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
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
(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