Report suggests oxygen leak in EgyptAir tragedy

December 30, 2019
Photo: Mehmet Mustafa Celik

A cockpit fire that French investigators believe caused an EgyptAir Airbus A320 to plummet into the Mediterranean may have been due to a high-pressure oxygen leak, according to new claims in The Wall Street Journal.

Egyptair flight MS-804 plunged into the Mediterranean about 130kms north of the Egyptian city of Alexandria in May 2016 with 56 passengers and 10 crew on board.

Messages received from the plane prior to the crash indicated cockpit window temperature sensor problems and that smoke detectors in the toilets and avionics bay had been activated.

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The Egyptian Aircraft Accident Investigation Committee reported in 2016 that traces of explosive substance had been found on human remains, suggesting that a bomb was involved.

Because of this, it transferred the case to the Egyptian Prosecution Bureau for furter investigation and it has yet to be resolved.

France’s air safety investigator, the Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses (BEA), released a statement in July 2018 outlining its belief that there had been cockpit fire and expressing concern the investigation was now “protected” by the Egyptian criminal investigation.

It also raised doubts about the Egyptian claim that explosive residue was found on the bodies.

Now confidential documents from a French judicial investigation viewed by The Wall Street Journal suggest an oxygen leak preceded the fire that likely disabled the plane.

France launches a judicial investigation whenever its citizens are involved in a crash and the Journal quoted a 2018 expert report ordered by the judge involved.

The documents show the plane registered a series of errors in its final five flights and says automated messages sent by the plane were largely ignored by EgyptAir pilots and the airline’s technical center.

It also says the plane should not have left Cairo on its penultimate flight “after the appearance of repeated faults that were not reported by successive teams”.

These included faults with bathroom smoke detectors, a circuit breaker and the plane’s air conditioning system.

On the last flight, the cockpit voice recorder picked up what French investigators believe was a high-pressure oxygen leak shortly before the captain declared a fire.

According to the documents, a bathroom smoke detector activated followed by a cascade of other faults as passengers clustered toward the back of the plane in an apparent attempt to avoid the fire.

The plane slammed into the sea soon afterward.

The journal noted the disagreement between France and Egypt underscored the difficulties that arise if an authoritarian nation refuses to conduct an investigation or to allow other countries involved in an accident to examine evidence.

The judge’s attempts to get hold of information from the plane’s recorders were initially thwarted by international aviation rules and it was only obtained after a search warrant was executed.