Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Tail unit scenario gains credence

By Shaden Shehab

The independent Austrian Institute of Aerospace-Medicine and Spacebiology said last Thursday that the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 might have been caused by a flight stabiliser breakdown, which could have caused the plane to plunge into the sea. The flight stabiliser is in the tail unit.

"This possibility has so far not been considered officially," commented the institute, which also analysed the 1991 crash of a Boeing 767 of Austria's Lauda Air in Bangkok.

"The stabiliser run-away batters the plane so strongly that the autopilot is insufficiently strong and it is automatically turned off in such a case," the institute said. A timeline by the US National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB], taken from the flight data recorder, states that the autopilot had been disconnected shortly before the crash. The Austrian institute suggested that if the gas levers were still set to thrust, "this would have accelerated the dive of the plane to a dangerous speed."

"Probably, in that moment, there seemed to be no other solution than to turn off the engines in order to avoid further accelerating the descent."

The institute said that the steering force necessary to counteract this state cannot be exerted by one pilot alone. "This is illustrated by what the pilot -- alone in the cockpit at that point in time -- says." Leaked reports indicate that co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti said "I put my faith in God" when he was alone in the cockpit, presumably with chief pilot Ahmed El-Habashi in the bathroom.

"It is not a new theory; a number of Egyptian pilots have said that and it was published in some newspapers, but maybe coming from a western agency will give it solid ground, because they have no interest," said Sayed Dessouki, an aviation expert and a Cairo University professor.

EgyptAir's chief pilot Tarek Selim told Al-Ahram Weekly last week that the crash of flight 990 could only have been caused by an explosion that snapped the tail off from the body of the Boeing 767. "But this is still considered a theory, because of the lack of accurate information. One cannot make an accurate analysis without sufficient evidence," Dessouki said. He added, however, that the institute did not specify what caused the flight stabiliser to stop functioning.

"My speculation is that a form of sophisticated bomb was mounted on the tail, and was set to go off when the plane reached a certain altitude," Dessouki said. "The severing of the tail unit caused the automatic pilot, which is connected to it, to disengage. This made the airplane go into a vertical loop, which is why it went briefly upwards before it finally crashed."

According to published reports, the plane, which was cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet, dropped rapidly to 16,700 feet, then climbed up to 24,000 feet before plummeting into the ocean.

"The only thing to do in such a case is to shut down the engines to stop it from going down rapidly. And this is what has been done," he said. Boeing officials have said that the automatic pilot and the engines could only be shut down manually.

"If anything happens to the plane other than a malfunction in the tail unit, the airplane will remain stable for some time and not go down at such a speed," Dessouki explained.

He rejected leaked reports that the 31 October crash into the Atlantic was the act of a suicidal co-pilot or the result of a quarrel between the pilot and his assistant. Dessouki emphasised the idea that the plane could never have been torn to such small pieces unless it was bombed in the air. "But it seems that we will never know the truth; the whole issue will be politicised. It is a 'we will not blame you if you do not blame us' understanding."

As American theories on the cause of the crash focused on the crew, the FBI sought to take over the probe, but backed down when Egypt complained that a criminal investigation was premature. Egyptians are outraged, seeing the American theories as unreliable.

"Why is the Egyptian point of view not heard like the American point of view?" said Taymour Abu Heneidi, a doctor. "It is not evidence, because the suicide story is not based on evidence. They are trying to convince us with fairy tales."

Hend Abdallah, an accountant, echoes this mistrust: "It is like the story of Diana and Dodi's death; no one will know what really happened. We only know what the governments of the concerned countries want us to believe. It is a dead end."

The American side is suspected by Egyptians because the plane took off from an American airport. If the crash was caused by a bomb or any form of terrorist act, this would mean that there was a security lapse at Kennedy Airport. And if the crash is blamed on a mechanical malfunction, Boeing will have to pay large amounts of compensation.

US officials repeated on Friday that they have so far found no indication of mechanical failure or a bomb explosion, leaving open the question of whether the plunge was deliberate.

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