The Crash of Egypt Air Flight 990

Sharon Slayton follows up her interesting article on flights that vanished in the Bermuda Triangle with another airline disaster mystery.

The Boeing 767 left LAX, October 31, 1999, with 203 passengers and 14 crew members on a regularly scheduled route to Cairo, Egypt, with a stopover at JFK. Two separate crews were required for the long, international flight — one for takeoff, landing, and the first few hours in the air, and a second relief crew for the remaining flying time. Among the passengers from 7 different countries were over 30 high-ranking military officers from Egypt, whose identity and purpose of travel were not clearly revealed at the time. Radio contact was lost shortly after takeoff from JFK, and about 1:50 am, just 60 miles south of Nantucket, the plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean. In this short time, the aircraft deviated from its assigned path at 33,000 feet in a series of erratic ups and downs, diving to 16,000 feet, back up to 24,000, and then the final dive into the Atlantic.

Aeronautical engineers thoroughly analyzed this strange flight pattern, but could find no satisfactory explanation as to how or why this occurred. Furthermore, there was no evidence of an explosion, and there were no other commercial or military aircraft scheduled for this flight plan. This led to speculation that another unidentified type of aircraft was flying the same flight path, but if so, where did it come from, and why was there no information on it from the control tower at JFK?

The media, of course, reacted worldwide with a great deal of controversy and speculation over what caused the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990. Rumors of suicide and terrorism circulated, based upon the cockpit voice recording and various misinterpretations of the words in Arabic of Al-Batouti, the co-pilot. During the final few minutes of Flight 990, according to the flight data recorder, we hear the captain saying, “what’s happening,” and then “pull with me.” As the plane continued its downward plunge, the co-pilot kept repeating “I rely on God.” Much emphasis was placed by the media upon the tape recording as to what was said and the quality of the tape itself. Some sources claimed the words were “I made my decision now. I put my faith in God’s hands,” but this was never verified.

Another possibility mentioned too was that the co-pilot was reacting to a “surprise” development, and reciting a shaddah, Muslim prayer, when facing death. Questions arose about the apparent disconnection of the autopilot, as well. Was this a necessary reaction to the failure of the aircraft, or a deliberate act of suicide? Egypt officials promptly disagreed with the theory of suicide, as it is considered a mortal sin in their religion, and Al-Batouti did not fit the profile in any other way. Several members of the Egyptian press even suggested other theories, which included a CIA conspiracy with Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, an accidental firing of a missile by the U.S., which brought the aircraft down, or a secret recovery and reprogramming of the airplane’s black box before word could reach the public.

Since the flight had taken place over international waters, the Egyptian government participated in the investigation of the crash, along with numerous U.S. government agencies including the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard, the FAA, and Boeing. Just two weeks into the investigation, the NTSB declared it a criminal event to be turned over to the FBI. This was met, however, with vehement objections by Egyptian officials, who responded by sending their chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, to the U.S. Egypt Air’s report clearly refuted the idea of a deliberate action on the part of the co-pilot. Their engineers attributed the crash to a mechanical failure of the elevator control system, but the U.S. did not agree. Although there seemed to be little reliable data on this possibility at the time of the investigation, similar malfunctions on other Boeing aircraft did occur in the years following.

After almost two years of investigation, the NTSB published their final, official report on the disaster. It attributed the crash to the co-pilot’s handling of the flight controls, and made no mention of a suicide mission or imply that these were deliberate, criminal actions on his part. The reasons for the disaster remain unclear, and the questions about sabotage, conspiracy, or unknown aircraft are not answered, at least in the official report. The latter theory could not be proved or disproved, as some radar and test data were not released. No one survived this deadly crash, and the bits of wreckage that were recovered are now secured in an aircraft hangar in the U.S.

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  1. laila says:

    This accident is a mystery ,nothing which was mentioned proves tht batouty committed suicide .i beleive that this plane took off and there was a mechanical problem that was not solved properly. and this brings to my mind that the maintance of this plane was not done as it should be .i lost my father in this plane and i beleive i lost him because of carlesness.

  2. Dina says:

    What the Western world does not know about the Arab and Islamic world results in the misconception, misinterpretation and stereotypes that are not even close to be true. It is very legitimate not to know about other cultures but it is aggressively unfair to build judgments and speculations about those cultures and people belonging to them based on subjective points of view and deductions that are not based on impartial and objective sources. US officials are not entitled to explain or interpret what the co-pilot uttered in Arabic seconds before the plane crashes. They should have resorted to people who belong to that culture to help them interpret what was said instead of accusing the co-pilot of committing suicide just to close the case and clear themselves of any responsibility.

  3. Perry says:

    Int he flight data recorder, we hear one of the pilots saying “what’s going on? etc… ” What really happened is that neither pilot knew what happened to the controls, but the controls were taken over by remote control from somewhere & the person(s) operating the remote control dove the plane into the ocean. The USA has had this remote control technology since the mid 80’s but we used it on military planes for surveillance purposes and reasons. This was a test to see if we could use the same remote tech. on a large commercial aircraft. That is why the pilots had no clue as to why the plane was out of their control. This was a test for a much bigger operation a couple years down the road from the date of this “accident”.

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