EgyptAir Flight 990
SU-GAP, the aircraft involved in the accident, at Düsseldorf in 1992.
|Date||31 October 1999|
|Summary||Deliberate crash (NTSB); Mechanical failure (ECAA)|
|Site||Atlantic Ocean, 100 km (62 mi) S of Nantucket|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 767-366ER|
|Aircraft name||Tuthmosis III|
|Flight origin||Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, United States|
|Stopover||John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, United States|
|Destination||Cairo International Airport, Cairo, Egypt|
EgyptAir Flight 990 (MS990/MSR990) 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 31 October 1999, the Boeing 767-366ER operating the route crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles (100 km) south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, killing all 217 people on board. The official "probable cause" of the crash was deliberate action by the relief first officer.
As the crash occurred in international waters, the responsibility for investigating the accident fell to the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) per International Civil Aviation Organization Annex 13. As the ECAA lacked the resources of the much larger American 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 found the crash was caused by deliberate action of the relief first officer Gameel Al-Batouti; the ECAA found the crash was caused by mechanical failure of the aircraft's elevator control system.
The Egyptian 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, the primary theory is that he committed a murder-suicide. 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 had any of the failure scenarios forwarded by the Egyptian authorities occurred, the aircraft would still have been recoverable because of the 767's redundant elevator control system.
- 1 Flight details
- 2 Search and rescue operations
- 3 Investigations
- 4 Media coverage
- 5 Dramatizations
- 6 Flight number
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Flight 990 was being flown in a Boeing 767-366ER aircraft with the 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 EgyptAir as a brand new aircraft on 26 September 1989.
Flight 990's cockpit crew consisted of 57-year-old Captain Ahmed El-Habashi, 36-year-old First Officer Adel Anwar, 52-year-old relief Captain Raouf Noureldin, 59-year-old relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti, and the airline's chief pilot for the Boeing 767, Captain Hatem Rushdy. Captain El-Habashi was a veteran pilot who had been with EgyptAir for more than 35 years and had accumulated approximately 14,400 total flight hours, more than 6,300 of which were in the 767. Relief First Officer Al-Batouti had close to 5,200 flight hours in the 767 and a total of roughly 12,500 hours.
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 prior to landing, at which point the active crew returned to the cockpit and assumed control of the aircraft. EgyptAir 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 command first officer 20 minutes after takeoff. The command first officer initially protested, but eventually agreed.
The flight was carrying 203 passengers from seven countries: Canada, Egypt, Germany, Sudan, Syria, 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, while 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.
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".
Air traffic control (ATC)
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 "Center" 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 accident.
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 01:44, 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.
- 06:49:53Z – FL329
- 06:50:05Z – FL315
- 06:50:17Z – FL254
- 06:50:29Z – FL183 (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 06:52:05. At 06:54, 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. Center also provided coordinates of Flight 990's last-known position to Coast Guard rescue aircraft.
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 kgf) 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 at some point before water impact.
Search and rescue operations
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 (USCG). 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 USCG 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 US Merchant Marine Academy training vessel Kings Pointer found an oil sheen and some small pieces of debris. Rescue efforts continued by air and by sea, with a group of USCG cutters covering 10,000 square miles (26,000 km2) on 31 October 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 to Newport to set up an incident command post. Officials from the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were dispatched to join the command. The search and rescue operation was suspended on 1 November 1999, with the rescue vessels and aircraft moving instead to recovery operations.
The naval vessels USS Grapple and USNS Mohawk and the NOAA research vessel Whiting 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 United States Navy's Deep Drone III submersible. In total, a C-130, an H-60 helicopter, the HU-25 Falcon and the Coast Guard cutters Monomoy, Spencer, Reliance, Bainbridge Island, Juniper, Point Highland, Chinook, and 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.
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.
Hamdi Hanafi Taha defection
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, just 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 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 21 March 2002, after a two-year investigation, and concluded as follows:
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: "Whereas 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 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 than likely caused by the accident rather than existing beforehand, and furthermore it was not enough to cause the crash, as the 767 is designed to remain flyable even with two PCUs failed.
