What happened to crash plane's cockpit?

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Q: Were there any clues that this flight was doomed when it departed?

A: No. The flight, took off at 1.17am for Cairo, and appeared to be proceeding normally until the last radio communication between pilots and New York controllers at 1.47 am.

Q: What happened?

A: A horrifying sequence that sent the plane crashing to the sea with the loss of all 217 on board. Slowly, information is reaching investigators, from radar information and from the two "black boxes".

Q: What has been learned?

A: The crash apparently began with the disengagement of the automatic pilot. Eight seconds later, the aircraft, which had reached a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, descended 14,000 feet to 16,000 feet in 36 seconds. Because the plane was falling at almost the speed of sound, passengers may have experienced weightlessness.

During that drop, both engines were shut off. When the jet reached 16,000 feet, it suddenly began to climb to 24,000 feet. As it pulled out of its dive, the aircraft would have been subjected to two-and-a- half times times the force of gravity.

The flight data recorder stopped functioning. The plane then turned down into a precipitous dive, its engines still switched off. Radar suggests that it began breaking apart at about 10,000 feet before reaching the ocean. The last radar signal seen was at 1.52am, 33 minutes after take- off.

Q:Can investigators tell us why all this happened?

A: Not yet. The data has contributed to the mystery almost as much as it has helped. Investigators are confident that the first moments of the incident were not caused by some total flight system failure. They have ruled out an earlier theory that the thrust reversers accidentally deployed mid-flight.

Q. So this must have been due to human error or sabotage?

A: We don't even know. Some experts surmise that the original trigger was a sudden decompression, caused, for instance, by a door blowing off. That may explain what seems to have been a deliberate decision in the cockpit to put the plane into a dive. That scenario does little to explain why both engines were turned off. But it is possible that a pilot would turn off the engines to facilitate a controlled landing on water.

Q: So it was mechanical failure?

A: No. Speculation is concentrated on the possibility of some struggle in the cockpit. We know that the FBI is examining a number of theories, including a botched hi-jacking, an act of terrorism or some other kind of intervention by a crew member or a passenger that sent the plane plummeting. Suicide by a crew member or a passenger is also being examined.

Q: Why was there no distress communication from the pilots to ground control?

A: Experts warn against reading too much into this. The responsibilities of the pilots during those seconds would have been first to fly the plane, second to navigate its course and only third to communicate with controllers on the ground.