The crash of EgyptAir flight 990: Analysis

The wreckage of flight 990 lies in a warehouse. Image source: John Mottern

On the 31st of October 1999, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 on a transatlantic journey from New York to Cairo suddenly entered a dive off the coast of Massachusetts. Like a rollercoaster, the plane dived steeply, climbed back up, then plunged again, finally slamming into the ocean near Nantucket Island and killing all 217 people on board. But as soon as the black boxes were recovered, it was clear that this was no mere accident. The evidence showed beyond doubt that First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti had crashed the plane on purpose — but to admit as much would torpedo US-Egypt relations. Amid an escalating international crisis, an EgyptAir pilot defected to the United Kingdom, bringing with him knowledge of Batouti’s sinister motivations at a time when the National Transportation Safety Board was being forced to walk along a knife edge between the truth and the national interest.

An EgyptAir Boeing 767 in period livery. Image source: Wikipedia

Late on the night of the 30th of October, the Boeing 767 operating EgyptAir flight 990 arrived at New York’s JFK International Airport after the first leg of its journey from Los Angeles to Cairo. In New York, the previous crew was exchanged for a fresh one. 203 passengers and 14 crew ultimately boarded the wide body jet, including two sets of pilots: Captain Ahmed El-Habashi, 57, and First Officer Adel Anwar, 36, would fly the first half; and part way through they would swap places with relief Captain Raouf Noureldin, 52, and relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti, 59. Also on board were EgyptAir’s chief 767 pilot, Captain Hatem Rushdy; and two other first officers riding as passengers.

Of the 217 people on board, 100 were from the United States, 89 were from Egypt (including the crew), 21 were Canadian, and the remaining seven hailed from four additional countries. Among the Egyptian passengers were 33 air force officers returning from training in the US, including two brigadier generals and a colonel. All of the pilots had plenty of experience; Captain Habashi had been flying for EgyptAir since 1963, and relief First Officer Batouti was just three months from retirement. First Officer Anwar was engaged to be married shortly after his return to Egypt.

Undated photos of some of the crew members. Image source: Getty Images

Flight 990 took off from JFK at 1:20 a.m. and proceeded eastward over the Atlantic Ocean with Habashi and Anwar at the controls. All was normal for the first 20 minutes. Then at 1:40, relief First Officer Batouti entered the cockpit.

“Just wait, let me tell you something,” he said to Anwar. “I’m not going to sleep at all. I might come and sit for two hours, and then…”

Batouti was not supposed to take over until half way through the flight. Anwar was nonplussed. “But I, I slept, I slept,” he protested.

“You mean you’re not going to get up?” said Batouti. “You will get up, go and get some rest and come back.”

“You should have told me, you should have told me this, Captain Gameel,” said Anwar. “You should have said, ‘Adel…’” Although Batouti was a first officer, many of his fellow pilots called him captain because, in his previous capacity as a training captain out of the Egyptian air force, he had personally instructed them.

“Did I even see you?” said Batouti.

Anwar continued to protest, asking “Captain Gameel” to go back and sleep before taking over. But eventually he gave in, allowing Batouti to get his dinner and then return to take over flying duty. While Batouti was out of the cockpit, Anwar complained to Captain Habashi, “See how he does whatever he pleases?”

Captain Habashi demurred. He didn’t see the sense in provoking conflict. But Anwar pressed the point. “Does he not want to work with Raouf or what?”

“It’s possible, it’s possible, God knows,” said Habashi. “Look, you don’t have a male or female camel tied up in this situation, as they say. Right? By the Prophet, he’s just talking nonsense.”

Shortly thereafter, relief First Officer Batouti returned to the cockpit and First Officer Anwar gave up his seat. It was 1:42 a.m.

For the next several minutes, Habashi and Batouti conversed normally. Then, at 1:48, Habashi announced that he wanted to go use the toilet before it got crowded. He exited the cockpit, leaving Batouti alone at the controls. He said something unintelligible to himself, then softly added the phrase “Tawakkelt ala Allah” — “I rely on God.”

Some 30 seconds later, Batouti disengaged the autopilot, taking manual control of the plane. For a few seconds more, he did nothing. Then he again whispered, “I rely on God,” rolled back engine power to idle, and abruptly pitched the plane to forty degrees nose down. With terrifying rapidity, the 767 began to plunge toward the sea.

Captain Habashi immediately aborted his trip to the toilet and managed to claw his way back toward the cockpit, despite near zero-gravity conditions. Inside, Batouti held the control column forward, repeating “I rely on God” over and over again. But he had not locked the door, and Habashi managed to re-enter cockpit only 11 seconds after the dive began.

“What’s happening? What’s happening?” Habashi shouted as he clambered back into his seat.

“I rely on God,” Batouti whispered.

Flight 990 accelerated faster and faster, exceeding its maximum operating speed and triggering the master caution alarm.

“I rely on God,” said Batouti.

“What’s happening?” Captain Habashi asked again. “What’s happening Gameel? What’s happening?” But Batouti did not respond.

