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

Out of the blue

By Nevine Khalil

Investigators continue to try to make head or tail of the shreds of evidence and sift through the debris. Also continuing is the suffering of the families of the 217 victims aboard the EgyptAir flight 990 which fell out of the sky shortly after midnight on 31 October off the US eastern coast.

Captain Abdel-Fattah Orabi, who flew MS990 from Los Angeles to New York, defended the national carrier as well as manufacturer Boeing, insisting that the cause of the disaster was either "a bomb on board or a missile." In an exclusive interview, Orabi, who remained in the United States for questioning by investigators for 12 days after the crash, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the final hours of MS990.

Before take-off from Los Angeles, Orabi was informed that tyre number 8, which is at the back right, was flat and needed to be replaced. This was discovered during the routine check-up of the plane, carried out by three ground engineers, supervised by EgyptAir, who are responsible for the plane's maintenance.

According to the Boeing 767 manual, if tyre 8 is changed, tyre 7 also has to be replaced, but "we only had one spare; therefore, we spent some time looking for a second and finally borrowed one from another company," Orabi recalled. "This was the reason why the flight was delayed for two hours, not because we had made an emergency landing at Edwards Air Force Base as was reported in the beginning. That's a fallacy. Actually the first three hours of media coverage was nonsense."

Orabi had not been informed about the 33 Egyptian military officers who boarded the flight in Los Angeles, although he later found out that many EgyptAir personnel in both Los Angeles and New York knew of their presence. "The usual procedure is that the chief pilot is informed about any VIP passengers aboard his flight, but I was not." He gave two possible explanations for this; either because the officers were not considered VIP, especially if they were seated in economy class, or because "it was preferred that their presence remain low-profile."

After take-off from Los Angeles, the plane cruised at 37,000 feet for a while, "but then we began to experience moderate to severe turbulence, so I took the plane up to 41,000 feet for the comfort of the passengers. Altogether it was a very smooth flight until New York. There were no snags during the flight at all." Orabi was flying with co-pilots Hisham Farouk and Hisham Omar. The latter was on board as an observer because this was the route he would be flying soon. Unfortunately, the two remained on board for the following leg from New York.

Orabi said that the plane was in "top shape" during the five-and-a-half hour flight across the North American continent. "I did not detect anything wrong with it and, therefore, did not register any remarks in the technical log of the flight. Nothing at all. It's a blank page. I, for one, know there was nothing technically wrong with the aeroplane."

The chief pilot added that the primary concern of the crew is always to "get home safely to our families; therefore, any error or hitch would be reported immediately, whether verbally or written in the log."

Orabi revealed that the plane's reverse thrust in the left engine had been switched off for over 10 days by the maintenance team in Egypt because there was not enough time to check it. "It was cancelled both manually and mechanically, but this does not affect flying at all since the reverse thrust is used in stopping the plane on the ground and does not compromise the safety of the flight."

At Kennedy Airport in New York, Orabi briefly met with Captain Ahmed El-Habashi and co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti, assured them that the plane was in top form and wished them a safe trip home. "It was very brief, just a handshake, an embrace and I walked away," Orabi recalled. He said that El-Batouti did not appear "depressed or distraught", as was reported in the media. Orabi had flown with El-Batouti as his co-pilot in the past on the same route between the United States and Egypt. He described El-Batouti as "far from being a religious fanatic," adding that it would be "impossible" for militant religious groups to infiltrate air pilot circles because of the latter's "life-style". Orabi believes that it is "ludicrous" to talk about a suicide attempt by El-Batouti as the cause of the disaster.

Asked what may have caused the disaster, Orabi said that "it is most likely that the tail was blown away, either by a land-to-air missile or a bomb on board." His reasoning is that the speed at which the plane descended was too great and sudden for it to be a technical problem. "Even during an emergency descent, we do not exceed 8,000 feet per minute," he said. "The fast descent of MS990 was very abnormal. That is why I say the tail was torn away."

Another reason why the chief pilot insists the plane did not suffer a technical problem is because "Boeing is a highly respected manufacturer and its reputation is in a class of its own in comparison to other plane-makers."

"We had been flying this specific 767 for 10 years and it is 100 per cent excellent," Orabi said. The chief pilot added that this model is particularly safe to fly. "Even if the pilot made more than one mistake during the flight, the plane would still be able to land safely on the ground. Even if both engines are switched off, all is not lost. The plane would glide, not crash," he explained. This is a procedure that pilots are trained to follow during the biannual training they receive on simulators. "We are put in a situation in which both engines flame out (switch off); we put the start switches on start, glide down for a long distance and then start up again. The plane does not go down," he said.

"Instinctively I would say the plane was hit either by a missile or bomb," noted the chief pilot. Orabi finds inexplicable the fact that the largest piece of debris from the doomed plane does not measure longer than 80 centimetres and that body parts of the victims do not exceed 10 centimetres. "This indicates that there was a huge mid-air explosion which explains the presence of small pieces of wreckage over a large area." Orabi also believes that the one recovered body does not belong to anyone on the flight, but is perhaps a military pilot who was on a night training mission at the time and might have even caused the disaster.

Regarding the safety of air routes out of the United States, especially on the eastern coast which is peppered with military bases, Orabi said that pilots have no say in the matter. "This is the responsibility of tower control," he said, explaining that every 12 hours, air routes are worked out through the Organised Track System (OTS) to give the best tail wind in order to decrease flight time.

The routes are distributed among the various carriers in the air, in the order of first-come first-served. "Pilots are not informed about the exact locations of military bases and they do not have the option to choose which route to take. They have to be given clearance on any route they take and any flight path which crosses over military bases is the responsibility of tower control," he said.

Investigators are also looking into the fact that on 31 October the United States switched from daylight-saving summer time to standard time, which means clocks went back one hour. This was done at 1:00am on 1 November, when the clocks were brought back to 12:00 midnight. There is a possibility that computers are inoperable for a few minutes during this procedure, which could explain why MS990 was last seen on radar a few minutes after 1:00am. The self-defence procedure in any of the US naval bases on the eastern coast is automatic and a missile may have been launched at any unidentified flying object, without anyone being able to stop it.

When he was asked what could have caused flight 990 to crash, Orabi told investigators to first explain what happened to the TWA and Swiss Air flights which crashed mysteriously in 1996 and 1998 respectively over the same area.

Sources told the Weekly that when the Egyptian investigating team first arrived in the United States to look into the disaster, they found that their US counterparts had only checked a few of the 50-some investigation procedures that must be followed according to international aviation standards. "They had to start all over again because the investigation was so sloppy," a source said.

Now, the joint Egyptian-US investigating team has brought in a voice expert who is able to distinguish very subtle sounds, such as switches going up or down, detect the tone of speech and find out exactly what happened inside the cockpit.

   Top of page
Front Page