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Two Years on: EgyptAir Flight 990

By Best Ace in News
Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 09:12:31 PM EST
Tags: News (all tags)

The 31st of October this year marks the second anniversary of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Nantucket, Mass. The cause of the crash, which resulted in the deaths of all 217 on board, still remains a mystery and the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) has not released its final report. What follows below is an overview of the circumstances surrounding the crash, and an update on the investigation process.

The Pilot Suicide Theory

In the months immediately following the crash, American air accident investigators quickly focused on the actions of one of the four pilots, Gamil al-Batouti, who investigators think is guilty of deliberately causing the Boeing 767 to enter a steep dive, from which it could not be recovered. This suicide theory has become the cause of much controversy, with the Egyptian government and EgyptAir flatly denying such a cause, and instead suggesting mechanical failure or a terrorist attack as likely causes. Two years ago, the idea that someone would crash a civil aircraft on purpose was considered by most to be outlandish, although the events of 9/11 are unlikely to have a significant bearing on the findings of the NTSB.

The NTSB's claims of pilot suicide appear to be based on several pieces of evidence. The first of these is the final sixty seconds of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) transcription, in which al-Batouti is heard repeating over and over "Tawakilt ala Allah" ("I put my trust in God"). Secondly, it is suggested that differential deflections of the two elevators could be evidence of a fight in the cockpit with the two control columns being pulled in opposite directions. Investigators also point out the disengaging of the autopilot immediately before the aircraft begins its dive, and cite reports of lewd behaviour by al-Batouti at a New York hotel during the previous year as being `significant'.

The Egyptians strongly reject the pilot suicide theory, and are critical of the NTSB for not exploring other avenues. "We have nothing called suicide" said the head of the Egyptian Pilots Association, while the chairman of EgyptAir, Mohamed Fahim Rayan has criticized the US media: "It is highly unlikely that accusations would have been made to build a case for a co-pilot suicide had the airline and crew been American or European".

Indeed it is difficult to disagree with Egyptian officials when they claim that nothing in the CVR transcript conclusively suggests a suicide. There are no sounds of a struggle, and there is just as much evidence suggesting that the pilots were co-operating to bring the aircraft under control. The disengaging of the autopilot also cannot suggest suicidal causes because the same aircraft had endured three separate uncommanded disengagements of the autopilot just two days earlier on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

As for the mental state of al-Batouti, records from the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority's Medical Board reveal that he had `no history of psychiatric consultation recorded through his career as a military or civilian pilot', and that there were no reports `as regard his behaviour either proffissionally (sic) or in groups'.

An article in Newsweek magazine in June of this year reported that American intelligence officials had monitored communications between Egyptian investigators in Washington and executives in Cairo. According to an unnamed government source, the Egyptians have conceded in private that the crash was a suicide, a contention that has since been strongly denied.

The Elevator Malfunction Theory

Instead of indicating a struggle in the cockpit, the deflection of the aircraft's elevators in opposite directions could be evidence of a malfunction. The preliminary report of the NTSB all but rules out a mechanical failure, a stance which was confirmed by Jim Hall, who was head of the NTSB at the time of the crash. `[There is] no question in my mind...that there is no way that the events could have occurred as a result of a mechanical failure, but [instead they] occurred as a result of pilot actions', he said on US television in June.

This stance has not been changed as a result of elevator problems endured by an American Airlines Boeing 767 while landing at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, in March of this year. In that case, the aircraft experienced pitch control problems, and was forced to land using horizontal stabilizer trim. In the summer of 2000, elevator problems were also experienced by an AeroMexico Boeing 767 whilst on the ground. Since the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, the FAA has issued two airworthiness directives (ADs) alerting Boeing 767 operators about an `unsafe condition' with the elevator control system, but it denies that these are a result of the ongoing investigations into the Flight 990 accident.

As recently as August of this year, tests were being conducted on the elevator system of a Boeing 767 in Seattle, in an attempt to see whether a mechanical failure could have caused the Flight 990 crash. Boeing are also redesigning the shear rivet system in the 767's elevators, but like the FAA, claims this is nothing to do with Flight 990.

The Terrorist Attack Theory

The suicide and malfunction theories do not explain why both the black boxes failed when the aircraft was still at 16,000 feet, or why they were discovered in a severely damaged state. Some officials suggest a bomb or missile attack as a more likely cause. An AP article from November 1999 reports General Issam Ahmed, an Egyptian government official and expert on air accidents, as saying of the damaged nature of the black boxes, "This confirms that the tail of the plane... was subjected to an explosion at the height of 33,000 feet. It was either an internal or external explosion". This is backed up by mTarik Selim, EgyptAir's chief pilot, who highlights the aircraft's rate of descent: "The plane, weighing 174 tonnes, was descending at a [rate of] 23,000 feet per minute... This is three times faster than what is usual in an emergency situation. He points out that the Boeing 767 was equipped with a device that prevented descent rates of greater than 7000 feet per minute. "[The aircraft] cannot go faster even if the pilot wanted it to, unless the tail unit was not there".

Supporters of the missile theory have pointed to the existence of more than 30 Egyptian military personnel (including a Brigadier-General) on the flight as a possible reason for a terrorist attack. Reports in Egyptian newspapers shortly after the crash suggested these soldiers, who were returning from the USA having completed a conversion course on the Apache helicopters recently purchased by the Egyptian military, would have used their new expertise against Islamic insurgents in Egypt.

Further evidence casting doubt on the suicide theory comes in the form of eye-witness accounts, which describe a "burnt orange" spot moving quickly through the night sky, suggesting the aircraft was on fire as it descended. "It was definitely that plane going down that I saw" said one eye-witness, "It was definitely on fire". In addition, pilots of at least two separate commercial flights reported having seen missile-like objects in the same region as the downed EgyptAir flight. There are also radar images that could confirm or deny the existence of missiles. In June of 2000, the head of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, Abdel Fattah Kato, wrote to the head of the US Federal Aviation Authority. "The investigation of this accident has produced radar data showing three high-speed returns in the area of, and along the flight path of, Flight 990. The data shows these returns crossing Flight 990's path just before the airplane began its dive." His requests for more data had previously been turned down on the grounds that US Air Force data was classified.

However, the field notes of the FAA's Explosives Unit reveal that "there were no items observed which exhibit the effects of a high explosion or the detonation of an explosive device, warhead, on or in close proximity to any of the aircraft wreckage." This is consistent with the initial findings of the NTSB, which found that although only 25% of the horizontal tail and 20% of the vertical tail was recovered, "there was no evidence of any pre or post impact fire damage and all fractures were consistent with failures generated by a high-speed impact... There was no evidence of foreign impact damage."

Two years on from that fateful night south of Nantucket, it seems we may never know with absolute certainty the causes of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990. The NTSB is expected to release its final report later this year.


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Two Years on: EgyptAir Flight 990 | 13 comments (11 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Suicide fatal in Islam (4.50 / 6) (#3)
by jasonab on Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 02:16:33 PM EST

You should also mention that one reason the Egyptians are dead set against the suicide theory is that Islam treats suicide similarly to Catholicism; that is, suicide is unforgivable. For the Egyptians to agree that suicide was the cause would disgrace that pilot's family and likely cause domestic reprocussions to boot.

I'm pretty sure not _all_ Muslims against suicide (none / 0) (#8)
by sonovel on Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 11:54:39 PM EST

I think recent events poke holes in the theory that all Muslims consider suicide "unforgivable".

Still, the evidence _for_ the crash being due to suicide is far from clear.

[ Parent ]
Terrorist "warriors" (none / 0) (#9)
by jasonab on Mon Oct 29, 2001 at 12:02:12 AM EST

I think recent events poke holes in the theory that all Muslims consider suicide "unforgivable".
Note that those on the planes considered themselves to be holy warriors, not suicides. Suicide would prevent them from attaining their reward in heaven.

[ Parent ]
Right (5.00 / 1) (#12)
by Nater on Mon Oct 29, 2001 at 12:06:55 PM EST

I believe the word you're looking for is "sacrifice"... very different from suicide.

i heard someone suggest that we should help the US, just like they helped us in WWII. By waiting three years, then going over there, flashing our money around, shagging all the women and acting like we owned the place. --Seen in #tron

[ Parent ]
The Mossad Theory (4.50 / 6) (#4)
by Lode Runner on Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 04:13:26 PM EST

Interesting story, but you neglected to mention Egypt's most popular theory on the demise of EgyptAir 990: the Mossad did it.

Here are some sources:

Conspiracy theories. Dontcha luvem? (5.00 / 1) (#5)
by Best Ace on Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 05:06:08 PM EST

I did consider mentioning the Mossad, but unlike the 3 possible causes I gave, there's actually no evidence at all that they were involved, unless you believe some of the crackpot websites.

I could have padded this story with all sorts of conspiracy theories, but ultimately I reckon that would just make for a less plausible article. (The best theory I read was that Osama bin Laden told the pilot that he would kidnap and kill his family if the pilot did not crash the plane). If you have any convincing stuff on the Mossad's involvement, I'd love to hear it.

[ Parent ]

my point... (none / 0) (#6)
by Lode Runner on Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 06:55:39 PM EST

... was not to argue that it's plausible that the Mossad brought down flight 990. I just wanted to point out that many, many Egyptians believe that the Israelis are behind the plane crash.

As for it being a conspiracy theory, you're right, it is. But in the Arab world, conspiracy theories seem to have a lot more adherents than they do here. The same papers that claimed that Israel destroyed flight 990 are now claiming that the Mossad is behind the 9/11 attacks.

Oh, FWIW, I think the co-pilot was depressed and decided to do himself in by crashing the plane. Maybe he hoped his family would never learn that his death was a suicide.

[ Parent ]

Co-pilot depression (none / 0) (#11)
by Best Ace on Mon Oct 29, 2001 at 06:47:50 AM EST

Personally I don't buy the suicide theory. The pilot didn't seem to be particularly depressed; he was taking a stash of viagra home to give to his friends, and he was planning the wedding of one of his sons. I just can't see someone killing 200 other people as part of a suicide, just to hide the fact it was a suicide. There must've been other ways.

[ Parent ]
tawakilt 3la allah (4.50 / 2) (#7)
by Dlugar on Sun Oct 28, 2001 at 08:06:51 PM EST

Just so you know, repeating some religious phrase doesn't mean he was a suicidal Islamic nut case. "I put my trust in God" is the routine phrase that Arabs say when doing any activity, starting the engine on their car, or before eating, or various trivial things.

It would be like a Christian pilot repeating over and over again, "Oh, Jesus!" or something like that. Could be religious, could be suicidal, could be the guy was just freaking out.


Well I hope... (none / 0) (#10)
by Best Ace on Mon Oct 29, 2001 at 06:42:04 AM EST

Somebody told the NTSB that, because they seem to be basing much of their suicide scenario around exactly that.

[ Parent ]
The Atlantic Monthly (none / 0) (#13)
by finial on Wed Oct 31, 2001 at 10:22:01 PM EST

For more, there is an excellent article by William Langewiesche in this month's The Atlantic Monthly.
The Crash of EgyptAir 990
The author, given unprecedented access to flight data, reconstructs the final minutes--and rules out all explanations for the crash except deliberate suicide and mass murder by the Egyptian co-pilot
by William Langewiesche

Two Years on: EgyptAir Flight 990 | 13 comments (11 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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