Aviation mysteries haunt us and hold our attention and have done so relentlessly over time. The case of EgyptAir Flight 990 is no exception. While the plane itself was found and a cause is speculated, there is no certainty behind what happened that day in 1999.
Halloween Day, 1999
EgyptianAir Flight 990 took off from JFK airport at 1:20 am, adding just one more Boeing 767 to the skies that day. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, climbing to 33,000 feet with 217 people on board. Two crews were assigned to the flight: an active one to handle the first and last hours of the flight, and a cruise crew to monitor the flight while it was on autopilot and make sure everything ran smoothly.
The plane flew for nearly thirty minutes before disappearing from radar. An Air France flight flew over the area but reported nothing out of the ordinary. Hope that the plane was still on route lasted only until dawn when a ship spotted debris floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
The plane had plummeted into the ocean 60 miles outside of Nantucket. Rescue teams rushed to the scene, but there were no survivors.
In Just Over 30 Minutes...
While the details of that night are clearer than they were initially, the cause of the incident remains disputed. Let's start from the beginning. The commanding officer of the flight was 57-year-old Captain Ahmed El-Habashi who had been working with EgyptianAir for 36 years. First Officer Adel Anwar was a 36-year-old who had switched with another First Officer so he could make it home for his wedding.
The relief crew consisted of 52-year-old relief Captain Raouf Noureldin and 59-year-old relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti. Al-Batouti was a former flight instructor and was one of EgyptAir's oldest First Officers. Captain Hatem Rushdy, the airline's chief pilot for the Boeing 767, was also on board the flight. The crew was a rather experienced one, as it seems.
Just twenty minutes into the flight, relief First Officer Al-Batouti says that he wants to take over early, but First Officer Anwar says it's too early for him to take his break. They go back and forth for a while but eventually switch. Apparently, the early switch was because Al-Batouti didn't want to work with Captain Raouf Noureldin. Al-Batouti leaves to get his meal, then takes over.
This is when the cockpit voice recorder comes into play. You can read the full transcript of the flight's last moments here, but the last few exchanges are critical to the theories that surround this mystery:
El Habashy: Excuse me, Jimmy, while I take a quick trip to the toilet-
El Batouty: Go ahead, please.
El Habashy: - before it gets crowded. While they are eating, and I'll get back to you.
El Batouty: I rely on God. (repeats while clicks, bumps, and alarms begin to sound in the background)
El Habashy: What's happening? What's happening?
El Batouty: I rely on God.
El Batouty: I rely on God.
El Habashy: What's happening?
Unidentified voice: s]?
El Habashy: Get away in the engines. Shut the engines.
El Batouty: It's shut.
El Habashy: Pull. Pull with me. Pull with me. Pull with me.
After the first -I rely on God,- officer Al0Barouti disconnected the plane's autopilot, and the Boeing 767 begins to descend. Fuel is cut to the engines. When Captain El Habashy returns to the cockpit, he tries to power the engines and deploys the speed brakes and the plane begins to come out of the dive. All power is cut off and the plane begins to climb again, but the stress takes a toll on the plane, which dives again into the ocean.
NTSB and ECAA Investigations and Findings
Things are relatively split down the middle regarding what might have happened. Some believe that it was a mechanical failure while others believe that it was a deliberate act done by El Batouty.
In the West, the media began to report that the tragedy was an act of suicide and terrorism, due to leaked information of the recording and El Batouty saying -I rely on God.- At the time, it was improperly translated as -I made my decision now. I put my faith in God's hands.- The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) tested mechanical failures posed by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency (ECAA) and found them inconclusive with the evidence found. The US deemed the probable cause -a result of the relief first officer's flight control inputs.-
In regard to the mechanical failure, the ECAA launched their own investigation as they were unhappy with the NTSB's findings. They officially reported the cause of the tragedy was not caused by the Relief First Officer and that mechanical failure was "a plausible and likely cause of the accident."
What do you think happened that night? One thing is certain, it was a tragedy leading to the loss of many loved ones.