[Batouti] had everything to live for, including his upcoming retirement....
According to sources close to the NTSB's investigation, the favored theory is that Batouti committed suicide, and I would agree that at first glance, this does appear quite likely. Not surprisingly, Batouti's family, along with Egyptian officials, roundly dispute this conclusion, saying that Batouti had a good family life, was pleased that his daughter, who had been ill and under treatment at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles for an undisclosed ailment, was improving, and that he had everything to live for, including his upcoming retirement.
And they seem to be right. According to a report in the December 10, 1999, Washington Post, Thomas J. Pickard, deputy director of the FBI, said that an extensive investigation into Batouti's background both in the U.S. and in Egypt had produced nothing that would indicate Batouti was contemplating ending his own life.
There are other problems with the suicide theory, as well. Why, for example, did Batouti reduce power as began the dive if he had, in fact, decided to sabotage the flight? Reducing power is something a pilot normally would be expected to do when beginning a descent. A better strategy for someone trying to crash the plane would have been to firewall the thrust levers and reach a condition of overspeed more quickly with the almost certain explosive destruction of the engines and/or structural failure initiated by aerodynamic flutter of the control surfaces. Moreover, why just a 40-degree pitch-down? Why not go vertical, bringing on all the aforementioned problems faster and insuring the plane would more quickly and surely reach a point of no return? And why no physical struggle in the cockpit?
These are just a few points that beg the question: Was the suicide theory just the easiest explanation? Back to Top
If Batouti did cause his own version of a Jonestown massacre, the damage to Egyptian tourism is difficult to over estimate....
All too easy, according to Egyptian officials, who have argued over and over again for restraint when it comes to theorizing about the cause of the crash before all available evidence is in. These same officials have opposed from the beginning the U. S. inclination to turn the investigation over to the FBI. And who can blame them? This calamity is a public relations nightmare, and not only for EgyptAir. If it turns out that Batouti did cause his own version of a Jonestown massacre, the damage to Egyptian tourism is difficult to over estimate; it would be a disaster of a different kind--the economic kind. Especially in light of the fact that tourism has had a hard time recovering from the terrorist instigated Luxor debacle that left several Americans dead a few years back. In an effort to blunt the effects of bad publicity, the Egyptians have hired a U.S. public relations firm.
But instead, maybe the Egyptians should be pressing harder for other plausible explanations. For there is at least one other candidate theory that could explain Batouti's seemingly bizarre behavior, one that takes into account standard operating procedures as well as peculiarities in certain aspects of human perception and performance: Batouti may have seen a unidentified flying object. A UFO.
Once one takes the premise that Batouti saw something out in the night sky, something he knew shouldn't be there, his actions begin to take on a more rational appearance. Take the "prayer." Isn't it just as likely that what Batouti said was an expletive and not a prayer? A spontaneous outburst evoked by something that startled him? Reportedly, Batouti uttered in Arabic something translated as "I place my fate in God's hands." But an Egyptian magazine, the Rose El Youssef, claimed in December that original translations were undertaken by Lebanese CIA workers, not Egyptians more acutely attuned to the nuances of the language. What Batouti said, then, may not be so important as what he intended. Instead of a prayer, one can just as easily imagine, in the American equivalent, that he said "Saints preserve us!" Or "Jesus Christ! " Or "What in Heaven's name?!" Pick your favorite Western exclamation. But what he meant was: What the hell is that? It was an eruption caused by a startle reflex; something he did almost unconsciously. Back to Top
[Air Traffic Control] radar did not, in fact, track EgyptAir 990 for at least five minutes during this critical time....
This explanation fits more neatly with what he did next--about eight seconds later, a likely amount of time for the human brain to make a preliminary decision about a target that suddenly intrudes on its visual field. He switched off the autopilot. This action would have been the normal precursor to a pilot contemplating the need to make a maneuver, in this case, an evasive one. It also explains why Batouti reduced power when he put the nose down, and why he put it down only 40 degrees. He was hoping to save the plane, not destroy it. In his mind, he saw an object on a collision course that somehow had not been announced by TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System), nor reported by Air route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). But he had no time to ask questions; he had to react. Indeed, it has come to light that ground-based radar did not, in fact, track EgyptAir 990 for at least five minutes during this critical time, and, according to one source, there were U.S. military aircraft in the vicinity.
To explain what happened next, one only has to be acquainted with the terror that accompanies unfamiliar flight attitudes--even if you're an otherwise experienced pilot. Any pilot who has done aerobatics--spins, for example, or inverted flight--will recall the helpless feeling of panic that grips you the first time you experience these unusual flight attitudes. The first experience of these new sensations--the sounds, the kinesthetic imbalances, the accelerations--is strange and unsettling. Author Alton K. Marsh (see his "Hot Stick" article here on the Web site) in describing his own first experiences with unusual flight attitudes has likened the feeling to that of an insect being tossed on its back: "See the panic? Thatīs what youīll feel like."
Like anything else, if you've never done it before, your responses aren't likely to be optimal. In this case, neither Batouti, nor any other pilot for that matter, would have ever experienced what a 767 in a near supersonic dive would be like. Batouti may, in fact, have frozen at the controls. Or perhaps, he continued to respond to an after-image, resulting from exposure to a bright light at night, when the human eye is 100,000 times more sensitive, by continuing to push the nose down to avoid what he still believed--based on his visual image, the after-image--was an imminent collision. Either would explain why Batouti kept pushing forward even as Habashy (?) was trying to recover the plane from its dive. Hence, the momentary split-elevator. Back to Top
As for the engine shut down and deployment of the speed brakes coincident with the thrust levers being advanced, this too could be further evidence of a pilot (or pilots) in panic doing something totally inappropriate to a novel situation. Remember, no one can realistically train for this!
