EgyptAir Flight 990 (MSR990) was a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles International Airport, United States to Cairo International Airport, Egypt, with a stop at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City. On 31 October 1999, the Boeing 767 operating the route crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, about 60 miles (97 km) south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, killing all 217 people on board.[1]

As the crash occurred in international waters, the responsibility for investigating the accident fell to the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority per International Civil Aviation Organization Annex 13. As the ECAA lacked the resources of the much larger American National Transportation Safety Board, the Egyptian government asked the NTSB to handle the investigation. Two weeks after the crash, the NTSB proposed handing the investigation over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as the evidence they had gathered suggested a criminal act had taken place and that the crash was intentional rather than accidental. This proposal was unacceptable to the Egyptian authorities, and as such the NTSB continued to lead the investigation. As the evidence of a deliberate crash mounted, the Egyptian government reversed their earlier decision, and the ECAA launched their own investigation. The two investigations came to very different conclusions: the NTSB found the crash was caused by deliberate action of the Relief First Officer;[1] the ECAA found the crash was caused by mechanical failure of the airplane's elevator control system.[2]

The Egyptian report suggested several different control failure scenarios as possible causes of the crash, focusing on a possible failure of one of the right elevator's Power Control Units.[2] While the NTSB's report did not determine a specific reason for the Relief First Officer's actions,[1] the primary theory is that he committed suicide.[3] Supporting their deliberate-act conclusion, the NTSB report determined that no mechanical failure scenario could result in airplane movements that matched those recorded by the flight data recorder, and that even had any of the failure scenarios forwarded by the Egyptian authorities in fact occurred, the aircraft would still have been recoverable because of the 767's redundant elevator control system.[1]

Flight detailsEdit

Flight 990 was being flown in a Boeing 767-366ER aircraft with the registration SU-GAP, named Tuthmosis III after a pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty. The aircraft, a stretched extended-range version of the standard 767, was the 282nd 767 built. It was delivered to EgyptAir as a brand new aircraft on 26 September 1989.[1]

Flight 990 was crewed by 14 people: 10 flight attendants and 4 flight crew members. Because of the scheduled flight time, the flight required two complete flight crews (each consisting of one captain and one first officer). EgyptAir designated one crew as the "active crew" and the other as the "cruise crew" (sometimes also referred to as the "relief crew"). While there was no formal procedure specifying when each crew flew the airplane, it was customary for the active crew to make the takeoff and fly the first four to five hours of the flight. The cruise crew then assumed control of the aircraft until about one to two hours prior to landing, at which point the active crew returned to the cockpit and assumed control of the airplane. EgyptAir designated the Captain of the active crew as the Pilot-in-Command or the Commander of the flight.[1]

While the cruise crew was intended to take over far into the flight, the Relief First Officer entered the cockpit and recommended that he relieve the Command First Officer twenty minutes after takeoff. The Command First Officer initially protested, but eventually agreed.[1]

The flight was carrying 203 passengers from seven countries (Canada, Egypt, Germany, Sudan, Syria, United States, and Zimbabwe).[1] Of the total people on board, 100 were American, 89 were Egyptian, 22 were Canadian, and the others were of varying nationalities.[4]

Of the passengers, four were non-revenue EgyptAir crew members. Of the passengers, 32 boarded in Los Angeles, while the rest boarded in New York.[5] Many of the passengers were elderly Americans who intended to visit Egypt as tourists.[6] Included in the passenger manifest were over 30 Egyptian military officers; among them were two Brigadiers-Generals, a Colonel, a Major, and four other air force officers. After the crash, newspapers in Cairo were prevented by censors from reporting the officers' presence on the flight.[7]

ATC trackingEdit


U.S. Air Traffic Controllers provided transatlantic flight control operations as a part of the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (referred to in radio conversations simply as "Center" and abbreviated in the reports as "ZNY"). The airspace is divided into "areas," and "Area F" was the section that oversaw the airspace through which Flight 990 was flying. Transatlantic commercial air traffic travels via a system of routes called North Atlantic Tracks, and Flight 990 was the only aircraft at the time assigned to fly North Atlantic Track Zulu. There are also a number of military operations areas over the Atlantic, called "Warning Areas," which are also monitored by New York Center, but records show that these were inactive the night of the accident.[1]

