CAIRO, May 20, (Agencies): The Egyptian navy said on Friday it had found the personal belongings of passengers and other debris floating in the Mediterranean, confirmation that an EgyptAir jet had plunged into the sea with 66 people on board.
The military said it had found the debris about 290 kms (180 miles) north of the port city of Alexandria and was searching for the plane’s black box flight recorders.
Egypt’s President Adbel Fattah el-Sisi offered condolences for those on board, amounting to Cairo’s official acknowledgement of their deaths.
The defence minister of Greece, which has also been scouring the Mediterranean, said Egyptian authorities had found a body part, luggage and a seat in the sea just south of where the signal from the plane was lost early on Thursday.
Although suspicion pointed to Islamist militants who blew up another airliner over Egypt seven months ago, no group had claimed responsibility more than 24 hours after the disappearance of flight MS804, an Airbus A320 flying from Paris to Cairo.
Three French investigators and a technical expert from Airbus arrived in Cairo early on Friday to help investigate the fate of the missing plane, airport sources said.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said on Thursday that it was too early to rule out any explanation for the disaster. The country’s aviation minister said a terrorist attack was more likely than a technical failure.
Friday’s announcement that debris had been found followed earlier confusion about whether wreckage had been located. Greek searchers found some material on Thursday, but the airline later said this was not from its plane.
A European satellite spotted a 2 km-long oil slick in the Mediterranean, about 40 kms southeast of the aircraft’s last position, the European Space Agency said.
While there was no official explanation of the cause of the crash, suspicion fell on the militants who have been fighting against Egypt’s government since Sisi toppled an elected Islamist leader in 2013. In October, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for blowing up a Russian jetliner that exploded after taking off from an Egyptian tourist resort. Russian investigators blamed a bomb smuggled on board.
Last year’s crash devastated Egypt’s tourist industry, one of the main sources of foreign exchange for a country of 80 million people, and another similar attack would crush hopes of it recovering.
While most governments were cautious about jumping to conclusions, US Republican candidate for president Donald Trump tweeted swiftly after the plane’s disappearance: “Looks like yet another terrorist attack. Airplane departed from Paris. When will we get tough, smart and vigilant?”
Later in the day, his likely Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, also said it appeared to be an act of terrorism, although she said an investigation would have to determine the details.
Officials from a number of US agencies told Reuters that a US review of satellite imagery so far had not produced any signs of an explosion. They said the United States had not ruled out any possible causes for the crash, including mechanical failure, terrorism or a deliberate act by the pilot or crew.
Amid uncertainty about what brought down the plane, Los Angeles International Airport became the first major US air transportation hub to say it was stepping up security measures.
The plane vanished just as it was exiting air space controlled by Greece for air space controlled by Egypt. Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos said the Airbus swerved radically and plunged from 37,000 feet to 15,000 before vanishing from Greek radar screens.
According to Greece’s civil aviation chief, calls from Greek air traffic controllers to MS804 went unanswered just before it left Greek airspace, and it disappeared from radar screens soon afterwards.
There was no official indication of a possible cause, whether technical failure, human error or sabotage.
Ultra-hardline Islamists have targeted airports, airliners and tourist sites in Europe, Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries over the past few years.
Khaled al-Gameel, head of crew at EgyptAir, said the pilot, Mahamed Saeed Ali Shouqair, had 15 years’ experience and was in charge of training and mentoring younger pilots.
“He comes from a pilot family; his uncle was a high ranking pilot at EgyptAir and his cousin is also a pilot,” Gameel said. “He was very popular and was known for taking it upon himself to settle disputes any two colleagues were having.”
Greek civil aviation chief Constantinos Litzerakos said the pilot had mentioned no problem in his last communication before the plane disappeared, and the flight had not deviated from its course.
“The flight controllers contacted the pilot at a height of 37,000 feet (near Athens) … he did not mention a problem,” he said.
Neither the Greek coastguard nor the navy could confirm reports a passing ship had seen “a ball of fire in the sky”.
Litzerakos said that if there had been an explosion, any debris would have been scattered across a wide area.
The passengers also included two Iraqis and one citizen from each of Algeria, Belgium, Chad, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Sudan, as well as 30 Egyptians, the airline said. They included a boy and two babies.
