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
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The Independent Online
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.