Habashi then noticed that the engines were at idle. “What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engines?” he shouted. At the same time, he started pulling back on his control column to pull the plane out of the dive, which had increased to a dizzying descent rate of 39,000 feet per minute. Slowly but surely, Habashi started to overpower Batouti, who was still trying to push the nose down.

But when Habashi tried to increase engine power, he found that Batouti had switched the fuel flow switch to the “cutoff” position, causing both engines to flame out. “Get away in the engines,” he said, his grammar failing him. “Shut the engines!?”

“It’s shut,” said Batouti.

Several times, Habashi shouted, “Pull with me!” as he tried to get Batouti to help him out of the dive. But still they continued to work against each other, causing the left and right elevators to move in opposite directions. A few seconds later, the engines shut off completely, and the plane lost all electrical power. The black boxes stopped recording and the plane’s transponder disappeared off controllers’ radar screens. What happened inside the cockpit of flight 990 from this point onward will never be known.

However, several facilities in the northeastern United States continued to track the 767 on primary radar for two minutes after the loss of power. The plane appeared to bottom out at an altitude of about 16,000 feet, climbed back to 25,000 feet, then entered a second dive, plunging again toward the sea at a rate of 20,000 feet per minute. This time, it did not recover. Stressed beyond its limits, the airframe began to disintegrate; the left engine ripped away from the wing and control surfaces tore from their mountings. Finally, at 1:52 a.m., EgyptAir flight 990 slammed nose-first into the Atlantic Ocean 96 kilometers south of Nantucket Island, instantly killing all 217 people on board.

CGI animation of EgyptAir flight 990’s final dive. Video source: Mayday

The investigation into the crash began like any other. The plane went down in international waters, legally giving Egypt jurisdiction over the case, but because the US National Transportation Safety Board was far more experienced, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak asked that it take over the investigation. Then, nine days after the crash, everything changed. An underwater search had turned up both of the plane’s black box flight recorders, which were carefully raised from the seabed and sent to Washington D.C. for analysis. In a room at the NTSB headquarters, American and Egyptian investigators listened to the cockpit voice recording for the first time. What they heard was stunning. There was no discussion of an emergency, no sign of any mechanical failure, only the sounds of the wind, the alarms, and Batouti quietly whispering tawakkelt ala Allah over and over again. It was all but certain that Batouti had crashed the plane on purpose. An EgyptAir representative who listened to the recording reportedly left the room ashen-faced and was not heard from again.

NTSB investigators document the black boxes before transport to Washington. Image source: Wikipedia

It was not long before second-hand descriptions of the content of the CVR leaked to the press. News reports falsely claimed that Batouti had said “I have made my decision. I place my faith in the hands of God,” and that he had recited a Muslim prayer as the plane went down. Overnight, EgyptAir flight 990 went from a plane crash to a major international incident. Egypt quickly accused the US media of a smear campaign, bringing in experts who noted that the correct translation of Batouti’s refrain was “I rely on God.” In fact, Egyptian authorities not only rejected the poor translation, but rejected the possibility that Batouti had intentionally crashed the plane. What NTSB investigators hoped would be a short inquiry suddenly got a lot longer.

Wreckage of one of flight 990’s engines. Image source: Getty Images

Egyptian investigators and Egyptian media put forward one alternative hypothesis after another. Some of them were completely absurd. Early on, for example, Egyptian authorities asked the NTSB to state that the plane had been brought down by a bomb in the forward lavatory (obviously, they refused). The head of the NTSB wanted to publish the report with the conclusion that Batouti crashed the plane and leave the rest to the FBI, but Egypt’s President Mubarak had made it clear to President Clinton that doing so would drive a stake into the strategic alliance between the US and Egypt. The NTSB therefore had no choice but to look into anything the Egyptians came up with.

For example, Egyptian investigators put forward a possible scenario involving an elevator failure. Each elevator is moved by three actuators, and if two of these actuators were to fail on the same side, it could cause a massive pitch down motion not unlike that experienced by flight 990. What’s more, two rivets in the actuator bellcrank assembly were found to be sheared, possibly before the crash. But it quickly became clear that the theory didn’t hold water. First, no connection could be found between the sheared rivets and a potential actuator jam. Second, such a jam should be easily recoverable using the non-failed elevator by simply pulling back on the control column. And third, such a failure would produce a downward pitch steeper than the one that actually occurred. Nevertheless, the FAA took the sheared rivets seriously, and an inspection turned up similar failures on over 100 Boeing 767s and 757s. All were subsequently fixed.

Remains of flight 990’s fuselage. Image source: The Providence Journal

Over and over, the NTSB shot down Egyptian mechanical failure scenarios using math and simulator testing. No conceivable failure of the elevators could produce a pitch excursion that wasn’t easily recoverable, even if the pilot waited up 20 seconds before reacting. Nor could any physical evidence be found in the wreckage to indicate that any of these failures took place. The Egyptian press accused the US government of a coverup — that in reality the plane was faulty, and the allegation that Batouti committed suicide was meant to absolve Boeing of responsibility. Eventually, there was nothing left for the NTSB to even pretend to investigate. In 2002, it published its long-awaited report, concluding that the probable cause of the crash was the control inputs of the relief first officer. For diplomatic reasons, the report did not use the words “suicide,” “deliberate,” or “intentional.”