Interaction between ZNY and Flight 990 was completely routine. After takeoff, Flight 990 was handled by three different controllers as it climbed up in stages to its assigned cruising altitude.[1] The aircraft, like all commercial airliners, was equipped with a Mode C transponder, which automatically reported the plane's altitude when queried by the ATC radar. At 01:44, the transponder indicated that Flight 990 had leveled off at FL330. Three minutes later, the controller requested that Flight 990 switch communications radio frequencies for better reception. A pilot on Flight 990 acknowledged on the new frequency. This was the last transmission received from Flight 990.[1]

The records of the radar returns then indicate a sharp descent:[1] (Note: these times are in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time)

  • 06:49:53Z – FL329
  • 06:50:05Z – FL315
  • 06:50:17Z – FL254
  • 06:50:29Z – FL183 (this was the last altitude report received by ATC)

The plane dropped 14,600 feet (4,500 m) in 36 seconds. Several subsequent "primary" returns (simple radar reflections without the encoded Mode C altitude information) were received by ATC, the last being at 06:52:05. At 06:54, the ATC controller tried notifying Flight 990 that radar contact had been lost, but received no reply.[1] Two minutes later, the controller contacted ARINC to determine if Flight 990 had switched to an oceanic frequency too early. ARINC attempted to contact Flight 990 on SELCAL, also with no response. The controller then contacted a nearby aircraft, Lufthansa Flight 499, and asked the flight's crew to try to raise Flight 990, but they were unable to make radio contact, although they also reported they were not receiving any Emergency Locator Transmitter signals. Air France Flight 439 was then asked to overfly the last known position of Flight 990, but that crew reported nothing out of the ordinary. Center also provided coordinates of Flight 990's last-known position to Coast Guard rescue aircraft.[1]

Flight recorder dataEdit

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the Captain excusing himself to go to the lavatory, followed thirty seconds later by the First Officer saying in Egyptian Arabic "Tawkalt ala Allah", which translates to "I rely on God." A minute later, the autopilot was disengaged, immediately followed by the First Officer again saying, "I rely on God." Three seconds later, the throttles for both engines were reduced to idle, and both elevators were moved three degrees nose down. The First Officer repeated "I rely on God" seven more times before the Captain is suddenly heard to ask repeatedly, "What's happening, what's happening?" The flight data recorder reflected that the elevators then moved into a split condition, with the left elevator up and the right elevator down. At this point, both engines were shut down by moving the start levers from run to cutoff. The Captain asked, "What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engines?" The First Officer did not respond. The Captain repeatedly stated, "Pull with me" but the FDR data indicated that the elevator surfaces remained in a split condition (with the left surface commanding nose up and the right surface commanding nose down) until the FDR and CVR stopped recording. There were no other aircraft in the area. There was no indication that an explosion occurred on board. The engines operated normally for the entire flight until they were shut down. From the presence of a western debris field about 1,200 feet (370 m) from the eastern debris field, the NTSB concluded that the left engine and some small pieces of wreckage separated from the airplane at some point before water impact.[1]

Search and rescue operationsEdit

File:EgyptAir Flight 990 Search and Rescue.jpg

The aircraft crashed in international waters, so the Egyptian government had the right to initiate its own search and rescue and investigation. Because the government did not have the resources to salvage the aircraft, the Egyptian government requested that the United States lead the investigation. The Egyptian government signed a letter formally ceding responsibility of investigating the accident to the United States.[4]

Search and rescue operations were launched within minutes of the loss of radar contact, with the bulk of the operation being conducted by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). At 03:00, a HU-25 Falcon jet took off from Air Station Cape Cod, becoming the first rescue party to reach the last known position of the plane. All USCG cutters in the area were immediately diverted to search for the aircraft, and an urgent marine information broadcast was issued, requesting mariners in the area to keep a lookout for the downed aircraft.

At sunrise, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy training vessel Kings Pointer found an oil sheen and some small pieces of debris. Rescue efforts continued by air and by sea, with a group of USCG cutters covering 10,000 square miles (26,000 km2) on 31 October with the hope of locating survivors, but no bodies were recovered from the debris field. Eventually most passengers were identified by DNA from fractured remains recovered from the debris field and the ocean floor. Atlantic Strike Team members brought two truckloads of equipment from Fort Dix to Newport to set up an incident command post. Officials from the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were dispatched to join the command. The search and rescue operation was eventually suspended on 1 November 1999, with the rescue vessels and aircraft moving instead to recovery operations.

