Decoding EgyptAir

The National Transportation Safety Board is waiting on a final analysis of the cockpit voice recorder of Flight 990 before turning over the investigation to the FBI.

By Fiona Morgan
Published November 15, 1999 12:00PM (EST)

Analysis of data from the cockpit voice recorder of EgyptAir Flight 990
has not led to any new insights into the cause of the crash, National Transportation
Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said Monday afternoon.

Investigators had hoped that the voice recorder would shed light on what brought
down the plane Oct. 31, killing 217 people, as it made its way from New York to Cairo.
But after a review of the 31 and a half minutes of tape, the answers remain as elusive as

Hall said the NTSB is considering handing over the
investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but
would not say whether this was due to any new evidence of
criminal activity.

"We are concentrating our efforts on determining from the
evidence, including the cockpit voice recorder, whether or
not this investigation is to remain under the leadership of the
National Transportation Safety Board," Hall said.

He would not comment on the content of the black boxes, or
on what prompted the board to call a press conference that
delivered no new information.

Meanwhile, a team of linguistics experts with technical
experience are reviewing the tape at an NTSB lab in
Washington. They will translate the conversation from the
pilots' native language, Arabic, into English and try to
determine which of the various cockpit alarm sounds is
recorded on the tape. Hall would not comment on the
expected time line of their analysis, but he stressed his
optimism that it would yield answers.

"Because of the quality and the extensive information contained on the flight data
recorder, I am confident that many of the questions we have, you have and the
individuals following this investigation around the world have, will be answered," he

The investigation team also includes representatives of Egypt, the Federal Aviation
Administration, Boeing and the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney. Hall bristled at
a question about how much influence Boeing has over the investigation.

"For over 30 years, our agency has proudly and independently investigated accidents,"
he said. "We understand fully the important responsibilities that this investigation
brings to the NTSB, as well as the importance of the independence of this
investigation for all of the parties who have an interest in it."

If analysis of the black box data does not yield concrete explanations, recovery crews
may have to return to the scene of the wreck. A search for more pieces of the Boeing
767 may be necessary in order to find out whether mechanical failure, a bomb or an
intentional action by a crew member caused the plane to nosedive at a 40-degree
angle into the Atlantic, plunging into the water southeast of Nantucket, Mass. If
further salvage efforts are necessary, CNN reported Monday afternoon that sources
close to the investigation said the Navy may contract private ships to recover more
debris and human remains from the sea floor.

At each step, clues from the crash have only raised more questions and have done
little to rule out any theory -- be it accident or sabotage. Officials from the FBI and
NTSB stress that they have no evidence yet of criminal activity on the plane.

Late Friday Hall reported that data from the first black box recovered Wednesday
indicated that the autopilot device had been switched off, and that the flight's
descent had been "controlled." A warning signal went off during the descent, and
then both engines were shut down. Hall also said 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. This led to widespread media speculation that one of
the pilots may have been suicidal.

The FBI has conducted interviews with EgyptAir staff and family members of the pilots,
each of whom had recently passed mental and physical evaluations done by the
airline. The Boston Herald reported last week that a crew member had placed an
ominous call to his wife before takeoff, saying there was "something wrong with the
plane," and that he was "very worried."

But Monday's Providence Journal quotes FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette saying, "The
fact is, as of right now, two weeks after the crash, the FBI has not discovered anything
among the crew members that would lead us to believe that a criminal or terrorist act
has been committed."

The South China Morning Post reported Monday that EgyptAir officials are angry that
the investigation has focused on the pilots' mental health, and that they believe black
box data "points to sabotage." The report quotes Essam Ahmed, former head of
EgyptAir's committee in charge of investigating crashes, as saying that the pilots were
trained to glide an aircraft down if the engines stopped. Ahmed suggested the
possibility that a bomb was planted in the toilet behind the cockpit, a scenario that
the U.S. investigation has not ruled out.

The long-awaited second black box stumped investigators and analysts anew. An
initial review of the conversation between the pilots seems to shoot down theories of
pilot suicide, hijacking or an argument between the pilots. On Sunday evening, the
Associated Press quoted a source close to the investigation saying that the pilot and
co-pilot "talk like pals" and work together to try to fix a problem after an alarm goes
off. Yet neither did evidence suggest a mechanical failure in the plane. The flight data
recorder was sent to an NTSB lab in Washington for in-depth analysis. No theory has yet
been ruled out.

Here's what the investigation has been able to piece together: Flight 990 climbed to
its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet. The flight data recorder indicates that the flight
went smoothly until the autopilot was switched off and the plane began to drop
quickly at a sharp 40-degree angle. The descent was so rapid that passengers briefly
experienced the feeling of weightlessness. An alarm began to sound, and the pilot
and co-pilot began to deal with the problem, speaking in clipped, technical

Unfortunately for investigators, the pilots did not say what the problem was. The plane
sank to an altitude of roughly 16,000 feet, then abruptly climbed to 24,000 feet, making
it subject to 2.5 times the force of gravity. The cockpit tape cuts off seconds before the
plane apparently stalled and plunged into the ocean.

Analysts with extensive aviation experience say no scenario explains all of the isolated
clues about what happened to Flight 990.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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