In response to the ECAA claim of NTSB unprofessionalism, former NTSB director of aviation safety Bernard Loeb said:
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.
Another discredited theory, posited by literature professor Elaine Scarry, proposed that Flight 990 was subjected to electromagnetic interference by military aircraft. In a critique of Scarry's writing, Didier de Fontaine, professor emeritus of materials science at UC Berkeley, discussed the lack of scientific basis for Scarry's hypothesis and stated that she had engaged in "voodoo science" disproved by both NASA and the NTSB.
While the official investigation was proceeding, speculation about the crash ran rampant in both the Western media and the Egyptian press.
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 19 November 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 20 November 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 "traumatised 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 in 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.'"
Reaction of the Egyptian public
William Langewiesche, an aviation writer, said that in Cairo he encountered three groups of people. He said that the ordinary Cairenes believed that there was an American conspiracy to attack EgyptAir 990 and that the Americans were covering up the fact. He added that a small group of Cairenes, mostly consisting of "intelligentsia", "knew perfectly well that Batouti, the co-pilot, had pushed that airplane into the water, and that the Egyptian government was stonewalling and was engaged in what they saw as a typical exercise in Egyptian governing." Langewiesche said that "people involved directly in the investigation" had "presented a uniform party line, a uniform face with very few cracks. They stonewalled me, and that in itself was very interesting." Langewiesche argued that "in the stonewalling they were revealing themselves" and that if they truly believed Batouti was innocent, they would have invited Langewiesche to see proof of this theory.
Al Jazeera, an Arabic-language channel, produced a documentary by Yosri Fouda about the flight that was broadcast in March 2000. The documentary looked at the preliminary NTSB conclusion and speculations surrounding it. In the documentary, the NTSB data were used with a flight simulator of the same aircraft model to try to simulate the circumstances of the crash, failing three times to replicate the NTSB theory for plunging a fully functioning 767 from 33,000 ft to 19,000 ft in 37 seconds. However, a 2001 journal describes successfully reproducing the incident in a Boeing flight simulator.
Subsequently, the story of the flight was featured in the Discovery Channel Canada/National Geographic television show Mayday (Air Crash Investigation, Air Emergency). In the show, the flight is dramatized on the basis of ATC tapes as well as the CVR recordings. In interviews conducted for the 2005 program, the relief first officer's family members vehemently dispute the suicide/deliberate crash theories and dismiss them as biased. The program nevertheless concludes that he crashed the plane for personal reasons: he had been severely reprimanded by his supervisor for sexual harassment, and the supervisor was actually on the plane.
The Mayday dramatization of the crash also depicts the relief first officer forcing the plane down while the command captain attempts to pull the plane up. Despite this, upon conclusion, the program stresses the official NTSB conclusion and the fact it makes no mention of a suicide mission. Rather, it simply states that the crash was a direct result of actions made by the co-pilot for "unknown" reasons.
Since the crash, the flight number for the route from JFK to Cairo has been changed from MS990 to MS986. The route is now flown by a Boeing 777. The airline also terminated service to Los Angeles.
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- "Statement of Jim Hall, Chairman". NTSB. 11 August 2000. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- Mayday, Season 3, Episode 8: "EgyptAir 990 (Death and Denial)". 2 November 2005.
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- "Suicide speculation under fire". Cairo Times. November 1999. Retrieved 29 April 2007.
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- Piotrowski, William K. (Spring 2000). "What's in a Name?: The Crash of EgyptAir 990". Religion in the News (Trinity College) 3 (1). Retrieved 15 January 2011.
- El-Nawawy, Mohammed; Iskander, Adel (2003). Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Basic Books. Retrieved 28 March 2015.
- "Egypt Air 990". FlightAware. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to EgyptAir Flight 990.|
|Pre-accident photos of SU-GAP from Airliners.net|
- NTSB Final Report
- ECAA Final Report
- ATC transmission transcript
- Cockpit Voice Recorder transcript and accident summary
- Flight data recorder data summary
- NTSB debris image links Structural debris, structural debris, engine debris
- Media links:
- Other links: