Introduction to EgyptAir 990

On the morning of October 31, 1999, EgyptAir flight 990 from New York to Cairo took off from JFK without incident. Over the next ten minutes the Boeing 767 climbed to its cruising altitude at 33,000 feet, but at 1:49:53 without any warning, radar indicated the jet went into a steep dive and quite literally fell out of the sky. Before the black box recorders could be recovered from the bottom of the ocean, a private company, Megadata Corp., released radar findings three days later indicating that the plane fell from 33,000 feet to 16,000 feet and then climbed back up to 24,000 feet before breaking apart in its final dive into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nantucket (1).

Even before the data recorders were recovered, the mystery of what happened to EgyptAir 990 began to evolve.

Recovery of the crash debris proved to be difficult, and controversial. However, once the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR) were retrieved, the dilemma of EgyptAir 990's cryptic demise became not just scientific, but cultural, political and religious.

According to the National Transporation Safety Board (NTSB), the relief co-pilot, Gamil al-Batouti, entered the cockpit twenty minutes after takeoff and requested that he start his shift several hours early. The command first officer protested, but the relief co-pilot insisted. Then, after the pilot, Capt. Ahmed Mahmoud el-Habashy, left the cockpit to go to the bathroom, Batouti began a repetitious recitation of a simple Muslim prayer, disconnected the autopilot, set the engines back to idle position and put the airplane in a severe 40 degree downward dive. At some point, the pilot returned to the cockpit and struggled to regain altitude, at which point Batouti cut power to the engines. Furthermore, according to the NTSB, because Habashy was pulling back on the control yoke and Batouti was pushing forward, they broke the tandem control mechanism called a torque tube that causes the control yoke to work together to control the airplanes elevators, and therefore the left elevator was angled up and the right elevator was angled down. The NTSB refrained from giving a motive to Batouti's actions, but it suggested early on that the crash was caused by the co-pilot's intent (2).

Speculation began immediately.

With the FDR being recovered on November 9, and the CVR found a full two weeks after the crash, experts and crackpots alike began to run through the possible scenarios. Given the string of suspicious plane crashes that had preceded EgyptAir's mysterious plummet, such as TWA Flight 800, SilkAir Flight 111 and Alaska Airlines Flight 261, conspiratorial explanations based on the radar data alone were rampant. Parallels were drawn between accounts of missiles and bombs being used on these previous flights with the flight scenario of EgyptAir 990. Once the FDR was retrieved, the scenarios shifted to accommodate the new data. People speculated that the pilots had been reacting to something they saw (evasive maneuver), a mechanical malfunction or a missile or bomb damaging the plane. However, once the CVR was successfully transcribed, two camps definitely emerged in the battle over causes: the NTSB group which leaned towards a pilot suicide scenario, and basically everyone else who unwilling to buy this explanation, whether due to skepticism, lack of evidence or politics. Before the CVR was recovered, developing scenarios whereby Batouti was a hero trying to rescue his injured craft were much easier, but afterwards, this task became an exercise in creative interpretation. The two sides were saying extremely different things about exactly the same evidence. Often, however, the conspiracy side conveniently left out parts of the CVR transcript and FDR data that were not supportive of their explanation (4).

Even if the combination of data from the recorders dispels the "mystery" of EgyptAir 990's demise, it does little to explain the motive the co-pilot had for committing mass murder and suicide. On top of that, the handling of the situation by both the government of the United States as well as Egypt is revealing for its bungling and political motivations. Therefore, an examination of the various theories and their illumination of strange coincidences, as well as the cultural, political and religious factors involved, provide those interested in conspiracy theory with plenty of insights, not just regarding U.S. and Egypt policy, but the creation and function of conspiracy theory as an avenue of civic participation.

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