David Nightingale: EgyptAir and Others

Apr 6, 2014

With the vanishing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 unsolved –  as of April 4, 2014 – I look here at two other deadly air crashes.

In October 1999 a Boeing 767, operated by EgyptAir crashed into the Atlantic, 60 miles south of Nantucket, in a depth of about 250 feet. All 203 passengers and 14 crew were killed.

Both the recorders in this crash were recovered: the Cockpit Voice Recorder, and the Flight Data Recorder.

It was a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles to Cairo, with a stop at JFK. As with such long flights there were 2 crews: the Command crew, with a 56-year-old captain, and his 36-year-old first officer, plus a relief crew, consisting of a 52-year-old captain and a 59-year-old first officer. This last officer's name was el-Batouty, who was later under suspicion.

About 20 minutes after leaving JFK, Batouty entered the cockpit and suggested to the Command first officer that he might take over early. Normally he would have taken over much further into the flight. According to the voice recorder the Command first officer protested but eventually agreed. The recorder also captures the Command captain apparently excusing himself to go to the lavatory. Radar data shows the jet then dropping – apparently 14,000 ft in 36 seconds – and the voice recorder has Batouty saying (in Arabic), “I rely on God.” One minute later the autopilot was disengaged, and “I rely on God” was heard from Batouty yet again.

Three seconds after the autopilot was disengaged the throttles were reduced to idle, and both elevators set to 3 degrees down. “I rely on God” is heard seven times more, and then the captain's voice crying out “What's happening? What's happening?”

With now the left elevator up and the right elevator down, and both engines now set to 'cut off,' the captain is heard again saying, “What is this? Did you shut the engines?” There is no recorded reply, and the captain is then heard crying “Pull with me, pull with me.” Nothing more.

There was no evidence of an explosion, and the crash remains unexplained, but with very heavy suspicions on Batouty.

Now let's recall the crash of a Boeing 737 operated by SilkAir in 1997. The jet was flying from Jakarta (Indonesia) to Singapore with 97 passengers and seven crew. At the cruising height of 35,000 feet, the jet goes into a near vertical and at times supersonic dive, disintegrating from stress and crashing into an Indonesian river. No intact bodies were found, but many body parts. Captain Tsu of Singapore was 41, and his first officer was Duncan Ward, a 23-year-old New Zealander. Research showed that the captain had been disciplined for disconnecting the cockpit voice recorder on an earlier flight, and had suffered about a million dollars in stock losses, followed by his purchase of an insurance policy on his life a week before the crash.

The Egyptian authorities denied the possibility of suicide, as did the Indonesian authorities. Both those Moslem cultures frown upon suicide, and one may also wonder about the Malaysian flight (at the time of writing anyway). I must admit a reluctance to believe that people committing suicide would think nothing of taking hundreds of innocents with them.

I think (again at this time) it is more likely there was a massive electrical or mechanical fault. Conceivably the aircraft's oxygen failed, possibly not before it was just turned back towards Kuala Lumpur. Conceivably, with everyone dead, the engines went on operating ….

Finally, it took 2 years to find the Air France flight 447, and it looks now as if it will be at least that long before we locate the Malaysian jet.