Did a UFO Down EgyptAir Flight 990?
By John Carlisle
As EgyptAir Captain Ahmed Habashy made his way down the isle toward the cockpit, all must have seemed normal. He and Rouf Noureldin, his copilot, had taken the Boeing 767-366-ER to its assigned cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, before relief pilot Gameel Batouti took over while they entered the cabin for a break.
Now, on his way back to the cockpit, listening to the idle banter of passengers against the low-pitched whine of the Pratt & Whitney 4000 turbofan engines, Habashy probably thought more about what he'd be doing at home the next day than anything pressing about the flight. He may have stopped by the galley for some coffee. He probably chatted amiably with the forward-section flight attendants who served him. Surely, he thought it was going to be another uneventful New York-to-Cairo flight, a long haul, perhaps, but with two extra crew aboard, no strain and no cause for concern. Just "a walk in the park."
Until he felt his feet begin to levitate from the floor, and his head hit the cabin ceiling of the huge passenger jet. Until he heard the sounds of serving trays, books, laptops and utensils crashing into overhead bins, and the startled eruptions from frightened passengers, including, perhaps, a few prescient screams.
Most likely, Habashy thought they'd encountered a bad area of CAT, or clear air turbulence, rough air so extreme that it can cause wild excursions from normal flight, with gyrations so violent they can cause structural failure even in large jets. That Gameel Batouti, alone in the cockpit, might have induced the negative G forces was clearly not among the possibilities Habashy's mind quickly sorted through as he fought his way through the cockpit door and into the left seat, the captain's station. Only then, perhaps, did he realize that Batouti had placed their ship in a disastrous dive that would end little more than a minute later with the death of all 217 aboard, somewhere in the dark North Atlantic, not that far from the scene of another legendary disaster--the Titanic.
What Batouti did is fairly certain. Why he did what he did is at the heart of this mystery....
Of course, the exact details of Habashy's final thoughts and actions in the moments before Flight 990 made its fatal plunge are known only to God. But the scenario above is not at all farfetched, based on what we do know from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), a sophisticated digital sound system consisting of four strategically placed cockpit microphones and related recording equipment, and the digital flight data recorder (DFDR), a computer that measures dozens of flight parameters--from G forces to control deflections to airspeed to air temperature and much more--and which, when correlated with the CVR, paints a detailed picture of what the aircraft actually did as it traced its path through the cold night sky, on October 31, 1999.
So while many questions remain, they don't so much concern weather, procedures, mechanical failure, an explosion, or even pilot error, the usual suspects in an accident investigation; they concern Batouti's motivations for his seemingly suicidal actions. What Batouti did is fairly certain. Why he did what he did is at the heart of this mystery. Back to Top
And what the available data suggest is that Batouti, alone in the cockpit, in the copilot's seat, uttered "Tawakilt ala Allah," which has been variously described as a prayer or a curse--the two being very closely related, depending on one's intention. Then, about eight seconds later, he disengaged the autopilot, just before pushing the control column over and placing the massive Boeing jet into a 40-degree-nose-down dive. Significantly, at the same time he began the dive, he reduced engine power (more about the significance of this action later). It was only about 5 seconds or so after the descent had begun that someone else (Habashy in our scenario) entered the cockpit and said, "What's happening?" Two or three seconds later, the master alarm sounded, indicating low engine oil pressure, which is consistent with zero-G or negative-G, and the plane's speed had reached Mach 0.86 (or 86% of the speed of sound), an overspeed condition likely to cause damage to the airframe, engines or both. About ten seconds after that, someone advanced the throttles in an apparent effort to regain power, just as someone else shut down the engines. At about this time, someone, presumably Habashy, said "Pull with me!" and the DFDR shows that the elevator is split, meaning one half is commanding the plane to go up and the other half is telling it to go down. (The plane is designed such that if the two control columns are pushed in opposite directions with more than fifty pounds of force, the elevators will split.) No CVR evidence suggests there was any physical struggle between the two pilots, though a source familiar with the tape has said: "There are two guys trying to fly [the plane] in opposite directions," a comment that obviously refers to the DFDR information just cited. At this point, without the engine generators, electrical power to the CVR and DFDR dies, so we don't know what, if anything, was said after that. But from Air Force radar coverage, which continued to follow the flight, we know the plane managed to recover from the dive at about 16,000 feet, then climb abruptly to about 24,000 feet, where it stalled and fell, partially breaking apart as it did, into the ocean. Radar contact was lost when the plane reached 10,000 feet. The time was 0150 EST.
[Batouti] had everything to live for, including his upcoming retirement.... CONTINUED