Aviation officials are still unclear about what caused the Metrojet plane crash

Egyptian prime minister Sherif Ismail looks at the remains of the Metrojet.
Egyptian prime minister Sherif Ismail looks at the remains of the Metrojet.
Image: AP/Egyptian prime minister's office
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This post has been updated.

Aviation officials believe that the Russian Metrojet flight that crashed in Egypt on Saturday (Oct. 31) killing 224 people on board broke apart in mid-air.

“All the signs show that the plane broke up in the air at great altitude,” Alexander Neradko, the head of Russia’s federal aviation authority, said in an interview on Russian state television. “The plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rockface,” an unnamed Egyptian official told Reuters.

There is, however, confusion about what might have caused the crash. On Monday (Nov. 2), a senior executive with Metrojet ruled out technical faults or pilot error. Alexander Smirnov, the deputy general director of the airline, told reporters that the crash happened due to “an external impact on the plane,” the Associated Press reports.

Meanwhile, another Metrojet executive contradicted earlier reports from Egyptian officials that suggested the pilot had sought to land the plane nearby. Viktor Yung says that their pilots did not send a distress call or contact Egyptian officials prior to the plane’s crash. These statements suggest that the airline is not quite ready to rule out terrorism as the cause of the crash.

The plane, an Airbus A320-200, took off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh at around 6am local time on Saturday heading to St. Petersburg and crashed less than a half hour later, reports say. Investigators say the way that the plane’s wreckage was scattered—in a pattern about 8 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide—suggests that the disintegration happened in mid-air.

An Islamic militant group in the area claimed responsibility for downing the plane, “in response to Russian air strikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land,” but officials in the US, Russia, and Egypt have dismissed these claims.

The Sinai province where the plane crashed is a restricted military zone, where the Egyptian government is fighting back an insurgency by militants affiliated with ISIL. But aviation officials say the group does not have the ability to shoot down a plane flying at 31,000 feet, the jet’s believed altitude.

Nevertheless, some security experts raised the possibility that a bomb was planted on board. “Other scenarios also have to be considered, especially the possibility that the plane was sabotaged at the airport before taking off,” a former Israeli national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, told Bloomberg.

US government officials are skeptical that terrorism was responsible, the New York Times reports.

A technical glitch could’ve have led to the crash, some aviation experts have speculated. The plane had endured a tail strike in 2001, which if not fixed properly, could have caused problems, one aviation investigator told The Guardian. The wife of one of the plane’s pilots said her husband told their daughter that the Metrojet’s condition was poor. “He complained before the flight that the technical condition of the aircraft left much to be desired,” she said. Earlier, there were also reports that the pilot had requested permission to land at a nearby airport, citing technical issues, the Associated Press reported.

Russian investigators said it is too soon to come to any conclusions about what may have caused the crash. “Initial examination shows that at the moment we can’t exclude any information,” Viktor Sorochenko, the director of Russia’s Interstate Aviation Commission, told reporters. “We will be looking into all possibilities.”