What happened to Kogalymavia Flight 9268? (UPDATED)

A Russian plane, Kogalymavia Flight 9268, carrying 224 people from Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort destination, to St. Petersburg, Russia, crashed in the Sinai on Saturday, killing everyone on board. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility, and several international air carriers quickly changed their routes to avoid Sinai airspace, but it’s unlikely that ISIS shot this plane down (although that doesn’t mean it wasn’t involved; see below).

Kogalymavia Flight 9268, in better days (Wikimedia | Sergey Korovkin)

Yes, ISIS’s Sinai Province affiliate is active in the territory over which this plane was flying when it went down, and yes, ISIS is openly waging jihad against Russia over Russia’s intervention in Syria. But the logistics of shooting down an aircraft at 30,000 feet, reportedly the last known altitude of the Russian plane, have to be considered beyond Sinai Province’s capabilities unless and until somebody proves otherwise. You can’t just hit a jet at that altitude with small arms fire, or even with a MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System); it’s just too high up. Even the most advanced MANPADS in existence (which Sinai Province doesn’t have), fired from the highest point in the Sinai (which wasn’t anywhere near where the plane went down) couldn’t have hit the plane at that altitude. You could shoot a civilian airliner down with a MANPADS (it’s been done a few times), but you’d almost certainly have to do it around takeoff or landing, not at or near cruising altitude. You might be able to modify a MANPADS missile to give it a higher ceiling, but you’d have to reduce its destructive potential, and if you’re going to shoot a plane down, why go to all this trouble instead of just shooting the plane down before it gets to cruising altitude?

Sinai Province does have some portable air defense weapons, but these have ceilings in the 10,000-12,000 foot range. It would need an anti-aircraft battery to take down something that high up, and, again, there’s no evidence it’s got access to anything like that. ISIS is believed to have gotten hold of one Soviet 2K12 Kub mobile anti-aircraft battery in the Syria-Iraq theater, which could definitely hit something flying at 30,000 feet. But there’s no evidence to suggest that it somehow transferred (or could transfer) that battery to Sinai, nor is there any obvious reason why it would have done so, rather than keeping it in Syria-Iraq where it’s being bombed from the air on a daily basis. In addition to what is known about Sinai Province’s capabilities, there’s also been no reported (and I stress reported) evidence from the crash site(s) to indicate that a missile strike brought the plane down.

On the other hand, aircraft don’t just fall out of the sky, especially once they’re at cruising altitude, so clearly something caused it to happen. It is possible that ISIS could have gotten a bomb onto the plane, but again it seems prudent to me to wait for actual evidence of that possibility before jumping to it. The investigation is likely to take months, and that assumes that we’ll ever actually learn what happened; some crashes are just never solved, and you’re also dealing with Egypt and Russia, two authoritarian governments that tightly control their respective national medias, leading the investigation.

What is at least tentatively known about the incident is that whatever happened to the plane, it seems to have involved a rapid break-up at high altitude followed by a quick descent. The wide expanse of debris suggests that it started coming apart at high altitude. Couple that with the fact that there doesn’t seem to have been any distress call from the pilot (initial reports that there was one appear to have been mistaken), and that suggests that things happened pretty fast. The tail section seems to have detached from the rest of the plane, based on how the wreckage was dispersed on the ground. There are conflicting reports about the plane’s condition, with Sharm el-Sheikh ground crew saying that it was in good condition but the co-pilot’s wife reportedly saying that he’d complained to her about the shape the aircraft was in. It was an old plane (18 years old), per The Guardian, “one of the oldest [Airbus] A321s in service, although its age is not regarded as excessive.”

Yesterday, The Daily Beast’s Clive Irving found something in that particular plane’s history that could have been a factor in this crash:

What does, however, jump out from this particular airplane’s record is an accident that it suffered on November 16, 2001, while landing at Cairo (while owned and operated by Middle East Airlines). As it touched down the nose was pointing at too high an angle and the tail hit the tarmac—heavily enough to cause substantial damage.

Tail strikes like this are not uncommon. The airplane was repaired and would have been rigorously inspected then and during subsequent maintenance checks. (Although the airplane was owned by a Russian company, Kogalymavia, operating as Metrojet, it was registered in Ireland and the Irish authorities were responsible for its certification checks.) Nonetheless investigators who will soon have access to the Airbus’s flight data recorder will take a hard look at what is called the rear pressure bulkhead, a critical seal in the cabin’s pressurization system.

A Russian television reporter said that the remains of the tail of the Airbus were found three miles from the rest of the wreckage. Images of the tail section show a clear break near the site of the rear pressure bulkhead.

This plane kept flying for 14 years after that 2001 accident, so there’s a “why now” element that has to be answered in this scenario. But there is precedent for a tail strike leading to a more catastrophic accident years later:

If this 2001 incident is partly to blame for Saturday’s crash, then the grounds crew in Sharm el-Sheikh has some explaining to do, and the airline, Metrojet or Kogalymavia, may be on the hook for flying an unsafe plane. Their deputy general director said today that an external “mechanical impact on the plane” is “the only plausible reason” why it could have crashed. Which could be entirely true. But that’s also just the kind of thing that you’d expect a top official at the airline to say if he’s looking to deflect the blame away from something over which the airline had control, like an age and/or maintenance issue.

UPDATE: Could this be the first evidence of a bomb on the plane?

CBS News’ national security correspondent David Martin reports a U.S. infrared satellite detected a heat flash over the Sinai at the time the Russian plane went down. The data is still being analyzed in an effort to determine what caused the flash. One possibility is a bomb, but an explosion in a fuel tank or engine as the result of a mechanical failure is also possible.

I am (if it’s not obvious by this point) no aviation expert, but I assume that either one of these possibilities would rule out the “stress on the previously busted up (technical term) air frame” as the cause. A bomb obviously points to terrorism, but an explosion in an engine or in the fuel tank could also point that direction via some kind of sabotage. Mechanical accident would also have to be considered. Investigators should be able to test the wreckage for residue from a bomb, but sabotage might be harder to detect.

Of course, the “heat flash” could also turn out to be unrelated, or nothing at all.

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