EgyptAir flight MS804: Search teams scouring the sea for black boxes

A screengrab from a handout video from the Egyptian Defence Ministry shows Egyptian Navy engaged in search operations for EgyptAir flight MS804 at sea off the Egyptian coast, on May 20, 2016.
A screengrab from a handout video from the Egyptian Defence Ministry shows Egyptian Navy engaged in search operations for EgyptAir flight MS804 at sea off the Egyptian coast, on May 20, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

CAIRO (AFP) - Search teams scoured the Mediterranean on Saturday (May 21) for more wreckage and the black boxes from EgyptAir flight MS804 for clues on why the plane plummeted and turned full circle before disappearing off radar.

An EgyptAir official said the search was focused on finding the bodies of the passengers and the Airbus A320's flight recorders, which will stop emitting a signal in a month when the batteries run out.

The plane carrying 66 passengers plunged into the Mediterranean early on Thursday while flying from Paris to Cairo.

 

While Egypt's aviation minister has pointed to terrorism as more likely than technical failure, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said there was "absolutely no indication" of why the plane went down.

"We're looking at all possibilities," he said, as reports indicated there had been smoke on board and an apparent problem with the flight control system just before it went down.

Families of the passengers on the EgyptAir flight gathered at a hotel near Cairo airport after meeting airline officials as they struggled to come to terms with the catastrophe.

"They haven't died yet. No one knows. We're asking for God's mercy," said a woman in her 50s whose daughter had been on board.

On Saturday, EgyptAir Holding Company chairman Safwat Moslem told AFP that the priority was finding the passengers' remains and the black boxes.

"The families want the bodies. That is what concerns us. The army is working on this. This is what we are focusing on," he said.

French investigators met their Egyptian counterparts in Cairo, while a French patrol boat carrying equipment capable of tracing the plane's black boxes was expected on Sunday or Monday.

The plane disappeared between the Greek island of Karpathos and the Egyptian coast in the early hours of Thursday, without its crew sending a distress signal.

It had turned sharply twice before plunging 6,700m and vanishing from radar screens, said Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos.

The Wall Street Journal and CNN cited unnamed sources as saying the plane's computer systems sent warning messages indicating smoke in the nose of the aircraft just before air traffic controllers lost contact.

The messages indicated intense smoke in the front portion of the plane. The error warnings also indicated that the flight control computer malfunctioned, the Journal report said.

It said the information was insufficient to determine whether the plane was brought down by a bomb or other causes.

Mr Philip Baum, the editor of Aviation Security International Magazine, told the BBC that technical failure could not be ruled out.

"There was smoke reported in the aircraft lavatory, then smoke in the avionics bay, and over a period of three minutes the aircraft's systems shut down," he said.

"That's starting to indicate that it probably wasn't a hijack, it probably wasn't a struggle in the cockpit, it's more likely a fire on board. Now whether that was a technical fire, a short circuit, or whether it was because a bomb went off on board, we don't know."

Greek civil aviation chief Constantinos Litzerakos said the pilot had mentioned no problem in his last communication.

"The flight controllers contacted the pilot at a height of 37,000 feet... he did not mention a problem," he said.

Personal belongings and parts of the Airbus A320 were spotted by teams searching the sea off Egypt's northern coast about 290km from the city of Alexandria, the military said.

Mr Kammenos said the teams, which include multinational aircraft and ships, had found "a body part, two seats and one or more items of luggage".

The passengers included 30 Egyptians, 15 French citizens, two Iraqis, two Canadians, and citizens from Algeria, Belgium, Britain, Chad, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. They included a boy and two babies.

Seven crew members and three security personnel were also on board.

The European Space Agency said one of its satellites had on Thursday spotted an oil slick about 40km south-east of the plane's last known location.

The disaster comes just seven months after the bombing of a Russian passenger jet by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group over Egypt's Sinai peninsula in October that killed all 224 people on board.

In October, foreign governments issued travel warnings for Egypt and demanded a review of security at its airports after ISIS said it downed the Russian airliner over Sinai with a bomb concealed in a soda can that had been smuggled on the plane.

ISIS has been waging a deadly insurgency against Egyptian security forces and has claimed attacks in both France and Egypt.