Emergency in the cockpit

The Web goes wild for EgyptAir facts, analysis and conspiracy theories.

By Fiona Morgan

Published November 12, 1999 1:00PM (EST)

Now that Navy robots have successfully recovered the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder from ill-fated EgyptAir Flight 990, reporters, analysts and conspiracy theorists are zeroing in on reports that the plane's precipitous descent was "controlled," not accidental. According to data from the two black boxes, the plunge -- and the crash -- could have been deliberate.

When the Boeing 767 went down Oct. 31, killing all 217 people aboard, many at first suspected the plane's thrust reversers had deployed accidentally; that might have explained why it began a rapid, 40-degree plunge from its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet into the ocean. But new details about the last moments of the flight have raised more questions than they have answered. The crash has stumped FBI and National Transportation Safety Board investigators so far.

The cockpit voice recorder was recovered just after 10:00 p.m. EST Saturday, and although the recorder was bent on one side, said NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, it provided about 31 minutes of data.

Investigators were hopeful that the recording would be able to shed some light on the eerie details trickling out about the plane's crash into the Atlantic. But a preliminary review of the tape was inconclusive. On Sunday evening, the Associated Press quoted a source close to the investigation saying that the pilot and copilot "talk like pals" and work together to try and fix a problem after an alarm goes off.

According to the source, hijacking, suicide and a fight between the two pilots can probably be ruled out. It remains unclear whether a mechanical problem or some explosive device caused the alarm to go off, the source said. A special panel of investigators are set to conduct an in-depth analysis of data from the cockpit voice recorder in Washington on Monday.

This new perspective contradicts the widespread theory that one of the pilots had intended to crash the plane -- a rumor that has circulated through the news media and the Web since data from the first black box revealed that the descent was "controlled" and began after the autopilot device was switched off. Investigators would not disclose whether the autopilot had been switched off manually. Hall reported late Friday that a warning signal went off during the descent, and then both engines were shut down. Hall also said at the time that control mechanisms in the plane's tail were split, with one going up and one down, indicating two pilots may have been fighting for control of the plane.

FBI officials say there is currently no evidence of criminal activity involved in the crash. If such evidence emerges, the FBI will take over
from the NTSB as the primary agency in the investigation.

The possible scenarios that have emerged are hazy and unsubstantiated -- and conspiracy theorists are having a field day on the Web -- but they range far beyond the mere possibility of a mechanical failure.

Saturday's Washington Post lays out the evidence that two pilots may have been pulling controls in different directions. The Los Angeles Times quotes an air crash consultant who concluded "There was something funny going on in that cockpit."

The Boston Herald has revealed investigators' suspicions that crew members were responsible. Friday's Herald quotes a source close to the investigation as saying investigators are looking into leads that the crash "was not an accident." According to the Herald's source, a member of the flight crew called his wife and said he was "very worried" about the flight, and that there was "something wrong with the plane."

Aviation experts told the Herald that the details suggested someone at the controls deliberately headed the plane downward -- either because of an on-board emergency, such as rapid decompression, or even an explosion.

On Saturday the Herald went farther, and said Friday's revelations about an apparent fight for control of the craft confirmed somebody on the crew was responsible.

On Friday the Associated Press reported that the FBI is investigating the backgrounds of crew members and passengers, including a deeper look into the emotional stability of the copilot, according to a source close to the investigation.

For those who want to take their own look at the recovery effort, CNN features multimedia reports on the weather-challenged Navy mission. Various Navy sites offer pictures of its salvage ship and remote-controlled recovery robots, "Deep Drone," and "Magnum."

ABCNews breaks down the various scenarios posited in the crash -- sudden decompression, intruder in the cockpit, suicidal pilot -- none of which "seems to fit" with evidence of a steady, controlled descent to an altitude of 16,700 feet. Nor can anyone explain why pilots did not make a radio call at any point before the plane plunged into the water.

Officials and media organizations have been reluctant to discuss the possibility of a terrorist attack, having been burned by premature speculation of Middle Eastern terrorism in the crash of TWA Flight 800. Officials stress that there is no evidence to suggest terrorist involvement, but they have not ruled out the possibility.

On Nov. 1, MSNBC speculated about a conspiracy involving Saudi Arabian terrorist Osama bin Laden. That story noted that the plane carried 30 Egyptian military officers, making it a possible target. But there's been little follow-up to that story.

By early Sunday morning, the predictably sensationalistic Drudge Report headline screamed: "PILOT OF DOOMED FLIGHT 990 SUSPECTED OF SUICIDE! Crash investigators believe that a pilot on board EgyptAir flight 990 may have deliberately switched off its engines and sent it plunging into the Atlantic." Later that evening, the home page text read: "Investigators now suspect criminal activity in Flight #990  FBI set to move in; White House meeting called after new data yields clues."

Among those who speculate as a hobby rather than a profession, possible explanations are more colorful than the idea of a suicidal pilot.

Usenets such as alt.aviation.disasters and alt.conspiracy (one thread is called "EgyptAir: Was it a 'SUICIDE BOMBER'??") and rec.aviation.military (one thread: "Re: Misinformation regarding EgyptAir crash") feature questions from everyone from level-headed pilots to paranoid crime enthusiasts over the possibility of sabotage, terrorism and other hows and whens of the flight's final moments. On the bulletin boards of Crashpages.com, one person asks, "What about a meteorite? At a high speed and small size the radars wouldn't be able to detect it."

The most outrageous theory on the Web? At Filer's Files, a site for UFO enthusiasts, a headline proclaims, "Triangular UFOs Spotted On Halloween Near Flight 990."

The truth, as they say, is out there.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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