Pilot Suicide? EgyptAir Flight MS 990

 

1

SU-GAP, the aircraft involved in the accident, taxiing at Düsseldorf Airport in June 1992.

Occurrence 

Date October 31, 1999
Summary Cause disputed:
• Deliberate crash – probable pilot suicide (NTSB)
• Mechanical fault in elevator control system (ECAA)
Site Atlantic Ocean, 100 km (62 mi) south of Nantucket
Aircraft type Boeing 767-366ER
Aircraft name Tuthmosis III
Operator EgyptAir
Registration SU-GAP
Flight origin Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, California, United States
Stopover John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, New York, United States
Destination Cairo International Airport, Cairo, Egypt
Passengers 203
Crew 14
Fatalities 217
Survivors 0

Egypt Air Flight 990 (MS990) was a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles International Airport, United States, to Cairo International Airport, Egypt, with a stop at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City. On October 31, 1999, the Boeing 767 operating the route crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles (100 km) south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, killing all 217 passengers and crew on board. The National Transportation Safety Board reports that the official probable cause of the crash was a deliberate action by the relief first officer.

As the crash occurred in international waters, it was investigated by the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency (ECAA) per International Civil Aviation Organization Annex 13. As the ECAA lacked the resources of the much larger U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Egyptian government asked the NTSB to handle the investigation. Two weeks after the crash, the NTSB proposed handing the investigation over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as the evidence suggested that a criminal act had taken place and that the crash was intentional rather than accidental. This proposal was unacceptable to the Egyptian authorities, and hence the NTSB continued to lead the investigation. As the evidence of a deliberate crash mounted, the Egyptian government reversed its earlier decision and the ECAA launched its own investigation. The two investigations came to very different conclusions:

  • the NTSB concluded that the relief first officer Gameel Al-Batoutideliberately crashed the plane
  • the ECAA determined that the incident was caused by mechanical failure of the aircraft’s elevator control system.

The ECAA’s report suggested several control failure scenarios as possible causes of the crash, focusing on a possible failure of one of the right elevator’s power control units.  While the NTSB’s report did not determine a specific reason for the relief first officer’s alleged actions, their report stated the impact was a result of the relief first officer’s flight control inputs. Supporting its deliberate-act conclusion, the NTSB report determined that no mechanical failure scenario could result in aircraft movements that matched those recorded by the flight data recorder (FDR), and that even if any of the failure scenarios put forward by the Egyptian authorities occurred, the aircraft would still have been recoverable because of the 767’s redundant elevator control system.

Aircraft

Flight 990 was being flown in a Boeing 767-366ER aircraft with registration SU-GAP, named Tuthmosis III after a pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty. The aircraft, a stretched extended-range version of the standard 767, was the 282nd 767 built. It was delivered to Egypt Air as a brand new aircraft on September 26, 1989.

Cockpit crew

Captain Ahmed El-Habashi (57)  Pilot in Command; approximately 14,400 total time; 6,300 on the B767; with EgyptAir for 36 years. 
First Officer Adel Anwar (36) He was switching duty with another co-pilot so he could return home in time for his wedding
Captain Raouf  Noureldin (52) Relief Captain
First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti (59) Relief First Officer; total time 12500 hours, 5,200 hours on the B767
Captain Hatem Rushdy. Chief Pilot Boeing 767

Because of the 10-hour scheduled flight time, the flight required two complete flight crews, each consisting of one captain and one first officer. EgyptAir designated one crew as the active crew and the other as the cruise crew, sometimes also referred to as the relief crew. While there was no formal procedure specifying when each crew flew the aircraft, it was customary for the active crew to make the takeoff and fly the first four to five hours of the flight. The cruise crew then assumed control of the aircraft until about one to two hours before landing, at which point the active crew returned to the cockpit and assumed control of the aircraft. Egypt Air designated the captain of the active crew as the pilot-in-command or the commander of the flight.

While the cruise crew was intended to take over far into the flight, the relief first officer entered the cockpit and recommended that he relieve the first officer 20 minutes after takeoff. The first officer initially protested, but eventually agreed.

