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What We Know, And Don't Know, About The Plane Crash In Egypt

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's explore what we know and don't know about a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt. The plane crash killed all 224 people on board. Now, based on experience, we can feel certain that some or even all the information believed to be known about this crash will change over time. But the early reports do suggest that searchers are looking for debris over a wide area of the Sinai Peninsula. Six square miles or so is the size of the search area, and that is a fact of interest to Jim Hall, our next guest. He's the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, oversaw many crash investigations. Welcome to the program, sir.

JIM HALL: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: And what does a wide debris field tell you?

HALL: Well, it says there was a midair breakup of the aircraft due to some sort of catastrophic event, which resulted in the aircraft coming down and over a wide area.

INSKEEP: As opposed to the plane going whole into one simple spot.

HALL: Yes.

INSKEEP: And when you say a catastrophic breakup, does that mean an explosion?

HALL: Well, it could've been an explosion of some kind. It could've been a structural problem. This aircraft had had a tailstrike event back in 2001, which was very serious. And there could've been a problem with the pressurization in the bulkhead that would've caused the - an in-flight rupture.

INSKEEP: Tailstrike - something had struck the tail of this aircraft in its past history.

HALL: Well, probably as a result of improper landing.

INSKEEP: So you had a plane with a history, but it is pretty rare that a plane would just come apart without some catastrophic event causing it.

HALL: That's certainly correct. And in this case, I'm sure the investigators will be looking at either the possibility of some sort of structural failure or some sort of, unfortunately, criminal act that brought the aircraft down.

INSKEEP: If the plane did come apart in midair - let's just ask it so you can answer it - does that mean it was a bomb?

HALL: Not necessarily. That can also, as I said, the - an in-flight rupture caused by an improper bulkhead repair or a center full tank explosion as we saw with TWA 800.

INSKEEP: Oh, that famous crash back in 1996 that you investigated.

HALL: That's correct. So there are other events, but at this point, you need to proceed ahead - the investigators - both with a criminal and civil investigation of this event until you can rule one or the other out.

INSKEEP: It appears that both Russia and Egypt are looking into this. And it is Russian authorities who have taken the flight data recorder then, the voice recorder, the so-called black boxes. What do you think of Russia's investigative capability?

HALL: Worked very closely with both of those countries. Russia has world-class laboratories in Moscow. They are, you know, very professional investigators and have a great deal of information in regard to any type of explosive activities. A signature - the explosion would leave a signature on the recorder that should provide some firm direction for the investigators in regard to what happened.

INSKEEP: Oh, you're talking about all the different data points that are captured as well as the sound of what's going on in the cockpit. You would see and hear something that would look like an explosion or not look like an explosion.

HALL: That's correct and particularly with the sound there are certain distinctive sound signatures that go with various types of explosions.

INSKEEP: Even if the recording stops after a fraction of a second it could...

HALL: Even after a fraction of a second, that gives you enough information to have a pretty good idea of what occurred.

INSKEEP: Do you have confidence that Russia and Egypt would say everything that they know about the cause of this crash?

HALL: I think their investigators would want to. Whether their governments would permit them to is another question.

INSKEEP: You mentioned having experience with Egypt. There was a famous EGYPTAIR crash in 2000 in which the NTSB found it to be a pilot suicide and that was an extraordinarily politically sensitive moment.

HALL: Yes, and once that became - once the recorder was read out and the Egyptian investigators knew what had occurred as a result of their pilot's actions, they were called back to Cairo. They were replaced and the new group came back and said it was a mechanical problem with the aircraft. So I don't have a great deal of confidence - I have a great deal of confidence in the investigators - the professional investigators in both of these countries. Their country's interest may trump their ability to be transparent in regard to what occurred.

INSKEEP: Well, it is interesting that the airline that operated this plane has put out a statement stating that there could be no technical or human cause of this crash. Do you have any idea what that means and do you think there is enough evidence on the table to state that?

HALL: Well, they may be wanting to get ahead of the investigation and be sure that whatever the facts are - come out - it's certainly in their interest to say that.

INSKEEP: What that effectively is saying is that anything within our airline's control it couldn't have been that.

HALL: That's correct.

INSKEEP: OK. But you think it's too early to know what happened here.

HALL: Well, I think that once the information - once the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder tapes are in Moscow at the laboratories there, they probably have a pretty good idea what has occurred.

INSKEEP: Jim Hall, it's always a pleasure talking with you.

HALL: My pleasure, thank you.

INSKEEP: He is the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and is now chairman of the firm Hall and Associates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.