Thursday, June 16, 2016

EgyptAir Jet Wreckage Found, But Key Pieces Still Missing
CAIRO -- Egypt on Wednesday said that it spotted and obtained images from the wreckage of the EgyptAir plane that crashed into the Mediterranean last month, killing all 66 people on board, according to a statement by the country's investigation committee.

The committee said that the vessel John Lethbridge, operated by U.S. company Deep Ocean Search under a contract with the Egyptian government, "had identified several main locations of the wreckage."

It added that the Lethbridge had obtained images of the wreckage located between the Greek island of Crete and the Egyptian coast. There was still no indication that the potentially vital flight data and cockpit voice recorders -- the so-called "black boxes" -- had been found.

The next step, the committee said, will be drawing a map showing the wreckage location.

The 82.05-yard-long American survey vessel is equipped with sonar and other equipment capable of detecting wreckage at depths up to 6,000 feet.

The EgyptAir Airbus A320 en route to Cairo from Paris had been cruising normally in clear skies on an overnight flight on May 19. The radar showed that the doomed aircraft turned 90 degrees left, then a full 360 degrees to the right, plummeting from 38,000 feet to 15,000 feet before disappearing at about 10,000 feet.

Leaked flight data indicated a sensor detected smoke in a lavatory and a fault in two of the plane's cockpit windows in the final moments of the flight.

The cause of the crash still has not been determined. Ships and planes from Egypt, Greece, France, the United States and other nations have been searching the Mediterranean Sea north of the Egyptian port of Alexandria for the jet's black boxes, as well as more bodies and parts of the aircraft.

Since the crash began, only small pieces of wreckage and human remains have been recovered in a search that has been narrowed down to three-mile area of the Mediterranean.

Egypt's civil aviation minister Sherif Fathi has said he believes terrorism is a more likely explanation than equipment failure or some other catastrophic event. But no hard evidence has emerged on the cause, and no militant group has claimed to have downed the jet.

Wednesday's announcement came nearly two weeks after the French ship Laplace detected black box signals from the missing plane.

Locator pings emitted by flight data and cockpit voice recorders can be picked up from deep underwater. The Laplace is equipped with three detectors designed to pick up those signals, which in the case of the EgyptAir plane are believed to be at a depth of some 9,842 feet. By comparison, the wreckage of the Titanic is lying at a depth of some 12,500 feet.

With the news from the Lethbridge on Thursday, France announced that the Laplace had finished its mission in agreement with Egyptian authorities and would leave the search area.

It was the detection of the pings by the Laplace that helped narrow the search to just several miles.

Ten days later, Egyptian investigators said that time was running out in the search for the black boxes. They said on Sunday that nearly two weeks remained before the batteries of the flight's data and cockpit voice recorders expire and they stop emitting signals.

If retrieved, the boxes could reveal whether a mechanical fault, a hijacking or a bomb caused the disaster. The voice recorder should contain a record of the last 30 minutes in the cockpit, and is equipped to detect even loud breathing. The data recorder would contain technical information on the engines, wings and cabin pressure. Investigators hope the black boxes will offer clues as to why there was no distress call.

Finding them without the signals is possible but more difficult.

Last October, a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula shortly after taking off from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. A local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for downing the aircraft just hours after the crash. In November, Russia said an explosive device brought down the aircraft.

The two disasters have unsettled authorities at the Cairo airport, where false alarms or bomb threats have caused lengthy delays to flights and at least one cancellation last week.

Security has also been considerably tightened at Egypt's 20-plus airports since the Russian plane crash, with passengers now subjected to roughly the same security measures in force at major international airports.

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