Passengers

The flight was carrying 203 passengers from seven countries: Canada, Egypt, Germany, Sudan, Syria, the United States, and Zimbabwe. Of the people on board, 100 were American, 89 were Egyptian (75 passengers, 14 crew), 21 were Canadian, and 7 were of other nationalities. 54 of the American passengers, many of them elderly, were booked with the tour group Grand Circle Travel for a 14-day trip to Egypt. Of the 203 passengers, 32 boarded in Los Angeles; the rest boarded in New York. Four were non-revenue EgyptAir crew members. Included in the passenger manifest were 33 Egyptian military officers returning from a training exercise; among them were two brigadier-generals, a colonel, a major, and four other air force officers. After the crash, newspapers in Cairo were prevented by censors from reporting the officers’ presence on the flight.

Nationality Passengers Crew Total
 United States 100 0 100
 Egypt 75 14 89
 Canada 21 0 21
 Syria 3 0 3
 Sudan 2 0 2
 Germany 1 0 1
 Zimbabwe 1 0 1
Total 203 14 217

The authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport used the JFK Ramada Plaza to house relatives and friends of the victims of the crash. Due to its similar role after several aircraft crashes, the Ramada became known as the Heartbreak Hotel.

Accident

Time is in UTC; EST= UTC-5

At 0620, the aircraft took off from JFK Airport’s runway 22R. While relief first officer Al-Batouti was alone in the cockpit and captain El-Habashi was in the lavatory, the aircraft suddenly went into a rapid dive nose-first, resulting in weightlessness (zero-g) throughout the cabin. Despite this, the captain was able to fight the zero-g and re-enter the cockpit. The speed of the 767 was now dangerously close to the sound barrier, exceeding its design limits and starting to weaken its airframe. The captain pulled back on his control column and applied full power to the engines, but neither action had any effect due to the aircraft’s speed and the engines having been shut down. The captain then deployed the speedbrakes, which slowed the aircraft’s dive, bringing it back to a safer speed. However, these abrupt maneuvers resulted in the aircraft entering a steep climb, causing g-forces to push the passengers and crew into their seats. Both engines then stopped completely, causing the aircraft to lose all electrical power and both flight recorders stopped at this point. The aircraft then fell into another steep dive and the huge mechanical stress caused the left engine to separate from the left wing. The aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at 0652, killing all 217 people on board.

Air traffic control (ATC)

2

Flight profile of MS990 (Source:NTSB) 

US air traffic controllers provided transatlantic flight control operations as a part of the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (referred to in radio conversations simply as Centre and abbreviated in the reports as ZNY). The airspace is divided into areas, and Area F was the section that oversaw the airspace through which Flight 990 was flying. Transatlantic commercial air traffic travels via a system of routes called North Atlantic Tracks, and Flight 990 was the only aircraft at the time assigned to fly North Atlantic Track Zulu. There are also a number of military operations areas over the Atlantic, called Warning Areas, which are also monitored by New York Center, but records show that these were inactive the night of the incident.

Interaction between ZNY and Flight 990 was completely routine. After takeoff, Flight 990 was handled by three different controllers as it climbed up in stages to its assigned cruising altitude. The aircraft, like all commercial airliners, was equipped with a Mode C transponder, which automatically reported the plane’s altitude when queried by the ATC radar. At 0644, the transponder indicated that Flight 990 had leveled off at FL330. Three minutes later, the controller requested that Flight 990 switch communications radio frequencies for better reception. A pilot on Flight 990 acknowledged on the new frequency. This was the last transmission received from the flight.

The records of the radar returns then indicate a sharp descent: (Note: these times are in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.)

  • 0649:53 – Flight Level 329
  • 0650:05 – Flight Level 315
  • 0650:17 – Flight Level 254
  • 0650:29 – Flight Level 183 (this was the last altitude report received by ATC)

The plane dropped 14,600 feet (4,500 m) in 36 seconds. Several subsequent primary returns (simple radar reflections without the encoded Mode C altitude information) were received by ATC, the last being at 0652:05. At 0654, the ATC controller tried notifying Flight 990 that radar contact had been lost, but received no reply. Two minutes later, the controller contacted ARINC to determine if Flight 990 had switched to an oceanic frequency too early. ARINC attempted to contact Flight 990 on SELCAL, also with no response. The controller then contacted a nearby aircraft, Lufthansa Flight 499, and asked the flight’s crew to try to raise Flight 990, but they were unable to make radio contact, although they also reported they were not receiving any emergency locator transmitter signals. Air France Flight 439 was then asked to overfly the last known position of Flight 990, but that crew reported nothing out of the ordinary. Centre also provided coordinates of Flight 990’s last-known position to Coast Guard rescue aircraft.

