U.S. investigators offer reasons for focus on EgyptAir relief pilot

His words, seat change, lack of mechanical clues aroused official suspicions

November 25, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Investigators were drawn to Gameel el-Batouty, the relief pilot they suspect of crashing EgyptAir Flight 990, not just because of the reference to God that he made shortly before the plane began its fatal dive but also because of the abrupt way he took the co-pilot's seat minutes earlier, government officials said.

Batouty boarded the plane, a Boeing 767 with 217 people aboard, as one of two relief pilots who were supposed to fly the plane much later in the long flight from New York to Cairo, Egypt. Such crew members usually spend the early part of a flight relaxing or napping in the first-class section of the passenger cabin.

But a few minutes before the crash, Batouty replaced the co-pilot by "pulling rank" on him, one investigator said. The co-pilot was Adel Anwar, 36; Batouty, 59, was a more senior aviator.

The conversation was in Arabic, and three U.S. officials who described it said they were relying on the translations and on the tone of voice. "He was using his stature," said one official, who described Batouty as being "very assertive." The official said aviation investigators in the United States were surprised by the exchange.

Another U.S. official said that "very insistent" was a better description than assertive.

Shortly after the co-pilot switched places with Batouty, investigators believe that the pilot, Ahmed el-Habashy, left the cockpit, which left Batouty alone.

The crash, which began with someone switching off the auto-pilot and apparently putting the plane into a steep dive, came perhaps five minutes after Batouty switched places with the co-pilot.

Investigators said it was neither the reference to God nor the unusual change of seats that was the basis of their suspicion. Rather, they said, it was those things plus their failure to find any indication of a mechanical problem in the information on the flight data recorder.

All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is in charge of the investigation, has released limited information about the contents of the tape.

One reason the board has been taciturn is to avoid compromising the inquiry. Investigators said release of the information about Batouty has made it difficult to interview his family. And if past accidents are any guide, officials said, they are still short of some details and may find that some facts now in hand might be wrong.

Investigators have not established, for example, at what point in the flight the change in cabin crews was supposed to occur.

They also have not established whether the captain and the co-pilot were scheduled to be relieved at the same time, as is the case for most U.S. carriers, or whether they would be replaced one at a time.

The time of such a replacement is generally established at a briefing before the crew boards the plane, according to aviation experts, and any disagreement about the subject in flight is unusual.

Batouty also used a common Muslim phrase repeatedly in the course of the dive, "Tawakilt ala Allah," which can be translated as "I put my faith in God," or "I entrust myself to God," but Egyptian officials have objected to characterizing the utterance as a prayer and say it need not indicate any intention.

While investigators have characterized Batouty's action in pushing his way into the co-pilot's seat as suspicious, safety officials said they still did not have a complete picture of what had happened or why. He could have waited until it was his turn to fly and made the plane crash then, said one investigator, and at that point might have been over deeper water and out of radar range, which would have made finding the wreckage far more difficult.

The plane was a half-hour out of New York's Kennedy International Airport at the time of the crash and only about 60 miles from Nantucket Island, over less than 300 feet of water.

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