By Ralph Ellis, Ben Wedeman and Michael Pearson
PHILADELPHIA (CNN) — Egypt’s military released Saturday what it said are images of wreckage and personal belongings found in the search for EgyptAir Flight 804, which crashed this week in the Mediterranean Sea with 66 people aboard.
Photos show chunks of debris and a life vest as searchers and investigators hunt for the plane and for clues about the crash.
These come as French aviation officials revealed that the plane sent automatic messages about smoke in the front of the aircraft just before it crashed early Thursday en route from Paris to Cairo.
France’s revelation Saturday confirmed flight data that CNN obtained from an Egyptian source a day earlier.
That flight data indicated smoke alerts occurred near the airliner cockpit minutes before the plane’s crash.
The data came through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, which sends messages between planes and ground facilities. A screen grab of data has time stamps that match the approximate time the aircraft went missing.
BEA, France’s accident investigation agency, “can confirm that the aircraft sent automatic ACARS messages about smoke in the front of the aircraft,” spokesman Sebastian Barthe said Saturday.
Barthe said he cannot confirm what caused the smoke or its origins.
The alerts don’t necessarily mean a fire occurred on the plane or that the crew even knew about the alerts, which are automatically transmitted, aviation experts cautioned.
‘Black boxes’ still missing
Barthe said, “The main priority for the investigation is to locate the aircraft and the flight data recorders cockpit recorder.”
But officials said these recorders, sometimes called the “black boxes,” remain missing.
“(The data) doesn’t tell us anything, whether it’s an explosion because of a bomb or because of a mechanical fault, but immediately it narrows down the area that we’re looking at,” CNN aviation analyst Richard Quest said. “We’re now no longer worried about wings or what else might have happened, or other flight control surfaces.”
Egyptian officials have said they suspect terrorism, but no group has come forward to claim credit.
No survivors have been found, but searchers in the Mediterranean located debris Friday, including suitcases and human remains.
Data sent over a few minutes
Aviation experts held different views of what the ACARS data may signify.
There were indications of problems with a heated window in the cockpit, a sliding window in the cockpit, smoke in the lavatory, smoke in the avionics compartment below the cockpit, a fixed window, the autopilot and the flight control system.
“It could have been either something mechanical that had failed, a short circuit, or it could have been an incendiary device of some kind as well,” CNN aviation analyst David Soucie said.
He said it was significant that the data was sent over a period of one to two minutes.
“Now if it was a bomb, the characteristic bomb … (it) would have ruptured the skin of the aircraft,” Soucie said. “This is not the indication you would have had, because a bomb that would do that would be instantaneous, and these reports would not have gone over two minutes like they do.”
The ACARS data, however, could be consistent with a catastrophic failure — be it from an intentional act or mechanical breakdown, according to an aviation official and a former Federal Aviation Administration official.
The aviation official said if there were a fire on board a plane, it would tend to burn slow enough for pilots to send an emergency message. These messages could have been a result of wires shorting out and malfunctioning as the plane broke apart.
The aviation official said the messages, while random, would be consistent with what a system would send on a plane falling apart.
There have been electrical problems with window anti-ice heaters in A320s. In 2003, the FAA required windshields replaced in all A320s in the United States. It’s not known whether Egypt followed the FAA directive.
Debris found in water
EgyptAir and Greek officials said Friday that searchers found debris from the plane in the water.
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos relayed the Egyptian discovery of a body part, seats and suitcases, citing Egyptian officials. Later, the airline issued a statement saying more remains, personal belongings and aircraft seats had been discovered.
The Egyptian military said it had found parts of the aircraft and passenger belongings about 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Alexandria, Egypt.
What went wrong?
The plane was carrying 56 passengers and 10 crew members and security when it left Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris late Wednesday.
Most of the passengers were Egyptian — 30 in all. But also aboard were 15 French citizens, including an infant. There were also passengers from Iraq, Britain, Belgium, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Chad, Portugal, Canada and Algeria, according to Sharif Fathi, Egypt’s aviation minister.
Flight 804 disappeared from radar early Thursday as it flew to Cairo — what should have been about a 3Â½-hour flight.
At some point before dropping off radar, the plane swerved 90 degrees to the left and then made a 360-degree turn to the right before plunging first to 15,000 feet, then 10,000 feet, and disappearing from radar, Greek officials said.
That sudden change in what had been an uneventful flight is why Egyptian officials are focusing on terror as the likely cause, a senior Egyptian official told CNN on Friday.
What Greek officials described as swerving was likely pieces of the aircraft being picked up on radar as they fell from the sky, U.S. officials told CNN.
As of now, investigators have found nothing implicating the flight crew or security officials aboard the plane, the Egyptian official said.
Checks of the passenger manifest have so far resulted in no hits on terror watch lists, officials with knowledge of the investigation said.
The jet had routine maintenance checks in Cairo before it left for Paris, the airline said. Earlier Wednesday, the jet was also in Eritrea and Tunisia, data from flight tracking websites show.
Greece, France, the United States and other nations were searching about 130 nautical miles southeast of the Greek island of Karpathos, Greek aviation officials said.
The European Space Agency said Friday that its Sentinel-1A satellite had spotted a 2-kilometer (1.24-mile) oil slick near where the plane is believed to have crashed. The agency said it’s possible the slick could be from another source.
As crews searched, somber relatives gathered in Cairo and Paris airports, seeking word on their loved ones.
The Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry has formed an investigative committee for the crash led by Ayman al-Moqadem, the investigator also in charge of the inquiry into the October crash of a Russian Metrojet airliner over the Sinai. That disaster, which killed all 224 aboard, is widely believed to be the work of terrorists.
Earlier Friday, three French technical safety investigators and a technical expert from airplane manufacturer Airbus arrived in Cairo to help with the investigation, according to the French Embassy in Egypt.
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