Struggle in cockpit indicated

Voice, data recorders suggest a pilot seized control of EgyptAir 990

Focus on relief pilot

Egyptians complain bitterly about move to transfer probe to FBI

November 17, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A detailed analysis of the voice and data recorders aboard EgyptAir 990 indicates that a crew member, possibly a relief pilot, seized the controls of the passenger jet and forced the plane into a steep dive toward the Atlantic Ocean, government officials said yesterday.

Based on the new information, investigators theorize that the veteran captain of the Boeing 767, Ahmed el-Habashy, who had briefly left the cockpit and returned, struggled in vain to regain control of the aircraft after the other pilot calmly uttered an Arabic expression about putting his trust in God, switched off the autopilot and pitched the Boeing 767 into the high-speed plunge.

The officials said the relief pilot at the center of the inquiry was Gamil al-Batouti, a veteran EgyptAir employee and former Air Force aviator. Batouti was not assigned to fly the plane at the time of the crash, but the officials said they believe he is the man in the co-pilot's seat whose remark about God can be heard seconds before the plane began its fatal descent.

The expression apparently uttered by the relief pilot was, "Tawakilt ala Allah," which is a common phrase that can mean, "I put my faith in God," or "I entrust myself to God." In the Arab world, the phrase is used often, especially at the start of a journey or a task. It can be used by someone about to begin something as simple as cooking a meal.

Intelligence officials said that the phrase has no known connection to any political or terrorist groups.

EgyptAir representatives familiar with the airline's crews listened to the cockpit voice recorder and identified the voice of Batouti, the officials said. But the officials cautioned that they have no other verification of Batouti's voice and warned that further analysis of the information might lead them to different conclusions.

The increasing likelihood that the relief pilot, or another EgyptAir crew member, deliberately brought down the aircraft led the authorities yesterday to prepare to transfer the inquiry to the FBI. The agency's director, Louis J. Freeh, has been eager to take over the case from the National Transportation Safety Board, the officials said.

But with the handoff to the FBI imminent, Egyptian officials complained bitterly about the move, the officials said. It became a matter of serious diplomatic concern as the Egyptian ambassador, Nabil Fahmy, met with Undersecretary Thomas Pickering at the State Department.

The officials said that the Egyptians asserted that U.S. authorities might have misread the evidence and too quickly dismissed the possibility that the plane crashed as a result of a mechanical failure or some other problem.

The Egyptians said that the co-pilot's comment could have been a worried response to some as-yet undetermined mechanical breakdown that a few seconds later caused him to disengage the autopilot. They said that the pilot's urgent words to his co-pilot, "What's going on?" could have referred to his concern over the same undetermined problem.

But NTSB Chairman James E. Hall said last night that investigators have "so far found no sign of a mechanical or weather-related event that could have caused this accident." Nevertheless, Hall stopped short of turning the case over to the FBI.

Hall said that in the next few days, Egyptian investigators and senior EgyptAir representatives familiar with the Arabic used in the cockpit would evaluate the tape from the voice recorder. Other administration officials emphasized that they did not view the Egyptian concerns as an effort to slow down the inquiry.

Hall said that in many crashes involving American crews, safety board experts often cannot agree about what the pilots were saying. "It is made slightly more difficult in this situation because the expressions and conversations are in Arabic," he said.

Hall said that the authorities would soon bring a large vessel to the scene that could continue the search, even in rough winter weather, for human remains and wreckage of the plane. Aviation experts said that no matter who was in charge, authorities must recover more sections of the aircraft from the sea floor.

Hall said that retrieval of the cockpit area would be a priority. In some previous crashes, information stored in on-board computer chips yielded valuable data about the condition of the aircraft in the seconds before impact. Unlike older planes, most cockpit instruments in the 767 are displayed on video screens that preserve no information after a crash.

As federal authorities reconstructed the final horrifying seconds of the flight, safety and law enforcement officials said that everything was normal on Oct. 31 as the flight reached its 33,000-foot cruising altitude. Then just after 1: 49 a.m., things went terribly wrong in less than 90 seconds.

The unusual events began seconds after the pilot, el-Habashy, briefly left the cockpit, the officials said. The other pilot repeated quietly and calmly, "Tawakilt ala Allah," according to the officials.

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