Pilot Suicide

 

On November 1, 1999, reports concerning the mysterious crash of EgyptAir's Flight 990 from JFK to Cairo were pure speculation based on the only data available for the next nine days, radar. During those nine days in November conjecture flew across the media/net waves like snowballs on a middle school playground in January. Was it a missile? Was it a bomb? Was it a mechanical malfunction? Was it a UFO? When the flight data recorder (FDR) was recovered on November 9th, NTSB officials had half the picture. With the FDR data showing no immediate or obvious signs of mechanical failure or other in-flight emergency, investigators began to consider a scenario that included pilot or co-pilot intent, at least in the initial dive. They might not have intended to crash the plane, but the evidence was interpreted to indicate that someone manually put the plane into a steep descent. NTSB officials began to unofficially leak reports to the press describing the rapid descent as a "controlled dive". (1)


http://www.enterprisemission.com/egyptair3.htm

To view NTSB timeline based on FDR data click HERE

But when searchers surfaced with the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) on November 14th, the missing pieces began to fall into place.

Once the FDR and CVR were accurately synchronized, it became apparent that the relief co-pilot, Gamil al-Batouti, had requested to start his shift twenty minutes into the flight rather than the customary 3 to 4 hours, was contested, and eventually pulled rank. This action became a point of focus for most of the Western Press. Further, Batouti had most likely been alone and at the controls when the autopilot was disengaged and the plane was forced into its fatal descent. On top of that, he was heard on the voice recording calmly saying a Muslim prayer, loosely translated as "I rely on God", beginning one minute before the autopilot is disengaged and repeating more than ten times, even after the pilot had returned to the cockpit and directly asked him "what is happening, Gamil?". (2) This phrase, with the insinuation that the Batouti committed suicide, was leaked to the press shortly after the initial playing of the tape. The NTSB soon realized it had treaded onto shaky cultural and political ground. Backtracking quickly by denouncing the leaks from within his own ranks, Jim Hall, NTSB chairman, denied that investigators had heard Batouti utter the phrase "I have made my decision now" before the autopilot disengaged, as was being reported in some media outlets. The Washington Post and CNN both covered the story that was then denied despite three NTSB investigators who claimed that the alleged statement was actually on the tape. (4) Regardless, the battle lines had been drawn and the cultural toes stepped on. Egypt and the Muslim community denounced the western press as being racist, discriminatory, and rushing to make a judgement. The Western Press saw Egypt as wearing political blinders that disallowed them the belief that Batouti could have committed suicide, a stubbornness based not just on religious or cultural beliefs, but on the political reality of the importance of tourism and western aid to Egypt's stability. (5)

Regardless of the spin and mutual bias, the data recordings from the crash allow for a more empirical understanding of what occurred on EgyptAir Flight 990 than speculation based solely on radar. For a detailed description of general events in the cockpit directly from the NTSB report and based on the recorder information, click HERE. The NTSB report was finally adopted on March 13, 2002. On March 22, 2002, Bill Adair wrote a piece for the St. Petersburg times entitled Crash Was Intentional, U.S. Says. Below is an excerpted synopsis from the article based on the NTSB's view of what took place in the cockpit before Flight 990 lost radar contact:

The Boeing 767 took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in the early morning of Oct. 31, 1999.
Because the flight to Cairo was scheduled to take 10 hours, the crew included two sets of pilots. Batouty was supposed to be the relief first officer, to give the initial first officer a chance to sleep after flying a long distance. But Batouty volunteered to take the controls only 20 minutes after departure.
"Go and get some rest, and come back," Batouty told the other pilot.
The pilot initially resisted, but eventually relinquished his seat.
The captain, who had remained in the cockpit, then left to use the lavatory.
Batouty was now alone in the cockpit.
Twenty-one seconds after the captain departed, Batouty quietly stated, "I rely on God."
The autopilot was disconnected, which was unusual because the plane was cruising in level flight at 33,000 feet. Batouty was now in control of the big plane.
"I rely on God." The throttle levers were pulled back, reducing the engines to idle. The plane's elevators suddenly pointed the nose down. The plane began to plummet toward the Atlantic Ocean. "I rely on God."
The plane was descending at such a steep angle that people and items in the cabin were suddenly weightless and flying around. Somehow, the captain managed to float back to the cockpit and get inside.
"What's happening?" he asked. "What's happening?"
"I rely on God."
The master warning horn was blaring. Red lights were flashing on the instrument panel.
It appears the captain struggled to pull up the nose, repeatedly saying, "Pull with me."

