Russian Plane Crash: Theories On Why Jet Disintegrated In Midair

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A U.S. military satellite detected a midair heat flash from Metrojet Flight 9268, which crashed Saturday, a U.S. official told CNN.

A U.S. intelligence analysis has ruled out that the Russian commercial airplane was struck by a missile, but the new information suggests that there was a catastrophic in-flight event — including possibly a bomb, though experts are considering other explanations, according to U.S. officials.

The theories run the gamut, from a fuel tank explosion to a missile from the ground.

Russian officials say it’s too soon to tell what made the passenger jet plunge to the ground and kill all 224 people on board.

Aviation experts agree, and officials have downplayed an apparent claim by Islamic militants that they brought down the Airbus A321-200, saying technical failure is the most likely reason for the crash.

Here’s the latest on what we know:

The flight

Flight 9268 was on its way from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg early Saturday when it dropped off radar about 23 minutes into the flight, Egyptian officials say.

Air traffic controllers apparently didn’t receive any distress calls.

“There was nothing abnormal before the plane crash,” Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamel said Saturday. “It suddenly disappeared from the radar.”

The website Flightradar24, which tracks aircraft around the world, said it had received data from the Russian plane suggesting sharp changes in altitude and a dramatic decrease in ground speed before the signal was lost.

The crash

A U.S. satellite that was over Sinai at the time of the crash detected a heat flash, according to a U.S. official directly familiar with the latest information in the investigation.

U.S. intelligence and military officials are analyzing the data to see what it can tell them about what happened to the plane, the official said.

Analysts say heat flashes could be tied to a range of possibilities: a missile firing, a bomb blast, a malfunctioning engine exploding, a structural problem causing a fire on the plane or wreckage hitting the ground.

“The number of heat signatures is crucial,” said CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien. “If, in fact, only one was detected, that in some respects might steer one away from a missile launch and onto some idea of an explosion onboard the aircraft.”

A top Russian aviation official has said the plane broke apart in midair.

Metrojet official Alexander Smirnov said the airline had ruled out technical problems and human error. Protection systems on the plane would have prevented it from crashing, he said, even if there were major errors in the pilot’s control equipment.

CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz said the disaster could have resulted from “some sort of catastrophic failure, perhaps caused by an earlier maintenance problem. It could have been a center fuel tank that might have exploded.”

The plane

The A321-200 was built in 1997, and the airline company Kogalymavia, which flies under the name Metrojet, had been operating it since 2012, Airbus said. The aircraft had clocked around 56,000 flight hours over the course of nearly 21,000 flights, the plane maker said.

And so far, officials have said all its inspections were in order.

The aircraft passed a routine inspection before takeoff, Egyptian Airports Co. chief Adel Al-Mahjoob said Saturday.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aircraft incidents, the same plane’s tail struck a runway while landing in Cairo in 2001 and required repair. At the time, the aircraft was registered to the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, registration records show.

Kogalymavia’s Andrei Averyanov said the plane had been damaged in 2001, but had most recently been thoroughly checked for cracks in 2013. Not enough time had passed for major cracks to develop to a critical size since then, he said.

Smirnov said that he had personally flown the plane in recent months and that it was “pristine.”

The victims

There were 217 passengers and seven crew members on board Flight 9268. Of the passengers, 209 were Russian, four were Ukrainian and one was Belarusian. The citizenships of three other passengers are unknown.

Russian media reported that the disaster created a large number of orphans in Russia, as a lot of parents left their young children with relatives while they took vacations in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Most of the bodies retrieved at the crash site are intact, a medical source in Sinai told CNN on Monday, and showed no major burns.

The investigation

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will allow “the broadest possible participation of Russian experts in the investigation,” according to the Kremlin.

Russian officials have joined their Egyptian counterparts at the crash scene. Putin has also ordered a Russian investigation, the Kremlin said.

Aviation investigators from France and Germany, the countries where the plane was manufactured, are also taking part.

The aircraft’s engines were manufactured in the United States. If the plane’s engines become a focus of the investigation, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will likely dispatch a team to Egypt as well, a U.S official with knowledge of the investigation said.

Egypt has begun to analyze data off the plane’s flight data recorders known as “black boxes,” Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry announced Tuesday. Experts started retrieving data from the recorders on Monday, the ministry said.

The region

Sharm el-Sheikh, where Flight 9268 began its journey, is a beach resort dotted with palm trees at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The plane crashed about 300 kilometers (185 miles) farther north, near a town called Housna, according to Egyptian authorities.

The Sinai Peninsula has been a battleground between ISIS-affiliated militants and Egyptian security forces. The conflict has killed hundreds of people.

The militants appeared to claim responsibility for bringing down the Russian passenger jet in a statement posted online Saturday, but officials in Egypt and Russia disputed it.

Mahjoob, the airport official, said there was no evidence of a terrorist attack. And Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim that terrorists brought down the plane with an anti-aircraft missile “cannot be considered reliable,” according to RIA Novosti.

The Egyptian military said militants in Sinai have shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft weapons that shoot only as high as 14,000 feet, far short of the more than 30,000 feet at which Flight 9268 was flying when it dropped off radar.

Metrojet executives also said Monday that it was too early in the investigation to speculate or draw any conclusions. But Smirnov referred to purported footage of the crash posted by militants, saying: “Those images you have seen on the Internet; I think they are fake.”