Greek Air Force radar caught Flight MS804 spinning out of control while plummeting to earth in the early hours on Friday.
In comments made to journalists, Greek defence minister Panos Kammenos described what is currently the flight’s last known location, about 130 nautical miles SSE of the southern Greek island of Karpathos.
“The picture we have of this accident, which comes from the Air Force’s operations centre, is that at 3:37am the plane… performed a 90 degree turn to the left followed by a turn of 360 degrees to the right, while at the same time falling from 37,000 feet to 15,000 feet, at which point we lost the picture we had, at about 10,000 feet,” said Kammenos
An Air Force spokesman said the drop took place in under one minute, suggesting that the plane was in free-fall and pilots had lost all control. Military radar operates at lower altitudes than civil radar systems, and was able to capture the spiral.
Egyptian and Greek authorities said search and rescue aircraft had spotted orange and blue objects floating in the eastern Mediterranean, about 70 nautical miles from where the plane went off radar. Egypt Air issued a statement saying that the wreckage was from the missing flight. It attributed the information to the Eguptian foreign ministry.
Greek authorities did not confirm this. “All I can confirm at the moment is that we have seen orange objects with ropes attached to them and blue objects. We won’t know what they are until they are salvaged,” said a Hellenic Air Force spokesman.
The debris was found 200 nautical miles SSE of Karpathos. Prevailing northern winds of 20-50kmh might have carried debris from MS804 that far during the day, authorities said. Egyptian authorities have undertaken the salvage operation.
Egypt Air says 56 passengers were on board the Airbus A320, including a child and two infants. Thirty of the passengers were Egyptian, 15 French, and 11 from ten other nationalities. There were also seven crew members and three security staff.
The Egyptian Aviation Minister said there was a higher likelihood of sabotage than malfunction.
Flight MS804 reported no irregularities when it entered the Athens Flight Information Region at 2:24am local time, Greek civil aviation authorities said in a statement. FIR is an area broader than territorial airspace in which a given air traffic control tower is responsible for monitoring civilian aircraft. Pilots are obliged to signal their entry and departure between each FIR.
Athens air traffic controllers realised something was wrong when they attempted to contact flight MS804 to inform the pilot that he was leaving Athens FIR at 3:27am. They hailed the aircraft repeatedly on regular and emergency frequencies, without luck.
“At 3:29 and 40 seconds the plane’s radar signal is lost,” says the statement from the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority. “The assistance of military radar was immediately requested in order to relocate the target, but without result.”
MS804 performed its apparent death spiral seven minutes minutes later. Civil and military authorities are currently unable to explain this reporting discrepancy.
There is a second time lapse Greek authorities are in some difficulty to explain. A Greek Hercules C-130 transport plane reportedly took off from Elefsina, west of Athens, at 4:14am to conduct search and rescue. It was the first craft to reach the spot at which MS804 was last spotted, but it didn’t arrive until about 10am. “The plane needed to stop at Kastelli air force base in Crete to pick up equipment, and possibly to refuel,” a spokesman for the Hellenic Air Force said.
That leaves a six-hour lag during which military and civilian authorities had no eyes on the region. Kammenos said he had requested any satellite imagery that might be available for the area in that time period.
A statement from the airplane’s manufacturer, Airbus, said it had been delivered to the airline in 2003 and had accumulated approximately 48,000 flight hours.