Russian jet crash investigation: The key question

Story highlights

  • Les Abend: Russian jet appeared to stall during high-altitude portion of flight
  • He says the key question is what could have caused that emergency

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 31 years of flying experience. He is a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine.

(CNN)As with all aviation tragedies, none of us can imagine the pain and suffering being experienced by the families of the victims of Kogalymavia Flight 9268. This is the reason for accident investigations -- so that such pain and suffering never becomes a reality to others under similar circumstances.

In that regard, the very preliminary stages of the investigation process have just begun. The jurisdiction for this process is Egypt. That's the location of the crash site. However, the Egyptian government could allow the Russians to organize the investigation. Regardless, ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) guidelines and protocol for the investigation should be followed. This is the protocol that the National Transportation Safety Board follows here in the U.S.
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It will be the prerogative of the investigation team to invite other parties to the process. The other parties are experts in their fields. Most likely the experts will include, the airplane manufacturer -- Airbus, the engine manufacturer consortium -- IAE, representatives of the airline, air traffic control and various government authorities.
    As of this writing, it appears that the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the digital flight data recorder (DFDR) have been recovered. That's good news. But it will be at the discretion of the investigation team as to whether this information is disseminated to the public. And it will most likely be at least a year until a probable cause is determined.
    It's also important to understand that accidents are caused by a number of factors. Rarely, if ever, is one factor the absolute culprit.
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    At this moment, it appears that the airplane had reached its cruise altitude, after approximately 20 minutes into the flight, and then almost immediately it fell out of the sky with apparently no distress call to air traffic control. What would bring down an airliner in the cruise flight regime so quickly?
    Cruise flight is usually a low-stress environment. As opposed to takeoffs or landings, time is available to assess an abnormality and correct it. Without more information at this point, I'm led to believe that something catastrophic must have occurred. But what?
    After my informal analysis of the Internet site, Flightradar24, which allows tracking of ground speed, position, altitude and heading, it appears that the airplane experienced an aerodynamic stall.
    In other words, the airspeed over the wings was low enough that the air no longer was able to produce lift. This is a dangerous situation for an airliner operating in the thin atmosphere of a high altitude environment. It is difficult to recover from such an event. The airplane will lose a lot of altitude during the recovery process, but normal flight is still possible once the stall no longer exists
    All of this analysis is assuming the Flightradar24 data is accurate. But the million-dollar question is, "How did the airplane end up in an aerodynamic stall?" Was it a mechanical failure? Was it a distraction event where an abnormality was discovered and being addressed by the crew while their lack of attention allowed for an unsafe flight condition? Or was it a combination of both circumstances?
    And now that evidence of an in-flight break-up has surfaced according to Russian authorities, it appears that the flight crew lost control of the airplane to the extent structural limits were exceeded. This is consistent with the high rate of downward vertical speeds attained according to the Flightradar24 data. This information raises more questions than it answers. What significant event caused a loss of control?
    It's much too early in the investigation process to draw a conclusion. The jury will be out for a while. In the meantime, it's best to have patience and to most certainly have empathy for the grieving families.