2001, in which it seriously damaged its tail during a botched landing. The tail was of course repaired, but evidence suggests that the aircraft might have suffered similar problems during its flight over Egypt: 

A Russian television reporter said that the remains of the tail of the Airbus were found three miles from the rest of the wreckage. Images of the tail section show a clear break near the site of the rear pressure bulkhead.

In the event of a failure of this bulkhead, the airplane would have suffered a sudden and potentially explosive decompression; at its final recorded altitude of 31,000 feet the difference between the pressure inside the cabin and the air outside would have been at the point where such a catastrophic failure would be most likely to occur. The wreckage shows no signs of a fire or an engine-related explosion.

Yes, a potential terrorist attack should not be ruled out. But neither should less sinister explanations. As we typed earlier: It's simply too soon to know. 

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