Flight recorders

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the captain excusing himself to go to the lavatory, followed thirty seconds later by the first officer saying in Egyptian Arabic Tawkalt ala Allah, which translates to I rely on God. A minute later, the autopilot was disengaged, immediately followed by the first officer again saying, I rely on God. Three seconds later, the throttles for both engines were reduced to idle, and both elevators were moved three degrees nose down. The first officer repeated I rely on God seven more times before the captain suddenly asked repeatedly, What’s happening, what’s happening?“The flight data recorder reflected that the elevators then moved into a split condition, with the left elevator up and the right elevator down, a condition which is expected to result when the two control columns are subjected to at least 50 pounds (23 kg) of opposing force. At this point, both engines were shut down by moving the start levers from run to cutoff. The captain asked, What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engines?”The captain is then recorded as saying get away in the engines (this is the literal translation that appears in the NTSB transcript), followed by shut the engines. The first officer replies It’s shut. The final recorded words are the captain repeatedly stating, Pull with me but the FDR data indicated that the elevator surfaces remained in a split condition (with the left surface commanding nose up and the right surface commanding nose down) until the FDR and CVR stopped recording. There were no other aircraft in the area. There was no indication that an explosion occurred on board. The engines operated normally for the entire flight until they were shut down. From the presence of a western debris field about 1,200 feet (370 m) from the eastern debris field, the NTSB concluded that the left engine and some small pieces of wreckage separated from the aircraft before water impact.

Search and rescue operations

3

The U.S. Coast Guard cuttersUSCGC Monomoy (WPB-1326)(foreground) and USCGC Spencer(WMEC-905) searching for survivors of the crash 

The aircraft crashed in international waters, so the Egyptian government had the right to initiate its own search and rescue and investigation. Because the government did not have the resources to salvage the aircraft, the Egyptian government requested that the United States lead the investigation. The Egyptian government signed a letter formally ceding responsibility of investigating the accident to the United States.

Search and rescue operations were launched within minutes of the loss of radar contact, with the bulk of the operation being conducted by the United States Coast Guard. At 03:00 EST, an HU-25 Falcon jet took off from Air Station Cape Cod, becoming the first rescue party to reach the last known position of the plane. All U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the area were immediately diverted to search for the aircraft, and an urgent marine information broadcast was issued, requesting mariners in the area to keep a lookout for the downed aircraft.

At sunrise, the United States Merchant Marine Academy training vessel T/V Kings Pointer found an oil sheen and some small pieces of debris. Rescue efforts continued by air and by sea, with a group of U.S. Coast Guard cutters covering 10,000 square miles (26,000 km2) on October 31 with the hope of locating survivors, but no bodies were recovered from the debris field. Eventually most passengers were identified by DNA from fractured remains recovered from the debris field and the ocean floor. Atlantic Strike Team members brought two truckloads of equipment from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to Newport, Rhode Island, to set up an incident command post. Officials from the United States Navy and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were dispatched to join the command. The search and rescue operation was suspended on November 1, 1999, with the rescue vessels and aircraft moving instead to recovery operations.

The U.S. Navy rescue and salvage ship USS Grapple (ARS-53), the U.S. Navy fleet ocean tug USNS Mohawk (T-ATF-170), and the NOAA survey ship NOAAS Whiting (S 329) arrived to take over salvage efforts, including recovery of the bulk of the wreckage from the seabed. The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered within days by the U.S. Navy’s Deep Drone III submersible. In total, a C-130 Hercules, an H-60 helicopter, the HU-25 Falcon, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutters USCGC Monomoy (WPB-1326), USCGC Spencer (WMEC-905), USCGC Reliance (WMEC-615), USCGC Bainbridge Island (WPB-1343), USCGC Juniper (WLB-201), USCGC Point Highland (WPB-82333), USCGC Chinook (WPB-87308), and USCGC Hammerhead, along with their supporting helicopters, participated in the search.

A second salvage effort was made in March 2000 that recovered the aircraft’s second engine and some of the cockpit controls.

