US officials blame jet crash on pilot suicide

FLIGHT 990 Investigators say reserve pilot waited for captain to leave cockpit, unplugged autopilot and put plane into a dive

THWARTED IN their efforts to turn the EgyptAir crash inquiry into a criminal probe, US officials yesterday used leading American newspapers to make public their theory of what caused the disaster. Reports appearing in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, were attributed carefully to "some US investigators"or unnamed "officials". They named the reserve pilot for the flight, Gamil al-Batouti, 59, as the likely culprit, and posited suicide as his motive for putting the plane into a fatal dive.

EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic off Massachusetts in the early hours of 31 October, killing all 217 people on board. It had just reached cruising height from New York to Cairo and there was no indication that anything was amiss. After sifting the evidence from radar, both black boxes, and the small amount of debris recovered, the National Transportation and Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, has been unable to find any mechanical or weather-related cause for the crash.

According to the sequence of events put out unofficially yesterday, Mr Batouti, who was on his last flight before retiring, had asked to be in the co-pilot's seat, even though he was not scheduled to fly the plane until later in the flight.

When the plane reached its cruising height of 33,000 ft, the captain made his last communication with air traffic control confirming that all was normal. This was at 0147 US Eastern Standard Time. He then briefly left the cabin.

During the captain's absence, the co-pilot clicks on the control twice to disconnect the autopilot and chants a short Islamic prayer, dedicating himself to God. The Arabic words "Tawakilt ala Allah" are heard on the tape. Soon afterwards, the captain returns to the cockpit and asks in Arabic a question that has been variously translated as: "What's going on?" or "Let's fix it." Leaping into his seat, he instructs: "Pull with me, pull with me," hoping that joint efforts could pull the plane out of the precipitate dive that has already begun.

Within eight seconds of the autopilot being disconnected, the plane was tracked by radar as plummeting from 33,000ft to 17,000 ft. At the same time, the flight data recorder shows the plane's two elevators, which control the height, pointing in opposite directions, as though one pilot is trying to pull the plane up, while the other is trying to keep it going down. According to one official, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the captain is heard on the voice recorder saying: "Cut the engines," an instruction seen as a last desperate attempt to slow the plane's fall.

Either the force exerted on the controls by the captain, or the engine cut-out cause the plane to ascend back up to 24,000ft, but then, through loss of momentum or because the engines stall, it falls almost vertically into the sea, probably breaking up in the process.

US reports also suggested that Mr Batouti had spent several days in a New York hotel room in a state of depression.

This latest account of the last seconds was "leaked" just hours after Egyptian objections had forced the postponement of a plan to pass control over the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

That transfer of authority, which would have identified foul play as the favoured explanation for the crash, had been strenuously resisted by the Egyptian authorities. One group of Egyptian specialists arrived in Washington and another group is expected today, including a personal emissary from the President, Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's position is being forcefully represented by the country's ambassador in Washington, who is trying to fend off a probe that Egypt fears would cast its national flag-carrier and the country in a negative light. The NTSB made clear, however, that the transfer to the FBI had only been delayed, not shelved completely.

Several aspects appear unclear from yesterday's version of events. One is whether the autopilot was disconnected before or after the prayer and whether the prayer should be taken literally or was just a standard form of words used by a devout Muslim at the start of any endeavour.

There are questions, too, about whether it was the captain or someone else who ordered the engines cut off, whether the engines were cut off before or after the plane started to emerge from its first dive, and whether the matching of the voice on the tape to the pilots who were on board is accurate.

There was anger and near universal incredulity in Cairo yesterday that pilot suicide could be to blame. There is, in Islam, a strong taboo against suicide.

Many Egyptian newspapers,accused the US of a cover-up, arguing that anything other than pilot error or suicide would reflect badly on the US.

It would imply defects in airport security, or defects in the plane, which was made by an American company. Umaimi al-Batouti denied that her husband, a former aviation instructor who joined EgyptAir in 1987, had been depressed.

Mrs Batouti said her husband was a religious man, who had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca last year, and had promised to take all his family on pilgrimage after he retired.He was also reported to be building a villa in a comfortable Cairo suburb, for after his retirement.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night