Op-Ed: Why the rush to judgment in the Metrojet disaster

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This is an excerpt from a story in The New York Times:

“The cockpit voice captured ‘a brief fraction-of-a-second sound’ just before it stopped recording, the chief of the crash investigation said this afternoon.

The recording indicates that whatever happened, it was sudden, a finding that is consistent with a bomb…

Aviation experts say they cannot exclude mechanical failure, but they cannot come up with a scenario for a mechanical problem that would suddenly destroy a plane.”

That story was written in July 1996 and the accident was the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the cost of New York that killed all 230 people. Even before the story was published, tin kickers already suspected an explosion in the plane’s fuel tank brought the airplane down.

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As 2015 draws to a close, little seems to have been learned from the rush to call TWA 800 a terrorist act. Once again, politicians, intelligence agents and journalists have made up their minds that a bomb triggered the crash of a Russian Airbus A321, though evidence to support this theory is ephemeral.

This is not to say a bomb wasn’t on the plane. Only that any sensible person expects such a finding to be based on facts, not anonymous whisperers and talking heads.

On the ground in the Sinai Peninsula and in labs in Cairo, investigators from five countries are looking for clues to explain what triggered the plane to come apart as it passed through 30,000 feet on a flight from Sharm el Sheikh to St. Petersburg.

And in a lab in Cairo, the voice and flight data recorders are being analyzed. But don’t believe CNN’s Richard Quest or the others on television who say some sophisticated analysis of the last sound recorded can prove what triggered the destruction of the airliner because it can’t.

“When you have a plane blow up at altitude, an explosion regardless of the source, a bomb or a fuel tank or structural failure with explosive decompression, the noise you hear is noise. There is no structure to the sound and the bandwidth isn’t there to provide that kind of data,” said Mike Poole, a flight recorders expert and CEO of Plane Sciences.

Poole was one of several people from Canada who conducted a study in the late nineties to determine whether different explosions had different sound signatures. Shortly after that he headed to Cairo to help the Egyptians install a state-of-the-art recorder lab. Poole is confident the Accident Investigation Committee has the tools and the team has the expertise to obtain whatever information is available on the black boxes, but a telltale sound that provides a Eureka moment won’t be there.

“CVR recordings are generally unable to discriminate between explosions and structural failure decompressions,” Stuart Dyne, at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research University of Southampton, UK wrote in a paper for the International Society of Air Safety Investigators.

That the CVR holds the key is one piece of wobbly information making the rounds as we enter the second week in the latest aviation mystery. Another is that Egypt is not up to the job of conducting the probe.

In a story with an eyebrow-raising headline that suggests Egypt is purposefully denying the obvious; “Resisting Bomb Theory, Egypt Finds Itself Increasingly Alone” The New York Times takes the position that Egypt cannot be trusted.

“I don’t anticipate the Egyptian investigation here to be any more transparent than their work on Egyptair 990,” Former NTSB chief Jim Hall told the Times.

During Hall’s time on the board, the Egyptian government refused to accept the NTSB’s conclusion that the 1999 crash of flight 990 was a case of pilot suicide.

Everyone seems to have joined in chorus that Metrojet 7K9268 was felled by a bomb except the official investigators. But really if the tables were turned, would the NTSB behave differently? Not if past experience is any indicator.

In 1996, this journalist remembers NTSB vice chairman Robert Francis telling reporters day after day, month after month, that three theories in the in-flight explosion of TWA 800 were being given equal weight, a bomb, a missile and a mechanical malfunction. That’s what he said to the TV cameras. Behind the scenes and within days of the crash, investigators were saying it was all but certain, there was no crime involved; the fuel tank had blown apart.

During his brief news conference this past Sunday, Ayman el-Mokkadem, the head of Egypt’s investigation team made a plea to all those folks who think he can’t do his job right.

“The committee urges the sources of such reports to provide it with all information that could help us to undertaking our mission,” he said.

