Sinai Metrojet A321 crash raises questions about Egypt, Russia

After the flight of Metrojet/Kogalymavia flight 7K9268 from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh to St Petersburg in Russia, there are a number of serious questions to ask about the investigation as the work is into its second day.

First, the facts as we know them: flight 7K9268 took off at 0558 local time on 31 October and lost radar contact 22 minutes later, over the central Sinai peninsula at an altitude of 31,000 feet. Wreckage was discovered in the Hasna area of central Sinai (variously spelled, due to the usual issues with Arabic transliteration, el- or al-Hasana, Hasanah, or Hassana). An Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement on Facebook suggested that this area was mountainous, but initial images from the crash site are of an almost entirely flat area with no visible mountains.

Lessons learned from this investigation are vital, so it must be trustworthy

Initial images from the crash site released by the Egyptian government — the site’s remoteness and the Islamist conflict within Sinai mean keeping global press from the site is relatively simple — include numerous of Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail taking a photo opportunity with sensitive flight recorders — one of which, resembling an Airbus A320 family cockpit voice recorder, is being held in just one hand by an official.

This does not reflect the care with which flight recorders are expected, and indeed normally, held.

Further, the extensive number of politicians trooping about the site on a photo-op during the first hours of the operation does not give reassurance about the evidence-gathering process or the professional competence of Egyptian investigators.

International investigating states may need to become involved

Under ICAO Annex 13 (PDF), in addition to the State of Occurrence (Egypt) and Operator (Russia), the States of Registry (Ireland), Design (France) and Manufacture (Germany, we surmise, given that the aircraft’s test registration was German, suggesting the Hamburg FAL) all have an interest in this investigation.

Clearly Egypt and Russia have interests (both in the incident and in the geo- and regional political context) but the other states’ interests — and those of the wider aviation community — require a professional investigation to international standards, not least following initial speculation about a tailstrike suffered by the aircraft in 2001 at Cairo when operated by Middle East Airlines.

That incident, subsequent repairs, and the checks to them, must be ruled in or out as a contributory factor given the potential impacts on other A321 operators, and any safety lessons to be learnt must be as rigorously investigated as possible. 

Of the Irish, German and French investigatory bodies, only the French BEA has a recent news item on its website discussing the incident. Given the investigation so far and the politics at play, it would seem to behoove Ireland and Germany to become involved. Further, with the widespread use of Ireland as a state of Registry, there are very real questions to answer about the extent to which the Irish regulatory and investigative bodies are fulfilling their obligations to the international aviation community.

Russia’s regulatory supervision of smaller carriers may be a factor

Questions have also to be asked about the state of maintenance among the numerous smaller Russian carriers, such as the one involved in this incident.

Metrojet is the business name of Kogalymavia, also known as Kolavia, a small charter airline with nine AerCap-leased Irish-registered Airbus aircraft: two A320s and, until the crash, seven A321s, all outfitted in maximum-density 29-inch configuration to hold 180 and 219/220 passengers, respectively.

Avionics_NBAA_runawaygirl_300Most of the fleet, including the crashed EI-ETJ, uses variants of the IAE V2500 engine, with one aircraft equipped with CFM56 engines. EI-ETJ was A321 MSN 663, manufactured in 1997, and involved in a tailstrike event in 2001.

The captain was named by the airline as Valeriy Yurievich. Nemov, an experienced pilot with more than 12,000 hours in the flight deck, of which 3,860 were in the Airbus A321, Metrojet stated.

None of these factors themselves suggest a cause, but whenever regulators’ work ensuring safety is called into question there is always scope for a coverup. The solution to that is international participation, regular communication and an informed, knowledgeable media.

This is by no means to call Russia’s regulator Rosaviatsia unsafe without proven cause. Rather, it is to highlight that there are others already doing so, and it would be sensible to ensure that there is no grounds for concern.

Sinai air route safety raises wider questions

Claims of responsibility are purported to be by Islamic State, yet security sources and NOTAMs stating that the MANPAD shoulder-launched missiles known to be in IS possession have a range up to 26,000 feet; the aircraft had reached a cruise height of 31,000 feet before the crash.

Lufthansa, Air France and Emirates have all stated that they will avoid overflying Sinai as a security precaution, raising questions about precisely how much of the Middle East is safe to overfly these days. Given the MH17 event and now the questions over 7K9268, does the international community — specifically the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO — need to take on additional work to ensure that all carriers have the security assessment capabilities in which large global airlines are able to invest?

RGN will continue to monitor the investigation and the aftermath of this terrible incident. Our thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues of all who have been affected.

