Smoke detected on EgyptAir MS804 before crash: French investigators

EgyptAir Flight Data Suggests Smoke Was Detected on Plane
EgyptAir Flight Data Suggests Smoke Was Detected on Plane

Smoke was detected aboard EgyptAir Flight MS804 before it crashed but no conclusions are being drawn about the cause, France's air accident investigation agency said Saturday.

The plane's systems sent automated messages indicating smoke a few minutes before it disappeared from radar into the Mediterranean Sea, BEA spokesman Sebastien Barthe told NBC News. "This usually means a fire," he said.

It confirmed an earlier report by industry news site Aviation Herald that data transmissions from the plane revealed smoke in the front lavatory, behind the cockpit.

The ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting) messages suggest the possibility of smoke or a fire in close proximity to the electronics and equipment bay of the Airbus A320, located below the floor of the cockpit.

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"We can confirm that these data messages are genuine, they are real," Barthe said. "There are five or six reports of smoke from the front of the aircraft, close to the cockpit. We are not putting any interpretation on this information or what is the cause of the smoke."

He added that the priority for investigators was to the find jet's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder - the "black boxes."

The plane, carrying 66 people, crashed in the Mediterranean Sea Thursday. Wreckage was found Friday some 180 miles north of the Egyptian coast.

Terrorism has been cited as a possible cause — though officials have cautioned against speculation and there has been no credible claim of responsibility from any group.

The ACARS messages could have been triggered by a false indicator such as condensation or a wiring fault.

"The messages were all from the front of the plane but we do not know if the smoke was only in this place, it depends on the location of the detectors," Barthe said.

No mayday call was sent from the jet.

Related: EgyptAir Debris, Passengers' Belongings Found

Former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Greg Feith said the fact that the smoke warning occurred so soon before the plane disappeared suggest something more catastrophic than a discarded cigarette or electrical fire.

"Electrical fires don't burn that fast, and of course if somebody were to put a cigarette in a trash can with paper towels it definitely wouldn't have burned that fast," Feith said.

"It would have set off the sensor but the flight crew is trained to handle those types of fires and it would have given them time. Plus, they probably would have made a radio call," he said.

Related: Deep Seas, Underwater Mountains Could Slow EgyptAir Search

However, David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, said the pilots may have been too distracted to raise the alarm with air traffic controllers.

"There may not have been an indication on the flight deck just at the time the data link was connected," he told the BBC, adding: "When you smell smoke, the first thing you do is think 'What's that?' - you don't necessarily say anything until you've established what's happening.

"When the computers start to fail, you get so busy trying to work out what's happening and what you're going to do about it that you don't want to talk to anybody."

He added: "Fire, for aviators and mariners, has always been the enemy you fear most."

Meanwhile, investigators are looking at anyone with access to the EgyptAir plane while it was sitting on the ground, including baggage handlers, caterers, cleaners and fuel truck workers.

The plane was on the ground at four different airports in the 24 hours before the crash — in the Eritrean capital Asmara, Cairo, Tunis and Paris.