PARIS: The French aviation safety agency said on Saturday that the EgyptAir flight MS804 that crashed into the Mediterranean with 66 people aboard had transmitted automatic messages indicating smoke in the cabin.
“There were ACAR messages emitted by the plane indicating that there was smoke in the cabin shortly before data transmission broke off,” a spokesman of France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis told Agence France-Presse.
ACAR, which stands for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, is a digital system that transmits short messages between aircraft and ground stations.
The spokesman said it was “far too soon to interpret and understand the cause of Thursday’s accident as long as we have not found the wreckage or the flight data recorders.”
The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, earlier reported that automated warning messages indicated smoke in the nose of the aircraft and an apparent problem with the flight control system.
The warnings came about three minutes before air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane at 0029 GMT on Thursday, the Journal said.
The messages indicated intense smoke in the front portion of the plane, specifically the lavatory and the equipment compartment beneath the cockpit. The error warnings also indicated that the flight control computer malfunctioned, the report said.
CNN also reported smoke alerts on the flight minutes before it crashed, citing an Egyptian source.
Search is on
On Friday, search teams found wreckage including seats and luggage about 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt’s military said.
Search teams scoured the Mediterranean Saturday for more wreckage and the black boxes of the plane 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.
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.
The disaster comes just seven months after the bombing of a Russian passenger jet by the Islamic State jihadist group over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula in October that killed all 224 people on board.
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 Agence France-Presse 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 carrying 66 passengers plunged into the Mediterranean early Thursday while flying from Paris to Cairo. The plane disappeared between the Greek island of Karpathos and the Egyptian coast, without its crew sending a distress signal.
It had turned sharply twice in Egyptian airspace before plunging 22,000 feet (6,700 meters) and vanishing from radar screens, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos has said.
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.