Investigations

4

An FBI agent tags the cockpit voice recorder from EgyptAir Flight 990 on the deck of the USS Grapple (ARS 53) at the crash site on November 13, 1999. 

Under the International Civil Aviation Organization treaty, the investigation of an aircraft crash in international waters is under the jurisdiction of the country of registry of the aircraft. At the request of the Egyptian government, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) took the lead in this investigation, with the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) participating. The investigation was supported by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Coast Guard, the US Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, EgyptAir, and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Engines.

Two weeks after the crash, the NTSB proposed declaring the crash a criminal event and handing the investigation over to the FBI. Egyptian government officials protested, and Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, traveled to Washington to join the investigation.

Defection of Hamdi Hanafi Taha

In February 2000, EgyptAir 767 Captain Hamdi Hanafi Taha sought political asylum in London after landing his aircraft there. In his statement to British authorities, he claimed to have knowledge of the circumstances behind the crash of Flight 990. He is reported to have said that he wanted to stop all lies about the disaster, and to put much of the blame on EgyptAir management.

The NTSB and FBI sent officials to interview Taha, whose statements provided a possible motive for why Al-Batouti may have deliberately crashed the aircraft. According to Taha, hours before the flight, Al-Batouti was demoted by an EgyptAir executive who was on board the plane.

Osama El-Baz, an adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said, This pilot can’t know anything about the plane; the chances that he has any information [about the crash of Flight 990] are very slim.”EgyptAir officials also immediately dismissed Taha’s claim. American investigators confirmed key aspects of Taha’s information, but decided not to anger the Egyptian government further by issuing any official statement about Al-Batouti’s motive. EgyptAir terminated Taha’s employment, and his application for British asylum was reportedly declined, though he gave an extensive 2002 newspaper interview in London, and a 2005 documentary credited him as Exiled Captain.

NTSB investigation and conclusion

The NTSB investigation fairly quickly centered on the actions of the relief first officer, Gameel Al-Batouti, and this drew relatively minor criticism from the Egyptians. The NTSB determined that the only way for the observed split elevator condition to occur was if the left seat pilot (the captain’s position) was commanding nose up while the right seat pilot (the first officer’s position) commanded nose down. As the Egyptian investigation forwarded various mechanical failure scenarios, they were each tested by the NTSB and found not to match the factual evidence. The NTSB concluded that no mechanical failure scenario either they or the Egyptians could come up with matched the evidence on the ground, and that even if mechanical failure had been experienced, the 767’s design made the situation recoverable.

The NTSB’s final report was issued on March 21, 2002, after a two-year investigation, and concluded that the crash was a suicide by pilot.

NTSB Summary :

  1. The accident airplane’s nose-down movements did not result from a failure in the elevator control system or any other airplane failure.
  2. The accident airplane’s movements during the initial part of the accident sequence were the result of the relief first officer’s manipulation of the controls.
  3. The accident airplane’s movements after the command captain returned to the cockpit were the result of both pilots’ inputs, including opposing elevator inputs where the relief first officer continued to command nose-down and the captain commanded nose-up elevator movements.

NTSB Probable Cause:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the EgyptAir flight 990 accident is the airplane’s departure from normal cruise flight and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the relief first officer’s flight control inputs. The reason for the relief first officer’s actions was not determined.

ECAA investigation and conclusion

After formally ceding responsibility for the investigation of the accident to the NTSB, the Egyptian authorities became increasingly unhappy with the direction the investigation was heading and launched their own investigation in the weeks following the accident. The ECAA report concluded that the Relief First Officer did not deliberately dive the airplane into the ocean and that mechanical failure was a plausible and likely cause of the accident.

William Langewiesche, an aviation journalist, said: In the case of the Egyptians, they were following a completely different line of thinking. It seemed to me that they knew very well that their man, Batouti, had done this. They were pursuing a political agenda that was driven by the need to answer to their higher-ups in a very pyramidal, autocratic political structure. The word had been passed down from on high, probably from Mubarak himself, that there was no way that Batouti, the co-pilot, could have done this. For the accident investigators in Egypt, the game then became not pursuing the truth but backing the official line.