Image at top credited to Sergey Korovkin 84 under CC BY-SA 4.0

This image released by the Prime Minister's office shows the tail of a Metrojet plane that crashed in Hassana Egypt, Friday, Oct. 31, 2015. The Russian aircraft carrying 224 people, including 17 children, crashed Saturday in a remote mountainous region in the Sinai Peninsula about 20 minutes after taking off from a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists, the Egyptian government said. There were no survivors.(Suliman el-Oteify, Egypt Prime Minister's Office via AP)

This image released by the Prime Minister’s office shows the tail of a Metrojet plane that crashed in Hassana Egypt, Friday, Oct. 31, 2015. The Russian aircraft carrying 224 people, including 17 children, crashed Saturday in a remote mountainous region in the Sinai Peninsula about 20 minutes after taking off from a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists, the Egyptian government said. There were no survivors.(Suliman el-Oteify, Egypt Prime Minister’s Office via AP)

3 Comments

  1. Peter Evans

    JOhn,

    Forgive me for saying but this whole article, whilst expressing some very salient points about the integrity and efficacy of aircraft crash investigations, has some seriously xenophobic overtones.

    A quick look at Google Maps satellite imagery shows Al Hasna to be on the edge of a mountainous area – it may not be the Alps but there is no question there are mountains around. The fact that the wreckage appears to lie on a plateau, whether that be elevated or low lying I don’t know, does not necessarily draw into question the validity of the investigation or the integrity of the Egyptian government.

    I concur that all the debris should be treated with respect and handled sensitively. However, I wouldn’t use the adjective “sensitive” to describe a CVR or FDR unit. Whilst the internal workings may be delicate the casing is designed to survive most crashes; that makes them anything but sensitive. When the casing remains intact, it “being held with one hand” is unlikely to render it useless and, in fairness to the image, the gentleman in question has is other arm postured to support it – the timing of the shot may not be ideal but I doubt the guy is some sort of vandal trying to jeopardise the investigative process.

    Then, to suggest that Rosaviastia may have oversight issues that could prompt a cover up is entirely dismissive of the fact that many western nations, none more so than the good ol’ US ofA, has [allegedly/potentially] engaged in more than its fair share of cover ups over the years. I suspect what you mean is that Russia, and potentially Egypt, may not be as open to media interjection as some Western states might be. But, is that a bad thing in such circumstances (see commentary below about the prevailing role of the media)?

    With regards to concerns about the efficacy of the maintenance at “numerous smaller Russian carriers, Rosaviatsia has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to act far more quickly that most of its Western counterparts whenever there is any concern or suspicion whatsoever of wrong-doing or failing by an airline or aircraft manufacturer. Dare I say, had Rosaviastia had oversight over, say, Southwest Airlines it may not have been as patient as the FAA was to the missed maintenance tasks that led to it receiving significant fines. We all live in glass houses and therefore should be cautious about blanket commentary without supporting evidence on such matters.

    Finally, I agree that transparency, international cooperation and regular communication are absolutely essential but I question, once again the role, or indeed the existence of “knowledgeable media”. Point me in the right direction if you can but I know of no aviation journalist who has real, practical experience of the aircraft accident investigation process as a stakeholder directly involved in the process. Unfortunately, this means they usually don’t know when to keep their mouths shut or their keyboards inactive and let the experts do their job to find the cause as quickly as possible.

    After every single aircraft accident, the media sets about hypothesising the cause – invariably too early in the process, without any hard facts to hand and often relying on sketchy information from other self-proclaimed ‘experts’ (in the modern world that usually involves social media speculation) to build their theories in the hope of being the first to reveal the cause. Often, they are many thousands of miles detached from the incident and don’t understand local issues that may hinder the investigative process or cultural issues that need to be addressed or the self-interested pull of all the significant stakeholders (regulator, airline, aircraft manufacturer and not least the relatives of victims) that all conspire to decimate the theoretically ideal process of an investigation.

    And do you know what all this conjecture, speculation and cynical criticism does to the investigation? It piles more pressure on a very challenging situation and adds another dimension that has, un-necessarily, to be considered and managed by the investigation stakeholders. It also means some officials may feel it necessary to mitigate media criticism by releasing images that demonstrate their concern or commitment to the investigate process, including photographs of them at the crash site, which could, of course, compromise evidence.

    Of all the ‘interested parties’ the role and the behaviour of the media is probably the easiest to reform. Alas,it is also likely to be the most resistive.

    Oh, how I long for the day when aviation journalists and the broader media let the investigation run its course, report only what investigators tell them and then, if they wish, pass comment when the conclusion has been reached and the facts have been assimilated. But that wouldn’t be much ‘fun’ would it?

    • Mary Kirby

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comment. As you’re no doubt aware by now, Russian, Egyptian and Metrojet officials have released contradictory statements about this crash. The apparent lack of regard for sterility of the crash site and casual manner in which the FDR was handled is worth highlighting (as we have done here) but more broadly – and now more worryingly – the manner in which information is being disseminated suggests that political agendas may be at play. I rebuke your suggestion that xenophobia has crept into this particular piece (you’d be hard pressed to find a more progressive and inclusive title than RGN). The author asked legitimate questions, and was cautious not to jump to any conclusions.

      We address this very topic in our latest podcast interview with British journalist Anthony Davis.

      https://runwaygirlnetwork.com/2015/11/04/podcast-episode-029-political-race-as-metrojet-probe-continues/

      Best,

      Mary

  2. ATUL JAIN

    This article by RGN is definiteluy one of the more judiciously written pieces on this urgent topic currently.It makes people aware that more questions need to be asked before jumping to conclusions. Great work RGN.

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