This representation is extremely simplistic, and I recommend reading the official NTSB account of the cockpit interactions provided above. More importantly, the NTSB selection entitled Pilot Action Scenario (pgs. 37-42) provides the Board's interpretation of those events and presents their case of intentional grounding by the relief co-pilot, Gamil al-Batouti. The NTSB believes all the evidence confirms that this scenario took place, however, they admit that they have yet to develop a convincing argument as to why Batouti took the actions. The word suicide is mentioned nowhere in the entire fifty-five page report.

Cockpit of a Boeing 767


http://www.ntsb.gov/events/ea990/slides.htm

After extensively reading the various theories as to what caused EgyptAir 990 to plunge into the Atlantic, I have found that the NTSB's literal account of what took place in the cockpit, in relation to the FDR data and extensive examination of the wreckage to be the most convincing. Here are listed what I consider to be the stongest points of argument for the theory:

*All unspecified page numbers refer to the NTSB Report. Also, most of the referenced pages (37-42) can be found highlighted HERE.

1) In regards to the suggestion that the throttle was involuntarily disengaged, either by a malfunction, electromagnetic interference, or a response of the autothrottle to a forward dive, FDR data shows that when the throttle levers were set to idle, they were moved at a rate that is double what the autothrottle will allow. Also, the levers were set back to a position 15 beyond where the autothrottle would normally place the levers at full idle stop. This motion requires at least nine pounds of force. (pgs. 10, 38) In addition, the pilot did not idle the throttles in response to downward elevator movement since this movement occurred after the throttles had begun to be retarded. (pg. 38) At the time of the sudden downward elevator movement, the co-pilot does not express concern, appear anxious, nor call for help at any time during the sequence.

2) The timing of additional increased downward elevator movement corresponds with the pilot's attempt to enter the cockpit and regain control of the aircraft. (pgs 39-40) Either Batouti pushed further on his control yoke when he realized the captain was re-entering the cockpit or this is just an amazing coincidence. As is the "coincidence" that the co-pilot was unlucky and just happened to be alone in the cockpit when an emergency situation struck the aircraft.

3) Related to this last point, the split in the elevators (with the left elevator pointing up and the right elevator pointing down) does not occur until the pilot has returned to the cockpit. (pgs. 40-41) This can be seen as evidence of conflicting forces on the control columns in the cockpit or as another one of those amazing coincidences. If both elevators had been forced downward because of a mechanical malfunction, Batouti would have been able to split the elevators with the same amount of force (50 lbs.) as was needed to split them once the pilot returns.


http://www.ntsb.gov/events/ea990/FuelControlSwitches.jpg / http://www.ntsb.gov/events/ea990/SpeedBrakeControl.jpg

4) The Engines: This part is more controversial because it relies on interpretation of the pilot and co-pilots' speech, and inference as to their actual movements and motives. The NTSB presents this picture:

In rapid sequence, just after the elevator split began, the engine start lever switches were moved to the cutoff position, the throttle levers were advanced to full throttle, and the speedbrakes were deployed. After the throttle levers were advanced (but the engines did not respond), the captain reacted with surprise, asking the relief first officer, "What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engine(s)?"
Additionally, the surprised reaction from the captain when the engines did not respond to the throttle movement ("What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engine(s)?") suggested that it was he (not the relief first officer) who advanced the throttle levers. This response clearly indicated that the captain was unaware that the engine start lever switches had been moved to the cutoff position, that such an action was at odds with his intentions, and that it was, therefore, not part of a mutual, cooperative troubleshooting exercise between the captain and relief first officer.
At 0150:26.55, the captain stated, "Get away in the engines," and at 0150:28.85, he stated, "shut the engines."118 At 0150:29.66, the relief first officer responded for the first (and only) time after the captain returned to the cockpit, stating, "It's shut." (pg. 41)

The intention and meaning of the captain's statements have been interpreted from both sides of this dilemma. Ralph Omholt, writing for his Airline Safety website, postulates that what the captain was in the process of figuring out that Batouti was working against him and what he really meant was "Get away FROM the engines." And then, when he conversly stated "shut the engines", he was accusing Batouti, as in "(You) shut the engines!" (6) (pg. 8) It could even be seen as a rhetorical question, as he is potentially incredulous that the engines have been shut down.

