This latest disaster involves a highly-experienced flight crew. So far, the media coverage has focused on lightning and turbulence.
Can lightning bring down a jet? Yes, but that is not easy: they are designed to withstand lightning strikes. On the other hand, the Airbus A330 is a fly-by-wire aircraft, and if you lose the wire…
Can turbulence bring down a jet? Yes, but again that would not be easy. The structure is built to withstand 150% of the design limits, and those limits are pretty high. Still, given that the storms in the area at the time had thunderheads going up to 50,000 feet, one can’t rule the turbulence out either…
Here’s another factor that I have not seen discussed: hail. Given the magnitude of the storms, it is possible that one could encounter softball-sized hail. If the jet is traveling at 500 mph and hits a piece of hail like that, it could smash the windshield. This would be disastrous at such speeds, and could explain why the automatic message–sent by the flight control systems–indicated both a loss in electrical functionality and cabin pressure.
Given that there was no MAYDAY message from the crew, whatever caused those failures was immediately catastrophic to the crew, and was sufficient to knock out even the backup systems.
What about terrorism? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess. Still, satellite data would probably have picked it up if there were a midair explosion. Then again, I’m old enough to remember the Lockerbie disaster. If there was a bomb, investigators will be able to tell, as there will be evidence of explosive decompression, as well as residue consistent with the use of explosives. The damage to the fuselage will be indicative of a blast from inside the aircraft.
Right now, it’s hard to speculate without more information. Given the magnitude of the storms in the area, I’m thinking catastrophic turbulence or a large-sized piece of hail.