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NTSB blames co-pilot for EgyptAir crash

EgyptAir Flight 990 co-pilot Gameel Al-Batouti was found responsible for the 1999 plane crash in the National Transportation Safety Board's final report.
EgyptAir Flight 990 co-pilot Gameel Al-Batouti was found responsible for the 1999 plane crash in the National Transportation Safety Board's final report.  

From Beth Lewandowski

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Investigators found probable cause that the co-pilot of EgyptAir Flight 990 was responsible for the plane's plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.

But the National Transportation Safety Board stopped short of saying Gameel Al-Batouti intentionally crashed the plane in a suicide mission, carefully stating that the accident occurred "as a result of the relief first officer's flight control inputs."

The NTSB released its final report Thursday on the October 1999 crash. Al-Batouti was believed to be at the controls when the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. All 217 people on board were killed.

The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority has repeatedly rejected the suicide theory, maintaining that mechanical failure of the Boeing 767 was to blame.

Egypt said it would formally appeal for reconsideration of the NTSB's findings.

"We believe we owe it to the families of those aboard and to the flying public to find out what caused this tragic accident," said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the United States.

NTSB: No evidence of mechanical failure

In its report, the NTSB stated that it had exhaustively examined possible mechanical failure scenarios, including simulated tests of the elevator control system.

Investigators found "no evidence of any failure condition within the elevator system of the accident airplane that would have caused or contributed to the initial pitch over or prevented a successful recovery," the report said.

The NTSB said there was no way the airplane's initial downward movements could have resulted from mechanical failure.

The report also highlighted Al Batouti's calm repetition of the phrase, "I rely on God," and his lack of anxiety or surprise when the plane suddenly began descending.

The plane only began to nose up after the captain, who had gone to the bathroom, returned to the cockpit. Then, the report said, the relief first officer shut down the engines and continued to command the plane to descend while the captain struggled with the controls to bring the aircraft out of its dive.

"The captain's actions were consistent with an attempt to recover the accident airplane and the relief first officer's were not," the report concluded.

Egyptian authorities disagree

But the Egyptian aviation board said the investigation was flawed from the outset "when NTSB investigators rushed to judgment in reaching conclusions even before the aircraft wreckage was retrieved from the ocean floor," according to a statement released Friday.

"Errors in translating words on the cockpit voice recorder caused the NTSB to focus its attention on the presumed actions of the pilot," the statement said. "Based on NTSB leaks and public statements, the 'deliberate act' theory was perpetuated by the media. Regrettably, the NTSB never gave equal weight or consideration to other accident scenarios."

An analyst who covered the EgyptAir crash for Aviation Week said the NTSB had not proved its case, relying too heavily on data provided by the aircraft's manufacturer, Boeing, to test whether mechanical failure was a possibility.

"Essentially, the board has been engaging in character assassination," Jim McKenna said Friday.

"They have no hard evidence to prove that the captain and the first officer were pulling in opposite directions," McKenna said, noting that the flight data recorder could not directly measure the input controls of the pilots.

He also noted two incidents in which 767s lost control because of icing on the aircraft's elevator control systems, indicating that the EgyptAir plane's descent could be explained in other ways.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency directive after these incidents requiring inspection of all Boeing 767s.


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