To be fair, an alternative interpretation of the exchange has been suggested by several sources. For instance, Michael Hull presents the interaction on his web page, The Mystery of EgyptAir 990, as one where Batouti is responding to an unexpected emergency situation. And when the captain returns to the cockpit, they work together to try to initiate a self-rescue. Click HERE for an excerpted view of his interpretation of the CVR and FDR data for the final two minutes. (7) (pgs 2-4)

5) The data the FDR presents relating to the angle of the elevators as various actions are being taken in the cockpit is one of the strongest arguments for the pilot suicide scenario. During the same time moment when the pilot presumably took his hand off the control yoke in order to advance the throttles and initiate the speed brake, both elevators moved downward; but when (again presumably) the co-pilot took his hand off the control yoke in order to press the engine cutoff switch, both elevators deflected upward for a moment. One would assume, if both pilots were pulling back on their control yokes in an attempt to counteract an elevator malfunction which was forcing the elevators downward, if either the pilot or the co-pilot were to apply less aft pressure (like taking a hand off the control yoke), the elevators would increase their downward deflection. If, however, the elevators deflect upwards when the co-pilot applies less pressure to the control yoke (as when taking a hand off to shut down the engines), it can only mean that the co-pilot is the source of downward pressure on the plane's steering column, and thus is responsible for the elevators downward deflection. Here is a partial explanation of this scenario as presented by the NTSB report on page 41 (See also: Accident Sequence Study, pgs. 20-21 for a detailed technical account of elevator movement):

The timing and direction of the left elevator motions during this time suggest that the captain, who had likely been using both hands to pull aft on the left control column, released his right hand to advance the throttles and deploy the speedbrakes, resulting in a decrease in his total aft pressure on the control column, which was reflected in the decrease in the left elevator's nose-up deflection that was recorded by the FDR at this time. Subsequently, when the captain likely had returned his right hand to the control column, the FDR recorded a corresponding increase in the left elevator's nose-up deflection. As previously stated, tests and simulations demonstrated that a pilot seated in the captain's position could easily have advanced the throttles, moved his hand a little to the left, and deployed the speedbrakes in the 3 to 4 seconds it took for these events to occur.
Concurrent with the brief downward motion of the left elevator that was recorded when the throttles were advanced and the speedbrakes deployed, a brief downward motion of the right elevator was recorded. This movement of the right elevator suggests that when the captain's aft pressure on the left control column decreased, the relief first officer's sustained forward pressure on the right control column caused that column to move forward briefly. Although it would have been physically possible for the relief first officer to have advanced the throttles and deployed the speedbrakes, the evidence does not support the notion that the relief first officer performed these actions. Rather, the evidence indicates that the relief first officer moved the engine start lever switches to the cutoff position (a counterproductive action, in terms of recovery), whereas the captain deployed the speedbrakes in an attempt to arrest the airplane's descent. (2)

6) The NTSB analyzed the speech patterns of both the pilot and co-pilot and came to the conclusion that the pilot's level of speech stress was elevated by 65% where as Batouti's "rate of speech and fundamental frequency when he repeated, 'I rely on God,' and stated, 'It's shut,' did not indicate any significant increase in his level of psychological stress." (2) (pgs. 15-16, 42)

7) Lastly, NTSB investigators in their examination of the wreckage found no indication of "preexisting fatigue or corrosion," nor did the find any "evidence of foreign object impact damage or pre- or post impact explosion or fire damage." (2) (pg. 19)

As was mentioned in the beginning of this section, the weakness of this explanation still lies in the search for a definitive motive for suicide by Gamil al-Batouti. What must be considered is that not only was Batouti committing suicide (according to the theory), but he was also dooming the lives of 217 people in what can only be seen as a mass murder.

Regardless of what you believe, or how much evidence is out there for this or that theory, the pursuance of truth related to demystifying the conspiracy of EgyptAir Flight 990 can lead to positive outcomes. Even if the truth is as horrible and mundane as pilot suicide, the questioning of the "official" explanation and the investigation of possible scenarios produces a healthier society. One such potential is the examination, by Elaine Scarry, of electromagnetic interference as a possible disrupter of on-board flight control systems. While this might not be true for EgyptAir 990, it is worthy of further research and investigation.

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Sources:
1) http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/11/langewiesche.htm
2) http://www.ntsb.gov/Publictn/2002/aab0201.htm
3) http://www.sptimes.com/2002/03/22/Worldandnation/Crash_was_intentional.shtml
4) http://home.comcast.net/~skydrifter/ea990.htm
5) http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A46867-2000Mar20¬Found=true
6) http://home.comcast.net/~skydrifter/ea990.htm
7) http://hometown.aol.com/bardonia/egyptair.htm
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