Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

No rush judgments

By Amira Ibrahim

Salah ZakiSalah Zaki, a renowned journalist and radio and television broadcaster, was killed this week in a tragic car accident. EgyptAir's chairman, Mohamed Fahim Rayyan, has rejected speculation over the possible causes of the crash of Flight 990 on 31 October. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, he described the theories and analyses put forward by the press and media over the past month as nonsense.

"The investigations are continuing and it is unprofessional to rush to judgement without having all the necessary evidence," Rayyan stated. He added that a high-level delegation of EgyptAir investigators is working with American officials to determine why the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 217 people on board.

"We have a group of the best experts in the field of aviation and air transportation. The Americans respect Egypt's contribution to the investigation and have so far agreed with most of our arguments," Rayyan said. He expressed the belief that the two sides would iron out any disagreements, if there were any.

According to Rayyan, a team of five investigators; two Egyptian and a Lebanese translator, a German linguistic and a phonetic expert, are working to provide a literal, factual transcript of all conversations and sounds in the cockpit.

"The tape on the voice-recorder contained 31 minutes of cockpit conversations. Each of the last 40 seconds, beginning with the auto-pilot being turning off, is divided into tenths of a second in order to be examined thoroughly. This will take weeks of painstaking work," Rayyan said. "More detailed attempts will be made to synchronise the information contained in the two black boxes; the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder."

He added that a primary report on the probable causes of the crash is expected to be completed by mid-January.

Rayyan explained that investigators are at present focusing their work on exploring the reason for the rapid descent of the plane.

"The aircraft started to descend at a rate of 23,600 feet per minute with a speed that reached Mach 0.92, the speed of sound. When we find out why this plunge happened, we may know what caused the crash," he said.

Rayyan expressed the belief that serious damage to the tail unit, caused, perhaps, by a collision with a solid 'body', would explain the rapid descent.

He added that investigators are working on 11 factors, including the synchronisation of the voice and data recorders, cooperation between the pilot and co-pilot and checking the pilot's orders against the instruction book.

The chairman said that a large ship, the Smit Pioneer, is due to arrive this week from Portugal to the crash scene, 60 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. "It will attempt to retrieve human remains and the wreckage, including such critical sections as the cockpit, to determine for certain what caused the crash," he said. The cost of collecting the wreckage, added Rayyan, will be covered by the governments of the United States and Egypt and insurance companies.

Rayyan criticised the rush to judgement by the US press and media, which had attempted to put the blame on EgyptAir and its pilots. "It is highly unlikely that accusations would have been made to build a case for a co-pilot suicide had the airline and crew been American or European. It has been years since the mysterious 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747, and the similar unexplained crash of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. Both remain unsolved, and yet the possibility of pilot suicide has never been raised."

But he added: "So far, we are satisfied with the apology of the National Transportation Safety Board's officials that the reports, which were leaked by the investigative committee, were false."

Rayyan indicated that cultural differences between Islam and the West are behind the interpretation of an Islamic phrase as proof that a criminal act was committed.

Rayyan, rejecting the suicide theory, said that co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti did not fit the profile of a man likely to commit suicide. "Nothing that is known about El-Batouti suggests a motive for suicide and mass murder. El-Batouti was a veteran pilot who appeared to be happily married, with five children. He was independently wealthy. Associates who saw him before he left Kennedy Airport said he was smiling and looking forward to his return to Cairo."

"The suicide scenario is full of contradictions. He could have locked the cockpit door from the inside in order to commit the alleged suicide, but he did not. El-Batouti did not have life insurance. He only contributed to one of the pilots' two retirement funds. If he had planned to commit suicide to leave money for his family, he would have taken out life insurance and contributed to both funds," he added.

"The initial analysis of the cockpit conversations was tailored to explain every word and move in the light of the suicide theory. We introduced another analysis which proved that all the moves the pilots made were completely correct," explained Rayyan.

"The first was a sound suggesting the opening of the cockpit door. This was interpreted to mean that the captain might have left the cockpit after the plane reached cruising altitude. Next was a voice reciting the Islamic saying Tawakalt ala Allah, which we interpreted as 'I rely on God'."

The Western media took this Islamic saying as evidence that El-Batouti disengaged the automatic pilot for the purpose of crashing the plane -- an analysis which has been proved false. Our argument was that the automatic pilot was disengaged to control the plane after the nose had turned down," Rayyan said.

When the speed of descent exceeded Mach 0.86, an alarm was heard, warning against the mounting speed. The engines were then shut down, which is the correct action to avoid a flame-out of the engines, Rayyan added.

"When the jet began to dive, the captain said, "Pull with me! Pull with me!" There are no shouts or screams, no threats, no sounds of fighting.

As for the opposing positions of the elevator flaps, Boeing officials have said that such an anomaly could be acceptable and does not affect the balance of the aircraft," Rayyan explained.

The Egyptian press has expressed suspicion over the motives behind the rush to make a quick judgement, advancing its own theories. Among the passengers on board were 33 Egyptian military officers. But Rayyan ruled out a conspiracy theory.

Rayyan appealed to the press and media not to speculate about the cause of the crash. He explained that he was not leaning toward any specific theory.

Doubts raised about the safety of the Boeing 767 could have damaging consequences for Boeing's financial stability. Does this raise the possibility that Boeing is pushing the suicide theory to prove itself innocent?

"Until we have evidence supporting such an assumption, I cannot accept it. There are 725 Boeing 767 aircraft in service. It is of importance to Boeing to discover any problem in order to make the required modifications," he said.

Rayyan warned that putting the blame on Boeing without evidence might result in undesired consequences for international aviation. "Boeing is one of only two remaining civil airplane builders, after the withdrawal of McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed from the field. If Boeing were forced out of the industry now, either Airbus wouldn't be able to cover the market or it would monopolise the industry, and both are against the interest of air transportation," Rayyan concluded.

According to Rayyan EgyptAir has ordered two Boeing 777s and is due to receive them by 2003.

EgyptAir investigators, joined by NTSB officials, are due at Boeing headquarters in Seattle to re-enact the flight on a 767 cockpit simulator with the aim of unravelling the many mysteries of the crash. "Boeing's simulator is not programmed with information and data about similar crashes; the Egyptian aircraft disaster is the first of its kind. What we are waiting for is for the simulator to be programmed with the crash data," Rayyan explained.

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