Meanwhile, the FBI was searching for a motive. On paper, there was nothing to suggest that Gameel Al-Batouti could have been suicidal. He had a family, he had a plan for retirement, and earlier that day he had bought a car tire to bring back to his son (they had even discussed it on the phone before the flight). Nor was he a religious fundamentalist. But by February 2000, new allegations began to emerge. Interviews with staff at the hotel Batouti usually stayed at while he was in New York revealed that he had repeatedly been reprimanded for sexually harassing female employees and guests, including unwanted solicitations, stalking, and indecent exposure. Allegedly, EgyptAir’s chief pilot Hatem Rushdy, who died on flight 990, had scolded Batouti for his behaviour just before the flight.

Undated photo of Gameel Al-Batouti, probably with his wife.

Then the search for a motive got a major jolt when EgyptAir pilot Hamdi Hanafi Taha defected to the United Kingdom, claiming he had new information about flight 990. He told the FBI that just before the flight, Hatem Rushdy had told Batouti that because of his sexual impropriety, his privilege of flying to the United States would be revoked. Not only was this a blow to Batouti’s pride, it represented a financial blow as well, because the transatlantic flights paid more than regular flights. Batouti’s pride was apparently already fragile. He had reached a high rank in the Egyptian air force and had personally trained many of EgyptAir’s best pilots. But because he joined the airline in his 40s and his English skills were poor, he was never able to rise above the rank of first officer, and many of the pilots he trained ended up outranking him. To hide the fact that he wasn’t a captain, he always wore a sweater that covered up the number of bars on his uniform, and he never wore his hat. Could the alleged revocation of his right to fly to the US have been enough to push him over the edge? Could he have suffered a psychotic break and crashed the plane to get revenge against Hatem Rushdy? Taha seemed to think so. He also told the FBI that immediately after the crash, EgyptAir pilots had been called to a meeting where they were given the facts, and only the facts. According to Taha, everyone left that meeting knowing that Batouti had crashed the plane on purpose. The theories being put forward by the Egyptian authorities were nothing but a façade.

Egyptian investigators examine the black boxes. Image source: The Atlantic

In the end, Taha’s credibility is questionable, as he did not personally witness the alleged conversation between Rushdy and Batouti. But according to famed aviation writer William Langewiesche, who spent months researching the investigation into flight 990, he was right about the façade being put up by the Egyptian authorities. Langewiesche found that when he asked Egyptian investigators about the crash, they stonewalled him; he interpreted this to mean that they did not actually believe a mechanical failure caused the crash, because if they did, they would have tried to show him the evidence. Egypt’s intelligentsia broadly agreed. In an interview for The Atlantic, Langewiesche said,

“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.”

However, the Egyptian public did genuinely believe that Batouti had been framed. In fact, everyday Egyptians seemed to take the allegations personally, calling the entire affair a colonialist effort to shunt the blame onto a “third world” country and its “third world” pilots. The popular belief, spread by Batouti’s relatives, was that the entire basis for the “suicide theory” was one mistranslated line from the cockpit voice recorder. But this represented a willful disregard for the evidence. Much of this came down to the commonly held belief that Muslims do not commit suicide. Defenders of Batouti also note that it would be very strange to repeat the phrase “I rely on God” before crashing a plane. Tawakkelt ala Allah is a common Egyptian saying used to request God’s help before some everyday task. Perhaps, they argue, he was asking for God’s help in saving his plane. If so, he would have been a lot better off helping himself, but he apparently never attempted to do so.

Crew members’ names on the memorial to the victims of EgyptAir flight 990. Image source: Jeff Kowalsky

In a rare move, the NTSB did not make any safety recommendations as a result of the crash. How could there be a regulatory solution to a single pilot who lost his mind? As much as the NTSB strives to squeeze every possible lesson from every crash, from this one it found little to learn. However, as a precaution, airlines in the US now require two people in the cockpit at all times.

We may never know exactly why Gameel Al-Batouti deliberately dived EgyptAir flight 990 into the sea, taking 216 other people with him. It could have been an act of revenge against his boss, or it could have been some other reason known only to himself. But that he did in fact do it on purpose is indisputable. The accident sequence began while he was alone in the cockpit, after making an unusual request to begin his duty early. There was no apparent reason for him to disengage the autopilot. There was no apparent reason for him to push the nose down and hold it there. When Captain Habashi returned to his seat, Batouti made no attempt to inform him of a problem. There was no apparent reason for him to shut off the engines. When Habashi requested that he pull up, he kept pushing down.

The last two minutes of flight 990 hold secrets that will forever haunt us. What was it like on board that plane as it climbed to its last desperate zenith, suspended in utter darkness? What final words did Habashi say as he realized that his copilot had killed them all? What did those 217 people feel as the tremendous G-forces of the final dive ripped the airplane apart? And as the sea rose up beneath him, did Gameel Al-Batouti regret what he had done?

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (soon™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.