Egypt Air crash: Did 66 people die because the pilot smoked a cigarette in the cockpit?

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In 2016, an Egypt Air Airbus A320 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 66 people on board. According to investigators, the reason for the crash was a fire on board. Now, a new report says the pilot triggered it with a cigarette.

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The crashed Airbus of Egypt Air with the registration SU-GCC.

imago/ZUMA Press

The plane was piloted by Mohamed Said Shoukair from Cairo.

The plane was piloted by Mohamed Said Shoukair from Cairo.

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His co-pilot was Mohamed Mamdouh Ahmed Assem, also from Cairo.

His co-pilot was Mohamed Mamdouh Ahmed Assem, also from Cairo.

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  • An expert report unravels the mystery of the 2016 Egypt Air plane crash.

  • Accordingly, smoking pilots and an incorrectly fitted oxygen mask triggered a fire in the cockpit, which then spread quickly.

  • The Egyptian authorities had previously spoken of a terrorist attack.

At 11:21 p.m. on May 18, 2016, Egypt Air scheduled flight MS904 took off from Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle bound for Cairo. However, the Airbus A320 never arrived there: After disappearing from the radar screen at 2.34 a.m. on May 19, it crashed into the sea between Crete and the Egyptian coast. None of the 66 people on board survived the disaster.

In the days and weeks that followed, wreckage and the mortal remains of the passengers and crew members were recovered in a large-scale search operation on water and from the air. The two flight recorders could also be located.

When it came to clarifying the cause of the accident, there was initial confusion: while French investigators initially believed it was a mechanical error, their Egyptian colleagues assumed a terrorist attack. It was not until 2018 that British specialists determined, using data from the black box, that there had been a fire on board. Why this erupted, however, remained a mystery.

Ashtray replaced due to wear and tear

Now journalists from the “Corriere della Sera” had insight into a 134-page expert report that was recently sent to the Paris Court of Appeal, where a trial for involuntary manslaughter is to take place: 15 of the victims were French nationals. The report now apparently solves the mystery. According to this, the fire broke out in the cockpit because oxygen was escaping due to a defective mask – and because the pilot Mohamed Said Shoukair or the co-pilot lit a cigarette at a good 11,000 meters, the escaping oxygen probably fanned the embers so much that a fire ensued. This allowed the flames to spread rapidly throughout the aircraft, which meant that the pilots were unable to extinguish the fire. Eventually they lost control of the plane and it crashed into the sea.

According to the specialists, the sound of escaping oxygen can be clearly heard on audio recordings from the cockpit. The mask had been replaced three days earlier – and a valve in it had inexplicably been set to the emergency position, allowing the gas to escape under high pressure. They also found other aircraft deficiencies that the pilots never reported and consequently never corrected. However, two months before the accident, the ashtrays in the cockpit had been replaced because they were worn out from heavy use.

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