What The Smoke Alerts On EgyptAir Flight Tell Us

by Morgan Brinlee

As investigators continue to sort through the wreckage, data from the plane's onboard communication system revealed at least two smoke alerts went off in EgyptAir Flight 804's final moments. But are the automated warning messages proof of what brought the plane down? While the data gives some insight into what happened on board minutes before the tragic crash, it doesn't tell the whole story of how EgyptAir Flight 804 ended up in the Mediterranean Sea with 66 people on board. So, how much do we really know about the EgyptAir crash?

A series of seven Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) messages were reportedly received from EgyptAir Flight 804 before the Airbus A320 jetliner disappeared from air traffic controllers' radar screens Thursday. The error messages, which were first published by the Aviation Herald on Saturday, indicate a series of failures in the plane's flight-control system.

The first three ACARS message — a report of smoke in one of the cabin lavatories, a fault in a cockpit window and a fault in a sliding window sensor — were reportedly received from EgyptAir Flight 804 at 2:26 a.m. local time, roughly the same time the plane's pilot made contact with Greek air traffic control, according to a timeline of the jetliner's final moments put together by the New York Times.

Smoke was detected in the plane's avionics compartment only a minute later, according to the ACARS messaging data. A report of another cockpit window fault was received at 2:28 a.m. with an Autopilot Flight Control fault report showing something reportedly wrong within the spoilers control system coming in a minute later. Greek officials said the jetliner veered sharply to the left then made a full circle turn to the right and plunged first to 15,000 feet and then to 9,000 feet at 2:37 a.m. just before disappearing from radar, the Times reported. It had been flying from Paris to Cairo.

Although the ACARS messages appear to paint a terrifying picture of what happened in EgyptAir Flight 804's final moments, officials from France's aviation accidents investigation agency (known as the BEA) have said the alerts don't provide sufficient information for investigators to claim they know what caused the jetliner to crash. "These messages do not allow in any way to say what may have caused smoke or fire on board the aircraft," a BEA spokesman told Reuters.

As investigators and search teams continue to pull suspected debris from the Mediterranean in the hunt for more information, these seven ACARS messages at least provide a clue as to what may have caused the Airbus jetliner to crash. However, while officials have said error messages like those Flight 804 reported generally indicate a fire, they've been adamant in saying they don't give enough information to allow investigators to confidently know what happened on board. Furthermore, while error messages may help investigators piece together what brought EgyptAir Flight 804 down, they don't provide insight on why.