These operations ceased when the naval vessels USS Grapple and USNS Mohawk and the NOAA research vessel Whiting arrived to take over salvage efforts, including recovery of the bulk of the wreckage from the seabed. The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered within days by the United States Navy's Deep Drone III submersible. In total a C-130, an H-60 helicopter, the HU-25 Falcon and the Coast Guard cutters Monomoy, Spencer, Reliance, Bainbridge Island, Juniper, Point Highland, Chinook, and Hammerhead, along with their supporting helicopters, participated in the search.[8]

A second salvage effort was made in March 2000 that recovered the aircraft's second engine and some of the cockpit controls.[9]


File:Fbi egypt air 990.jpg

Under the International Civil Aviation Organization treaty, the investigation of an airplane crash in international waters is under the jurisdiction of the country of registry of the aircraft. At the request of the Egyptian government, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) took the lead in this investigation, with the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) participating. The investigation was supported by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, EgyptAir, and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Engines.[1]

Two weeks after the crash, the NTSB proposed declaring the crash a criminal event and handing the investigation over to the FBI. Egyptian government officials protested, and Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, traveled to Washington to join the investigation.[9]

Hamdi Hanafi Taha defectionEdit

In February 2000, EgyptAir 767 captain Hamdi Hanafi Taha sought political asylum in London after landing his aircraft there. In his statement to British authorities, he claimed to have knowledge of the circumstances behind the crash of Flight 990. He is reported to have said that he wanted to "stop all lies about the disaster," and to put much of the blame on EgyptAir management.[9]

Reaction was swift, with the NTSB and FBI sending officials to interview Taha, and Osama El-Baz, an advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, saying, "This pilot can't know anything about the plane, the chances that he has any information [about the crash of Flight 990] are very slim."[10] EgyptAir officials also immediately dismissed Taha's claim.[11] Taha's information was reportedly of little use to the investigators, and his application for asylum was turned down.[9]

Taha's statements provide a possible motive for why al-Batouti may have deliberately crashed the plane. According to Taha, the officer had been recently demoted by an Egypt Air executive, who was on board the plane.[12]

NTSB investigation and conclusionEdit

The NTSB's investigation fairly quickly centered on the actions of the Relief First Officer, Gameel al-Batouty, and this drew criticism from Egyptians.[13] The NTSB determined that the only way for the observed split elevator condition to occur was if the left seat pilot (the Captain's position) was commanding nose up while the right seat pilot (the First Officer's position) commanded nose down. As the Egyptian investigation forwarded various mechanical failure scenarios, they were each tested by the NTSB and found not to match the factual evidence. The NTSB concluded that no mechanical failure scenario either they or the Egyptians could come up with matched the evidence on the ground, and that even if mechanical failure had been experienced, the 767's design made the situation recoverable.[1]

The NTSB's final report was issued on 21 March 2002, after a two-year investigation, and concluded as follows:[1]


ECAA investigation and conclusionEdit

After formally ceding responsibility for the investigation of the accident to the NTSB, the Egyptian authorities became increasingly unhappy with the direction the investigation was heading. As such, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority launched their own investigation in the weeks following the accident.[2]

The ECAA report concluded as follows:[2]


Responses to reportsEdit

The investigation and its results drew criticism from the Egyptian Government, which advanced several alternative theories about mechanical malfunction of the aircraft.[2] In Western countries, the Egyptian rejection of the NTSB report was attributed to a strong Egyptian cultural aversion to suicide. The theories proposed by Egyptian authorities were tested by the NTSB, and none were found to match the facts. For example, an elevator assembly hardover (in which the elevator in a fully extended position sticks because the hinge catches on the tail frame) proposed by the Egyptians was discounted, because the flight recorder data showed the elevator was in a "split condition." In this state, one side of the elevator is up and the other down; on the 767, this condition is only possible through flight control input (e.g., one yoke is pushed forward, the other pulled backward).[1]

There was some evidence that one of the right side elevator Power Control Units may have suffered a malfunction, and the Egyptian investigation mentioned this as a likely cause of the crash.[2] While noting that the damage did indeed exist, the NTSB countered that it was more than likely caused by the accident rather than existing beforehand, and furthermore it wasn't enough to cause the crash as the 767 is designed to remain flyable even with two PCUs failed.[1]

In response to the claim of NTSB unprofessionalism by the Egyptian Civilian Authority, Bernard Loeb, former NTSB director of aviation safety, said


Another discredited theory, posited by literature professor Elaine Scarry, proposed Flight 990 was subjected to electromagnetic interference by military aircraft.[14] In a critique of Ms. Scarry's writing, Professor Didier de Fontaine, Professor Emeritus of Materials Science at UC Berkeley, discusses the lack of scientific basis for Scarry's hypothesis and states that she has engaged in "voodoo science."[15]

Media coverageEdit

While the official investigation was proceeding, speculation about the crash ran rampant in both the Western media and the Egyptian press.

