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EgyptAir Co-Pilot Caused '99 Jet Crash, NTSB to Say

Aviation: Sources say final report won't call action criminal but will cite 'black box' evidence of an intentional act.

March 15, 2002|ERIC MALNIC and WILLIAM C. REMPEL and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The final federal report on the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 is expected to say that the jumbo jet was brought down by the methodical, determined acts of a veteran co-pilot, sources close to investigators have told The Times.

The report by the National Transportation Safety Board, anticipated within a few days, will close the probe into an air disaster on Oct. 31, 1999, off the New England coast that killed 217 people and has strained relations between the United States and Egypt, a key Arab ally.

Central to the NTSB findings is incriminating evidence in the plane's two "black box" recording devices against co-pilot Gamil El Batouty, whose personal and professional life appears to have been crumbling in the months before the crash.

But what the report omits may be more controversial, including implications of suicide and even murder.

"What it won't do is talk about motivation," said one source familiar with the findings. "It won't use words like 'deliberate' or 'intentional.' And I can guarantee it won't use 'suicide.' "

The NTSB report also will stop short of considering allegations by a former EgyptAir captain that one of Batouty's motivations may have been revenge and murder.

How the Boeing 767 crashed--plunging 33,000 feet through clear skies without so much as a distress call--was almost immediately clear. But investigators were increasingly frustrated as they tried to establish why Batouty nosed the plane over into a dive, repeatedly intoning in Arabic, "I rely on God."

Former EgyptAir Capt. Hanofy Taha Mahmoud Hamdy told The Times that the crash was a vengeful act against an EgyptAir executive. Taha said that Hatem Rushdy, chief of the Boeing 767 pilot group who was a passenger on the ill-fated New York-to-Cairo flight, had reprimanded the co-pilot for sexual misconduct that embarrassed the company.

Taha said the chief pilot told Batouty he would not be allowed to fly the U.S. route again. The co-pilot's decision to crash the plane "was a matter of revenge," Taha said.

"Rushdy had said [to him], 'This is your last flight,' " Taha said. "And Batouty's attitude was, 'This is the last flight for all of you too.' "

A high-ranking American official in the investigation, who asked not to be named, agreed. "It was more revenge against Rushdy than just a suicide," the official said.

Federal investigators looking into the co-pilot's personal background said they have been frustrated by EgyptAir's refusal to cooperate.

"It's because of politics," said Bernard Loeb, who recently retired as head of the NTSB's aviation safety office, after supervising much of the Flight 990 investigation.

The importance of support from the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in America's fight against Islamic terrorism has made the White House reluctant to press for more cooperation, investigative sources said.

Egyptian officials have complained angrily about a rush to judgment. They argued determinedly, despite a lack of supporting evidence, that there must have been something wrong with the 767. The pilots, they said, were devout Muslims, and no devout Muslim would commit suicide.

The report will take a "straight up" approach, a federal official said. "It will simply say the first officer did this and this and this. There is no indication that a [mechanical] condition on the airplane resulted in the crash."

In one of its most chilling findings, the report will conclude that Batouty and Capt. Ahmed El Habashi were working the controls in opposite directions during the final frantic seconds of the fatal dive. Habashi tried to bring the plane's nose up. Batouty pushed just as hard in the other direction.

Egyptian authorities will withhold comment until the report is officially released, said a source representing Egyptian aviation interests. American aviation officials say the Egyptians may issue their own formal response, likely to allege problems with the Boeing 767.

Investigators, however, say the emphasis should not be on the plane, which apparently functioned perfectly, but instead on Batouty, a co-pilot just three months short of the mandatory retirement age of 60.

In more than two dozen interviews with investigators, aviation sources and former and current EgyptAir employees, including Taha, who had never before spoken publicly, The Times pieced together a posthumous portrait of Batouty and a detailed account of the crash of Flight 990. It also obtained information from hundreds of pages of NTSB documents and police and FBI reports.

Once a highly regarded training officer with the Egyptian air force, he was humiliated by the loss of respect that came with his acceptance of a secondary role as a co-pilot with the civilian airline, Taha said.

Transcripts of interviews conducted by federal investigators said Batouty's second-echelon position, unusual for a pilot his age, had restricted his income at a time when he was beset by increasing financial pressures stemming, in part, from his daughter's long-term illness.

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