Kuwait’s Embassy in France affirmed that a Kuwaiti citizen was among the passengers on board of the Egyptian plane which crashed earlier Thursday before arriving in Cairo.
An EgyptAir flight, with 56 passengers and 10 staff members, left Paris Charles de Gaulle airport for Cairo late Wednesday and the plane lost contact with radar some hours after taking off.
When the embassy learnt that a Kuwaiti citizen was on the plane’s board, First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, and Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah instructed the embassy to make necessarily sure of this news, the embassy said in a statement.
“Embassy’s officials contacted concerned bodies in France. Also There was coordination between the Kuwaiti and French Foreign Ministries and finally it was confirmed that the Kuwaiti national, Abdulmohsen Mohammad Jaber Al-Mutairi, was among passengers of the plane, the statement added.
As a result, the embassy contacted the family of Al-Mutairi that was in Paris for treatment, it said, noting that Ambassador Sami Al-Suleiman and a consular affairs official visited the family to express their condolences and sympathy.
They stressed that Kuwaiti government’s follow-up this matter, it noted, indicating that the embassy put its capabilities at the services of the family which will return home on Friday.
On a similar note, the embassy delivered a cable from Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled to his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, expressing condolences of the Kuwaiti government to the families of victims, and sympathy with the French people and government in these difficult conditions.
While nothing can be ruled out yet, what’s known about the erratic behavior of EgyptAir flight 804 before it crashed suggests the cause was human rather than technical, or potentially a combination of both, aviation experts told The Associated Press.
Greek authorities say the plane swerved 90 degrees left and then 360 degrees right before it plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea.
Here are the main scenarios presented by experts based on that erratic flight path:
The swerving of the aircraft suggests some kind of struggle inside the cockpit, said Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International.
He said the pilots could have been trying to control an aircraft disabled by an explosion, like in 1976 when two bombs exploded on a Cuban passenger plane after takeoff from Barbados and the pilot tried to steer the aircraft away from a beach.
Or they could have been struggling with someone trying to take control of the plane.
“It could have been a fight in the flight deck between crew members, one suicidal and one not. Or a hijacker trying to gain access,” Baum said.
In 2000, British Airways Flight 2069 from London to Nairobi nosedived and dropped 10,000 feet after a deranged passenger burst into the cockpit and grabbed the flight controls. He was overpowered and the flight crew stabilized the plane.
The Egyptian military said no distress call was received from the pilot in the crash early Wednesday. If there was a struggle over the flight controls, that would be understandable, Baum said.
“The last thing you are thinking about when you are struggling is to send out a distress signal,” Baum said. “The first thing you think about is trying to regain control of the aircraft.”
Another possibility is that the plane was hit by an external object that knocked it out of the sky, said Philip Butterworth-Hayes, an aviation systems expert.
“It could have been hit by a missile or a drone. Something hits it and changes the course,” he said.
Hans Kjall, of the Nordic Safety Analysis Group in Sweden, called that scenario “relatively unlikely.”
He said given the plane’s position over the Mediterranean Sea a missile strike would have required sophisticated military weapons systems.
“You would need a seaborne missile,” Kjall said.
He said that if there was an attack on the plane, it was more likely that it happened inside the aircraft, such as an “act of terrorism.”
All experts said it’s too early to rule anything out. But Butterworth-Hayes said it was difficult to imagine that a technical mishap caused the crash.
“I can’t think of a technical fault. Because you have three flight control systems,” he said. “And even if they all fail a pilot can still fly the aircraft, they can keep it straight and level.”
Kjall said that if the plane went down due to some kind of systems failure it was probably in combination with the human factor.
That scenario can happen if the navigation systems feed “erroneous information to the cockpit, fooling the pilots into making wrongful maneuvers,” he said.
The most prominent example of a mid-flight crash linked to systems failures was Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean during a flight from Brazil to France in 2009. A storm, faulty data and human error all played a part.
David Learmount, consulting editor at Flight Global, said one similarity with the Air France crash — which may or may not be relevant — is “they both happened in the middle of the night.”
“It is when human beings are at their lowest-possible performance level,” he said. “Whatever happens, the pilots would not be as bright as they would have been had it been in the middle of the day.”