The Metrojet flight 9268 full of mostly Russian vacationers 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, scattering in chunks and bits across almost eight square miles. Air traffic controllers apparently didn’t receive any distress calls. The plane crashed in Hasana, a mountainous region in the northern Sinai Peninsula. The area is a military zone closed to the public with a long-running insurgency by jihadist groups against the government. Rescue workers have found 12 large pieces of the plane’s hull at the crash site, indicating it disintegrated high in the air.
Hours after the crash, an affiliate of the Islamic State operating in the Sinai Peninsula has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane in a statement, which said the attack was retaliation for Russia’s actions in Syria. The Russian transportation minister, Maxim Sokolov, rejected their claim as “fabrications”. Egyptian officials also dismissed the claim, saying there was no evidence to support it.
Asked whether Islamic group could shoot down an aircraft, the US director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper said, “it’s unlikely but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
While insurgents in Sinai are believed to have in possession of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets, Islamic State militants are not known to possess any sophisticated surface-to-air missile system capable of shooting down an aircraft at an airliner’s cruising altitude.
The radar data from the Sweden-based Flight Radar 24 showed the flight lurched up and down several times in the final moments before it lost contact with the ground. The Airbus climbed nearly 3,000 feet in three seconds before falling another 3,000 feet a few seconds later, the altitude data suggested. It repeated the abrupt rise and fall a second time before it was lost to radar. The data also showed the aircraft rapidly losing speed in its last minute.
A US infrared satellite that was over Sinai at the time of the crash detected a heat flash in the vicinity, indicating that an explosion may have happened on-board. US military and intelligence officials believe that a malfunction engine exploding or a bomb blast could be one of many possibilities causing fire on the plane or wreckage hitting the ground. The same satellite ruled out the possibility of a missile attack, as it didn’t detect any heat trail that a rocket engine would have produced.
The airline company Kogalymavia, which flies under the name Metrojet, has blamed “external influence” for Sinai plane crash, ruling out any kind of technical fault for the disaster. The wife of the co-pilot told Russia’s NTV channel that her husband had complained about the mechanical condition of the plane as “left much to be desired” just before the flight left Sharm el-Sheikh. But the airline has insisted that the plane and its personnel were in top flying condition. The aircraft had clocked around 56,000 flight hours over the course of nearly 21,000 flights, the airline said.
Aleksandr A. Smirnov, deputy director for aviation at Metrojet, said in a news conference in Moscow that the airline absolutely excludes technical failure, pilot error or a human factor as the cause of the crash. The company did not provide any evidence to support those statements.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered the establishment of a state commission to investigate the crash. Investigators have been examining the wreckage scattered across the barren, black pebbles of the Sinai desert plateau. Russian authorities confirmed that the plane’s two black boxes are in good condition. The black boxes are yet to be decoded for further analysis.
Meanwhile, the American Embassy in Egypt has banned its staff from travelling to the North Sinai, where the plane crashed. It said that this was a precautionary measure, pending the outcome of the investigation into the disaster.