The Mysterious Plane Crash That Explains U.S.-Egypt Mistrust

How a 1999 disaster and its aftermath revealed the contradictions and complications of the American-Egyptian partnership

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U.S. and Egyptian officials handle the damaged flight recorder of Flight 990 / AP

At 1:20 a.m. on October 31, 1999, Captain Ahmad el Habashy, the command pilot of EgyptAir flight 990, eased his Boeing 767 off departure runway 22R at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.1 The big jet roared west at 180 knots over Jamaica Bay momentarily before Captain el Habashy gently rolled the airplane to the left, clearing Long Island's southern beaches, and then out over the open ocean. Six minutes after lifting off, New York Terminal Approach Control, which handles departures and arrivals into the metropolitan area's major airports, instructed el Habashy to climb to "flight level 230" (meaning 23,000 feet) and contact New York's

Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), also known in shorthand as "New York Center." Nine minutes later, an air traffic controller located at ARTCC's nondescript facility in Islip, Long Island, called on el Habashy and directed him to climb to flight level 330 and maintain Mach .80 -- 609 miles per hour -- for the long ocean crossing that was to have taken flight 990 almost 5,900 miles and about ten hours to its final destination at Cairo International Airport.

Within a few minutes of reaching cruising altitude, the relief first officer, Captain Gamil el Batouty, entered the flight deck and informed the command first officer, Adel Anwar, that he was being relieved. This was unusual. In keeping with standard EgyptAir and international procedures, flights of 990's duration carry two crews -- a command crew consisting of a lead pilot and first officer and a relief crew with the same complement. The lead pilot and first officer are responsible for departure and arrival as well as the first third and last third of the flight.

El Batouty, whose training records revealed a pilot who struggled to achieve proficiency on the 767, was three hours early for his turn in the first officer's right seat. Fourteen minutes after el Batouty took up his position on the flight deck, Ann Brennan, the New York Center controller, called on flight 990 as it departed the Atlantic sector: "EgyptAir 990 radar contact lost recycle transponder squawk one-seven-one-two."

No answer.

"EgyptAir 990 New York Center."

Silence.

Brennan was concerned. Not only had she lost flight 990's transponder but also the primary radar targets on the aircraft. She immediately informed her supervisor that "something was wrong." The two veteran air traffic controllers then called on ARINC -- a nonprofit corporation that airlines use to communicate with their aircraft in flight -- for assistance: "Mike Sierra Romeo [MSR--EgyptAir's International Civil Aviation Organization airline designator] nine nine zero," called the ARINC operator, but neither el Habashy nor el Batouty replied.

The events surrounding the EgyptAir disaster were a metaphor for U.S.-Egypt relations

Brennan and her colleague enlisted the help of their counterparts at Boston Center and the pilots of a Lufthansa 747 en route from Mexico City to Frankfurt. After calling EgyptAir 990, the Lufthansa pilot reported back to the New York Controller, "I am sorry there is no reply New York and on one-twenty-one-five we hear no emergency locator transmitter." Next, Brennan hailed "Huntress," the code word for Northeast Air Defense of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Made famous in movies like the 1983 teen drama War Games, starring Mathew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, NORAD is responsible for tracking everything that comes into or out of the airspace of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

"[Frequency] One-seven-one-two over Dovey [the "intersection" where aircraft begin transoceanic flight] should be maybe a little east of Dovey by now," Brennan informed the airman on duty at Huntress in Rome, New York.

"Copy standby."

[Pause]

"New York. Huntress. Negative. I can't find him."

Brennan then asked Huntress to contact civil and military controllers in Canada for assistance. Her efforts were in vain.

A full twenty minutes before Brennan even placed her call to Huntress at 2:14 a.m., EgyptAir flight 990 had plunged into the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles southwest of Nantucket Island. All 217 passengers and crew were lost. What followed was for most Americans the standard ritual of airplane accidents: saturated media coverage, memorial services for the dead, and a news conference with a group of no-nonsense types declaring that it was too early to make any "determinations" but vowing to "get to the bottom of this" to ensure the safety of the "flying public."

These were the investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who would unwittingly play a central role in the ensuing drama of what happened to flight 990. For Egyptians, the crash of flight 990 and the immediate aftermath was a tremendous shock. After all, eighty-nine Egyptian nationals, including thirty-three military officers, most of whom were in the United States on official Ministry of Defense business, perished in the crash. In Cairo, the state-run media, much like U.S. networks, focused on the victims' families, broadcasting loops of distraught husbands, wives, fathers, daughters, aunts, uncles, and children. Interviews with the crews' families figured prominently in the coverage. A kind of pall was cast over normally noisy, hectic, lively Cairo. The entire country mourned. The impossibility of a proper burial injected additional pain into an already unbearable situation.

With one hundred Americans also killed, a sense of shared anguish emerged as Egyptian and U.S. officials participated in a memorial service for the dead in Newport, Rhode Island. Yet the palpable grief of the Egyptians soon morphed into collective anger at the United States, specifically the NTSB and Boeing. After the investigators' initial review of flight 990's cockpit voice recorder, they suspected that Gamil el Batouty's early relief of command co-pilot Adel Anwar was an ominous indication of what happened to flight 990.

On the garbled tape, U.S. government Arabic translators discovered that shortly after Captain el Habashy excused himself from the flight deck to go to the lavatory at 1:42 a.m., el Batouty seemed to declare, "I place my fate in the hands of God" -- which, to some, indicates a Muslim preparing himself for imminent death -- moments before the 767 began a 40 degree dive (most airline passengers never experience anything more than a 5 degree angle of descent). The tapes also indicated that the first officer repeated the phrase a number of times and shut down the plane's massive engines during critical moments when Captain el Habashy returned to the cockpit and desperately tried to reverse the jet's fall. An NTSB leak to the American press produced speculation that el Batouty committed suicide, taking 216 souls with him in the process.

The news of the NTSB's theory only two weeks after the tragedy was taken in Egypt as an American assault on Egypt's national pride. The Egyptian press, columnists, pundits, and government officials expressed dismay that the investigators had barely begun their investigation when they seemed to have settled on an explanation without considering alternative theories. They also emphasized that the phrase el Batouty allegedly uttered before the 767 began its precipitous drop, tawakilt al Allah, is often used when, for example, Arabs start a car and is meant in a way that God should look after them. As a result, the Egyptians rejected the hasty conclusion that Gamil el Batouty, a former military pilot, flight instructor, and long-serving first officer for Egypt's flag carrier was responsible for the crash. Experts informed viewers of Egyptian television that it was impossible for el Batouty to have taken his own life because he was a good Muslim and suicide is haram (forbidden) in Islam.

Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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