Mystery and confusion surrounded the final moments of a Russian jetliner that plummeted suddenly from high altitude to the Egyptian desert, killing all 224 people aboard. The airline Monday ruled out pilot error or a technical fault, but Russian aviation officials dismissed those comments as premature.
CBS News' national security correspondent David Martin reports a U.S. infrared satellite detected a heat flash over the Sinai at the time the Russian plane went down. The data is still being analyzed in an effort to determine what caused the flash. One possibility is a bomb, but an explosion in a fuel tank or engine as the result of a mechanical failure is also possible.
Some aviation experts raised the possibility that a bomb on board the Metrojet Airbus A321-200 brought it down, while others cited an incident in 2001 when the aircraft grazed the runway with its tail while landing.
James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said that while there is no direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet, it couldn't be excluded that the plane was brought down by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists in the Sinai Peninsula.
Asked if a terrorist attack could be ruled out, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: "No versions could be excluded."
Metrojet firmly denied that the crash could have been caused by either equipment failure or crew error.
In televised comments from Egypt, Neradko said it would be possible to draw conclusions about the crash only after experts examined the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders and studied the wreckage.
He said the large area where debris were scattered indicated the jet had broken up at high altitude, but he refrained from citing a reason for the crash pending the investigation.
Experts say planes break up in flight usually due to one of three factors: a catastrophic weather event, a midair collision or an external threat, such as a bomb or a missile.
IS Sinai took credit for “destroying” the plane but it wasn’t immediately clear what the contention was in terms of just how the group went about sabotaging the flight. Subsequently, a series of analysts and commentators opined that there was simply no way the militants could have possessed the technology or the expertise to shoot down a plane flying at 31,000 feet, but as Kogalymavia put it, “a plane cannot simply disintegrate.”
In short, it seems as though something exploded, and while we can’t know for sure whether someone detonated on board or whether, as former NTSB investigator Alan Diehl told CNN, "final destruction" of the plane was the result of "aerodynamic forces or some other type of G-forces,” the circumstances are exceptionally suspicious especially given where the plane was flying and the current rather “tense” relationship between Moscow and Sunni extremists.
Now, the US has apparently ruled out the possibility that a projectile hit the plane but satellite imagery depicts a “heat flash” at the time of the crash which indicates “some kind of explosion on the aircraft itself, either a fuel tank or a bomb.” Here’s NBC:
While many have speculated that a missile may have struck a Russian commercial airliner that went down over Egypt's Sinai peninsula, U.S. officials are now saying satellite imagery doesn't back up that theory.A senior defense official told NBC News late Monday that an American infrared satellite detected a heat flash at the same time and in the same vicinity over the Sinai where the Russian passenger plane crashed.According to the official, U.S. intelligence analysts believe it could have been some kind of explosion on the aircraft itself, either a fuel tank or a bomb, but that there's no indication that a surface-to-air missile brought the plane down.That same infrared satellite would have been able to track the heat trail of a missile from the ground."The speculation that this plane was brought down by a missile is off the table," the official said.A second senior U.S. defense official also confirmed the surveillance satellite detected a "flash or explosion" in the air over the Sinai at the same time.According to the official, "the plane disintegrated at a very high altitude," when, as the infrared satellite indicates, "there was an explosion of some kind."That official also stressed "there is no evidence a missile of any kind brought down the plane."
We'd be remiss if we didn't note that the video released by ISIS which purports to depict the plane exploding in mid-air doesn't appear to show any kind of missile, but rather seems to suggest that someone on the ground knew the exact time when the aircraft was set to explode.
To be clear, there's always the possibility that this is a coincidence and that the explosion which brought down the plane wasn't terror related, but given the circumstances, you certainly can't blame anyone for suspecting the worst and as we noted earlier, the Sinai Peninsula is well within the range of Russia's warplanes flying from Latakia: