A Triage Guide to Thinking About the Russian Airliner Crash Over Egypt

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt this weekend (Reuters)

The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur has a wrap-up of the latest news, rumors, statements, and so on about the Russian airliners crash over the Sinai Peninsula two days ago.

In response to incoming queries, here is a triage guide to thinking about causes of this still-unexplained disaster.

  • Pilot error? In small-airplane crashes, this is the first place you look. In some modern airline disasters — Air France 447 over the Atlantic in 2009, Colgan 3407 on descent into Buffalo that same year, Asiana 214 with its botched landing at SFO two years ago — errors by professional flight crews seem to have been the cause.
    But in this case, it’s hard to imagine what pilot error could have caused an Airbus to blow apart in cruise flight. Pilots can make an airplane climb, dive, stall, fly into terrain, and even undergo maneuvers that can strain it beyond its structural limits. But I don’t know how they would make one explode. This is apart from the airline’s claim that no pilot error was involved.
  • Missile strike? This is conceivable but, on current evidence, seems unlikely. The airliner was cruising at more than 30,000 feet. This is way beyond the reach of the simple shoulder-carried surface-to-air weapons we usually associate with guerrilla or terrorist groups that are aiming at helicopters or at planes while they are landing or taking off.
    Only real, organized militaries have missiles capable of taking down planes at this altitude — as, for instance, almost certainly happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine last year. I’m not aware of previous suggestions that ISIS had gotten control of such weaponry.
  • Bomb aboard the airplane? This certainly could account for an otherwise-inexplicable destruction of the plane in mid-flight. If for propaganda purposes ISIS wants to brag that they are capable of taking down a modern airliner, the bomb hypothesis would be harder and slower to disprove than the missile theory. But since the wreckage — unlike that of Air France over the Atlantic or Malaysia 370 over the ocean — came down over land, where it can be retrieved and inspected, it will presumably reveal signs of the thermal and blast damage that would come from an explosion, or not.
  • Structural failure?  Immediately after news of the crash in Egypt came in, Clive Irving argued in The Daily Beast that latent structural damage, from a “hard landing” by this same airplane back in 2001, could have led to a sudden failure of a pressure bulkhead. This in turn would be consistent with an explosive decompression of the airplane which could have brought it down.
    Possible? Yes. The relevant evidence here will be the wreckage itself, and test-and-repair records for the airplane. Maintenance records for commercial aircraft are amazingly detailed and complete — or should be. We’ll see what these show.
  • Something else? It could be something else. Fatal accidents on modern airliners have become so rare that when one occurs, the explanation often turns out to be a combination of circumstances no one had exactly foreseen. The foreseeable accident-chains have, in fact, generally been foreseen and guarded against.

​So for the moment, here’s how I would think about it: very hard to see how the pilots could have been at fault, and very unlikely to think that ISIS has gotten hold of a modern military-grade surface-to-air missile. That leaves an onboard bomb, a structural failure, or something else no one has yet identified.