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)
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
"Go and get some rest, and come back," Batouty told the other
The pilot initially resisted, but eventually relinquished his
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
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
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 15º 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.
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)
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,
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)
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
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