The New York Times reported yesterday that French investigators, working with Egyptian counterparts, have determined the Airbus 320 that crashed in May traveling from Paris to Cairo was brought down by a fire inside the plane, near the cockpit.
While the exact location and nature of the fire are, as of yet, unknown, the evidence rules out what had been one of the more disturbing theories, that the plane was brought down by deliberate pilot action. The digital data recorder and voice recorder also seem to provide information that eliminates the likelihood of a bomb. There is still a possibility that the fire was started deliberately but the most likely scenario is that some equipment malfunction in the electrical bay caused a fire which rapidly grew uncontrollable. In 1998 a similar malfunction brought down Swissair 111, an MD-11, off the coast of Nova Scotia not long after it left New York for Geneva.
According to the investigators, the voice recorder indicated normal cockpit chatter until the captain suddenly declared there was a fire onboard and asked the first officer to grab the fire extinguisher. Those were the last words spoken just before the plane plunged out of control towards the ocean, breaking up as it fell.
The task now falls on investigators to positively identify the source and reason for the fire and to suggest changes which will lead to improvements in safety.