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Retrieved voice recorder may solve jet riddle

THE COCKPIT voice recorder from flight EgyptAir 990 was sent to Washington for examination last night as speculation mounted that the plane could have been deliberately crashed in a kamikaze-like act by one of the crew.

The recorder, the second "black box", was retrieved from the ocean bed by a Navy robot late on Saturday night, two weeks after the plane plunged into the Atlantic off Massachusetts with the loss of all 217 people on board.

Jim Hall, head of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) which is heading the inquiry into the disaster, said the voice recorder was slightly bent, and had become detached from its identifying `pinger'. But he said that as much as 30 minutes of cockpit conversation could be on the tape. "I am very relieved," Mr Hall said. "We are hopeful that we will have good voice information off this recorder."

The crew of the stricken plane, which was 40 minutes into a flight from New York to Cairo, had made no distress call and given no indication that anything was wrong.

Preliminary analysis of the first black box, the flight data recorder, showed that the plane's engines had been shut off before the final descent, something that experienced pilots said could be done only manually. One veteran pilot said the actions taken on the Boeing 767, such as shutting off the engines, seemed to be the exact opposite of what would be done by someone trying to save the plane. "Someone on that airplane was trying to make that airplane crash and they succeeded," the former United Airlines pilot said.

The recorded flight data appeared to rule out any parallel with the 1991 Air Lauda crash of a similar plane, which was attributed to a faulty thrust reverser on one of the two engines. This left sabotage or catastrophic human error as the favoured hypotheses.

Concerned by the suggestion that its pilots could be flying while mentally unbalanced, EgyptAir called a press conference in Cairo on Saturday to reassure passengers about the medical credentials of its crews.

Officials from the airline have been asked to help NTSB investigators interpret the information from the voice cockpit recorder, some of which is expected to be in Arabic.

Hassan Misharfa, EgyptAir head of operations, said yesterday that the pilots were among the company's best. "They have long experience and, in addition to that, they have passed all professional, safety and psychological tests successfully," he said.