It’s not a toss-away line, nor should it be considered evidence of obstruction or resistance. I’m no Polly-anna, but it sounds like a genuine plea that all those know-it-alls either put up or shut up. It’s doubtful that those to whom the investigation chief was speaking – the high level sources with their conflicting agendas – will heed his request either. They’re too busy getting their rush-to-judgment messages out through their own, highly opaque channels.

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8 Comments

  1. Nicholas Laskaris

    Long before FDR’s and CVRs shrapnel fragments were found in a seat cushion floating in the Mediterranean sea between Cyprus and Greece. A BEA Comet 4b had been brought down by a terrorist bomb. What evidence lies in the Sinai? Until we have completed analysis of all the facts please would the self appointed experts shut up!

  2. Taryn

    Thank you for your sane editorial.

    I want to point out that Chinese Airlines 611 crashed because of a structural failure. On the cockpit recording the last thing you can hear is an explosive noise.

    If Metrojet 9268 had been brought down by a bomb then there is physical evidence of a bomb somewhere, explosive damage to and explosive residue on objects that were in close proximity to the bomb. Have the investigators found explosive damage or explosive residue? Apparently not. The only “evidence” released thus far supporting the bomb theory is “chatter”. Chatter isn’t good enough.

    Everyone should recall Pan Am 103. Even though there had been an explicit bomb threat prior to that crash, the investigators were very cautious and would not support the bomb theory until they had actual physical evidence. Within a week of the crash they had what they needed, several objects with explosive damage and residue, and due to the location of the objects in the debris field the investigators knew that these had been among the first to be blown from the plane. They made their announcement.

    Apparently there is no such evidence from the Metrojet crash, but this isn’t stopping various “officials” (most of whom refuse to be named) from expressing their opinions, they have a “feeling” or are “leaning toward” or “suspect” or “think” that there was a bomb, and it isn’t stopping governments from acting as though the bomb theory is true. Egypt is now harmed, they are being accused of employing ISIS sympathizers and of not providing sufficient security at the airport. Tourists have stopped arriving which then hurts all of the tourism industries (hotels, buses and taxis, restaurants, shops) and the people they employ.

  3. Jamaicajoe

    There was an airworthiness directive for the a321 in about 2004 describing the explosion of an APU in an aircraft parked at the gate. The AD described specifically the tailcone seperating and damaging the horizontal stabilizer.

    • taryn

      Well that’s interesting! “One operator reported a blast in the APU compartment during passengers disembarking, that blew open
      the APU compartment doors. The aircraft tail cone structure and the left elevator surface had been damaged. Analyses revealed, that due to vibrations in APU AC generators, the electrical receptacle retaining bolts loosened, leading to oil vapor leakage. This leakage associated with an electrical arc at the level of the electrical receptacle is at the origin of the blast. During flight, such event could lead to the loss of the APU doors in flight and could cause damage to the aircraft, and/or hazard to persons or property on the ground.”

      And then of course there’s the prior tail strike repair on Metrojet 9268. Records indicate that the damage to the tail was “substantial”. If the aircraft were not repaired properly, structural failure could occur just like Chinese Airlines 611. There’s a really great video on YouTube about Chinese Airlines 611, from the “Scratching the Surface” series. It shows how an improper tail strike repair allowed – and hid – growing structural damage which then eventually gave way and caused the entire tail end of the aircraft to break off.

      Egypt, Russia, France, Germany, and Ireland are all participating in the Metrojet investigation. Why is it that the only parties supporting the bomb theory are the US and UK who are NOT participating in the investigation? The anonymous sources A recent CNN article says “The belief that a bomb was most likely to blame centers, to a large extent, on British and U.S. intercepts of communications after the crash from the Sinai affilate of the Islamic militant group ISIS to ISIS operatives in Syria, officials said.
      The Sinai affiliate has publicly claimed responsibility for downing the plane, but so far hasn’t explained how it was done.” After the Pan Am 103 crash, four different groups took credit! Of course ISIS wants to take credit for the Metrojet crash. But if the chatter came AFTER the crash, how reliable can it be, especially if they did not specify how they caused the crash to occur? This all seems to be pretty insane right now and should be much simpler. I’m looking forward to some solid physical evidence supporting or refusing the bomb theory.

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