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National Security & Defense

What Brought Down EgyptAir Flight 804?

Today’s Morning Jolt features a big roundup of the disturbing news out of Egypt this morning:

Not a great day to be flying:

EgyptAir Flight 804 vanished from radar on its way from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard, the airline said Thursday.

The plane was flying at 37,000 feet when it lost contact overnight above the Mediterranean Sea, the airline tweeted. Although investigators are still trying to figure out what happened, French President Francois Hollande said he had been told the flight crashed.

CNN reports that Greek air-traffic controllers say the plane “swerved 90 degrees left and then 360 degrees to the right” before plunging.

Think back to 1999, and EgyptAir Flight 990.

When this evidence emerged at the National Transportation Safety Board, the American investigators were shocked but also relieved by the obvious conclusion. There was no bomb here. Despite initial fears, there was nothing wrong with the airplane. The apparent cause was pilot error at its extreme: [co-pilot, Gameel al-] Batouti had gone haywire. Every detail that emerged from the two flight recorders fit that scenario: the sequence of the switches and controls that were moved, the responses of the airplane, and the words that were spoken, however cryptic and incomplete. Batouti had waited to be alone in the cockpit, and had intentionally pushed the airplane to its death. He had even fought the captain’s valiant attempt at recovery. Why? Professionally, the NTSB didn’t need to care. It was up to the criminal investigators at the FBI to discover if this was a political act, or the result of a plot. Even at the time, just weeks after the airplane went down, it was hard to imagine that Batouti had any terrorist connections, and indeed, the FBI never found any such evidence. But in pure aviation terms it didn’t really matter why Batouti did it, and pure aviation is what the NTSB is all about. So this was easy — Crash Investigation 101. The guy to blame was dead. The NTSB wouldn’t have to go after Boeing — a necessary task on occasion, but never a pleasant prospect. The wreckage, which was still being pulled out of the ocean, would not require tedious inspection. The report could be written quickly and filed away, and the NTSB could move on to the backlog of work that might actually affect the future safety of the flying public.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Muslim to be a suicidal pilot . . . 

The co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 purposely crashed the plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board, officials said Thursday.

“We at Lufthansa are speechless that this aircraft has been deliberately crashed by the co-pilot,” said Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings. Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said the co-pilot, 27-year-old German national Andreas Lubitz, apparently “wanted to destroy the aircraft.”

It’s unknown whether Lubitz planned his actions, Robin said. But he “took advantage” of a moment in which the pilot left the cockpit and “activated the descent,” which can only be done deliberately.

People are giving Donald Trump grief over this morning’s Tweet declaring, “Looks like yet another terrorist attack. Airplane departed from Paris. When will we get tough, smart and vigilant? Great hate and sickness!” Speculation isn’t particularly wise from a presidential candidate, but don’t give Trump too much heat; he’s only metaphorically saying out loud what a lot of people are thinking.

This morning John Schindler — who wrote a fascinating article on New Jersey–raised Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, NATO, Russia and the future of Europe — summarized what can be surmised at this hour in a series of tweets.

The airliner fell from the sky at cruise altitude, 37,000 feet; modern airliners simply do not do this without something catastrophic happening. The plane was in good shape, no known safety issues, and it gave no distress call as it plunged down. There’s no sign of a midair collision.

He writes that the “first suspect” in the downing of the plane has to be terrorism, and if so, it had to be a bomb onboard. The altitude was too high (and too far out in the middle of the ocean) for standard shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons.

Three air marshals were on board. That sounds like a lot, but apparently EgyptAir had been ratcheting up security. (Was EgyptAir expecting one of their Paris–Cairo flights to be targeted by terrorists? Were they expecting a hijacking attempt, and perhaps the terrorists changed their plans to a bombing?)

The plane flew from Paris, where we know there have been active Islamist terror cells. This morning the French government extended the state of emergency in place since the Paris attacks.

And French intelligence clearly expected Islamists to try something, but perhaps thought the attacks would come in summer:

Islamic State militants are gearing up for a campaign of bomb attacks on large crowds in France, host to next month’s Euro 2016 soccer championships, its spy chief has said.

Rare remarks by Patrick Calvar, the head of France’s DGSI internal intelligence agency, to the parliament’s defense committee spelled out “a new form of attack . . . characterized by placing explosive devices in places where there are large crowds and repeating this type of action to create a climate of maximum panic.

“Clearly, France is the most threatened and we know that Daesh (Islamic State) is planning new attacks,” Calvar told the committee on May 10, according to a transcript of his testimony released to the media on Thursday.

Still, if you were ISIS or some other anti-Western extremist group, wouldn’t you prefer to target a plane full of Westerners?


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