Responses to reports

The NTSB investigation and its results drew criticism from the Egyptian government, which advanced several alternative theories about mechanical malfunction of the aircraft. In Western countries, the Egyptian rejection of the NTSB report was attributed to a strong Egyptian cultural aversion to suicide. The theories proposed by Egyptian authorities were tested by the NTSB, and none were found to match the facts. For example, an elevator assembly hardover (in which the elevator in a fully extended position sticks because the hinge catches on the tail frame) proposed by the Egyptians was discounted because the flight recorder data showed the elevator was in a “split condition”. In this state, one side of the elevator is up and the other down; on the 767, this condition is only possible through flight control input (i.e., one yoke is pushed forward, the other pulled backward).

There was some evidence that one of the right elevator’s power control units may have suffered a malfunction, and the Egyptian investigation mentioned this as a likely cause of the crash. While noting that the damage did indeed exist, the NTSB countered that it was more likely a result of the crash rather than a pre-existing problem, as the 767 is designed to remain airworthy even with two PCUs failed.

In response to the ECAA’s claim of NTSB unprofessionalism, former NTSB director of aviation safety Bernard Loeb stated:

What was unprofessional was the insistence by the Egyptians, in the face of irrefutable evidence, to anyone who knows anything about investigating airplane accidents and who knows anything about aerodynamics and airplanes, was the fact that this airplane was intentionally flown into the ocean. No scenario that the Egyptians came up with, or that we came up with, in which there were some sort of mechanical failure in the elevator control system, would either match the flight profile or was a situation in which the airplane was not recoverable.

 

Western media speculation

Long before the NTSB issued its final report, Western media began to speculate about the meaning of the recorded cockpit conversations and about possible motives – including suicide and terrorism – behind Al-Batouti’s actions on the flight. The speculation, in part, was based on leaks from an unnamed federal law enforcement official that the crew member in the co-pilot’s seat was recorded as saying, I made my decision now. I put my faith in God’s hands.

During a press conference held on November 19, 1999, NTSB chairman Jim Hall denounced such speculation and said that it had done a disservice to the long-standing friendship between the people of the United States of America and Egypt.

On November 20, 1999, the Associated Press quoted senior American officials as saying that the quotation was not in fact on the recording. It is believed that the speculation arose from a mistranslation of an Egyptian Arabic phrase (Tawkalt ala Allah) meaning I rely on God.

London’s Sunday Times, quoting unnamed sources, speculated that the relief first officer had been traumatized by war, and was depressed because many members of his fighter squadron in the 1973 war had been killed.

The unprecedented presence of 33 members of the Egyptian General Staff on the flight (contrary to standard operating procedure) fed a number of conspiracy theories. There were those who opined that it was an action (and potentially a conspiracy) of Muslim extremists against Egypt. Others countered that Mossad had targeted them.

Egyptian media reaction and speculation

The Egyptian media reacted with outrage to the speculations in the Western press. The state-owned Al Ahram Al Misri called Al-Batouti a martyr, and the Islamist Al Shaab covered the story under a headline that stated, America’s goal is to hide the truth by blaming the EgyptAir pilot.

At least two Egyptian newspapers, Al Gomhuria and Al-Musawar, offered theories that the aircraft was accidentally shot down by the US. Other theories were advanced by the Egyptian press as well, including the Islamist Al Shaab, which speculated that a Mossad /CIA conspiracy was to blame (since, supposedly, EgyptAir and El Al crews stayed at the same hotel in New York). Al Shaab also accused US officials of secretly recovering the FDR, reprogramming it, and throwing it back into the water to be publicly recovered.

Unifying all the Egyptian press was a stridently held belief that it is inconceivable that a pilot would kill himself by crashing a jet with 217 people aboard. It is not possible that anyone who would commit suicide would also kill so many innocent people alongside him, said Ehab William, a surgeon at Cairo’s Anglo-American Hospital.

The Egyptian media also reacted against Western speculation of terrorist connections. The Cairo Times reported, the deceased pilot’s nephew has lashed out in particular against speculation that his uncle could have been a religious extremist. He loved the United States,’ the nephew said. If you wanted to go shopping in New York, he was the man to speak to, because he knew all the stores.

 

Aftermath

The cause of the crash remains disputed between the NTSB and the EACC. Despite this, tensions between the United States and Egypt have cooled down, and the current relations between the two countries are expected to be warm.

Through courtesy of wikipedia.org

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s