Western media speculationEdit

Long before the NTSB had issued its final report, Western media began to speculate about the meaning of the taped cockpit conversations and about possible motives (including suicide and terrorism) behind Al-Batouti's actions on the flight. The speculation, in part, was based on leaks from an unnamed federal law enforcement official that the crew member in the co-pilot's seat was recorded as saying, "I made my decision now. I put my faith in God's hands."[6]

During a press conference held on 19 November 1999, the NTSB's Jim Hall denounced such speculation and said that it had "done a disservice to the long-standing friendship between the people of the United States of America and Egypt."[16]

On 20 November 1999, the Associated Press quoted senior American officials as saying that the quotation was not in fact on the tape.[16] It is believed that the speculation arose from a mistranslation of an Egyptian Arabic phrase (Tawkalt ala Allah) meaning "I rely on God."[6]

London's Sunday Times, quoting unnamed sources, speculated that the Relief First Officer had been "traumatized by war," and was depressed because many members of his fighter squadron in the 1973 war had been killed.[17]

The unprecedented presence of 33 members of the Egyptian General Staff on the flight (contrary to standard operating procedure) fed a number of conspiracy theories. There were those who opined that it was an action (and potentially a conspiracy) of Muslim extremists against Egypt. Others countered that Mossad had targeted them.[18]

Egyptian media reaction and speculationEdit

The Egyptian media reacted in outrage to the speculations in the Western press. The state-owned Al Ahram Al Misai called Al-Batouti a "martyr," and the Islamist Al Shaab covered the story under a headline that stated, "America's goal is to hide the truth by blaming the EgyptAir pilot."[16]

At least two Egyptian newspapers, Al Gomhuria and Al-Musawar, offered theories that the aircraft was accidentally shot down by the U.S.[16] Other theories were advanced by the Egyptian press as well, including the Islamist Al Shaab, which speculated that a Mossad/CIA conspiracy was to blame (since, supposedly, EgyptAir and El Al crews stay at the same hotel in New York). Al Shaab also accused U.S. officials of secretly recovering the FDR, reprogramming it, and throwing it back into the water to be publicly recovered.[16]

Unifying all the Egyptian press was a stridently held belief that it "is inconceivable that a pilot would kill himself by crashing a jet with 217 people aboard. 'It is not possible that anyone who would commit suicide would also kill so many innocent people alongside him,' said Ehab William, a surgeon at Cairo's Anglo-American Hospital," reported the Cairo Times.[16]

The Egyptian media also reacted against Western speculation of terrorist connections. The Cairo Times reported, "The deceased pilot's nephew has lashed out in particular against speculation that his uncle could have been a religious extremist. 'He loved the United States,' the nephew said. 'If you wanted to go shopping in New York, he was the man to speak to, because he knew all the stores.'"[16]


The story of the flight has been featured in the Discovery Channel Canada/National Geographic television show Mayday (Air Crash Investigation, Air Emergency). In the show, the flight is dramatized on the basis of ATC tapes as well as the CVR recordings. In interviews conducted for the program, the Relief First Officer's family members vehemently dispute the suicide/deliberate crash theories and dismiss them as biased. The program nevertheless concludes that he crashed the plane for personal reasons: he had been severely reprimanded by his boss for sexual harassment, and this boss was actually on the plane.[6]

The dramatization of the crash also depicts the Relief First Officer forcing the plane down while the Command Captain attempts to pull the plane up. Despite this, upon conclusion the program stresses the official NTSB conclusion, which makes no mention of a suicide mission. Rather, it simply states that the crash was a direct result of actions made by the co-pilot for "unknown" reasons.[6]

Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language channel, produced a documentary about the flight that was transmitted in March 2000. The documentary looked at the official NTSB report and speculations surrounding it. In the documentary, the NTSB data were used with a flight simulator of the same plane model to try to simulate the circumstances of the crash.

Flight numberEdit

Since the crash, the flight number for New York City to Cairo has been changed from 990 to MS986. The route is now flown by a Boeing 777. The airline also terminated service to Los Angeles.


External linksEdit

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