But a bigger question is why, after successfully, some might even say miraculously, recovering the aircraft from its dive did the two pilots fail to prevent the aerodynamic stall that put them back into uncontrolled flight at 24,000 feet, on a black night, virtually guaranteeing their demise? (There may have been more than two pilots in the cockpit by this time. There were eight 767-qualified pilots on this flight: four crew and four "deadheads," those hitching a ride back to base.)
The answer may lie in a phenomenon known as G-LOC, or G(force) induced loss of consciousness.
There is a celebrated Air Force cockpit video taken from the viewpoint of the rear-seat instructor pilot in an F-16 Fighting Falcon, better known to its pilots as a "Viper." This mainstay of our fighter forces is also used by twenty other nations. Its airframe is an astonishing work of art that can easily withstand acceleration forces--Gs--that are more than enough to incapacitate any human pilot. Coupled with its powerful General Electric F110-GE-100 turbofan, producing 27,600 pounds of thrust, this Mach-2+ multirole fighter's airframe can outmaneuver most things with wings. But as this particular Air Force instructor found, it could also quickly put an unsuspecting and unprepared fledgling pilot into a potentially fatal flight emergency.
In the video, the student has just made a hard pull-up from a simulated bombing run. Shortly thereafter, the video shows the view outside the cockpit turns from sky to earth again, as the plane begins another descent. The instructor, at first unconcerned, mentions the excursion to the student in an almost casual tone. A few seconds later, with the head-up display (HUD) clearly visible, the instructor again cautions the student to watch his altitude and airspeed, which are heading in opposite directions, altitude lower, airspeed higher. Finally, exasperated that his gentle reminders have caused no reaction, the now very concerned instructor realizes that the student is asleep up front and recovers the fighter, which is now screaming towards the desert floor at an alarming speed. Back to Top
At the time, the Air Force was experiencing unacceptable losses of planes and pilots for what were then mysterious reasons....
At the time, the Air Force was experiencing unacceptable losses of planes and pilots for what was then mysterious reasons. This episode, along with several others, especially one involving the very nifty F-20 Tigershark being piloted by a Northrop test pilot, revealed what was happening. Pilots were losing consciousness during hard maneuvering, and even when they recovered in time to keep from hitting something, they were mentally in a fog for several minutes thereafter, which is to say in no condition to fly and fight. Not long after the incident above, the Air Force began requiring pilots to be certified in a centrifuge for the nine Gs that the Falcon and other high performance aircraft are capable of sustaining. (Military pilots wear G-suits, inflatable leggings and torso corsets that fill with air during moments of high G, preventing the pooling of blood in the lower body and legs and forcing the blood to stay in the brain. The suits confer about a two- or two-and-a-half G advantage.)
But the pull-up from the EgyptAir flight produced nowhere near nine Gs, even if they weren't wearing G-suits. So what happened? Was the abrupt pull-up after a negative-G descent enough to induce G-LOC in the pilots? Quite likely it was.
Estimates are that the 767 pulled up with a positive G force of at least 3-4 Gs, but likely much more, judging from the last known maximum speed--Mach 0.94--and the abruptness of the altitude change during pull-up (from Air Force radar returns; the DFDR was no longer recording, so the G data points are missing). If continued for a few seconds, which happened here, the pilot, at the very least, would have begun to black out, meaning his vision would be gone, even though he'd still be conscious. If the load is continued, the pilot would have had to use one of various G-straining maneuvers designed to prevent blood from draining out of the brain and into the lower extremities.
Nevertheless, four Gs are enough, if sustained, to render most people unconscious. But there is the additional factor of the preceding negative Gs, or at least zero G. When an unawares pilot first experiences negative Gs, then is subjected to as little as two-three positive Gs, if he doesn't perform a G-straining maneuver (and he won't; he's unprepared, remember?), he can quickly lose consciousness completely--not just black out visually. This is a possibility with Flight 990: The pilots managed to save the aircraft only to lose it because of incapacitation due to G-LOC or its after effects. Back to Top
Of course there are still unanswered questions. Such as, why didn't ARTCC radar show any other aircraft in the vicinity of the ill-fated jet? And why didn't the TCAS alert sound?
...many [UFO] sightings...by competent observers...never produced radar signatures....
As many UFO aficionados know, there have been many sightings of unidentified flying objects by competent observers that never produced radar signatures. So this is a common feature of UFO encounters--of the strange type. And as was mentioned earlier, there was no radar coverage for a period of about five minutes; that may have been enough to mask the UFO--of the not-so-strange type.
As far as TCAS is concerned, it won't activate unless the offending craft is equipped with a transponder, a device carried on all commercial and military aircraft for the purpose of making identification by ground and airborne radar easier. This implies something a little spookier: a craft with no transponder in an area where they are required.
So where does this leave the investigation? For reasons of completeness, if not for political expediency, the NTSB will pursue the unlikely theory propounded by EgyptAir Chairman Mohammed Fahim Rayan: That "something happened" to the tail mechanism. So on March 3, 2000, in a statement by its chairman, Jim Hall, the National Transportation Safety Board "...asked the U. S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving to recover the remaining engine and, if possible additional flight control components that were not recovered during the salvage operations in December 1999."
As this article is being written, the salvage operations are being undertaken by the Carolyn Chouest and a remotely operated underwater vehicle. I believe it's unlikely, even if the recovery is successful, that any new items, to be taken to the Quonset Point, Rhode Island, facility where the previously found wreckage has been examined and stored, will add much to the extensive data provided by the DFDR and the CVR. Back to Top
Meanwhile as lawyers and insurance agents sort out the emotional and financial damages--the victims' families will get up to an estimated $116.3 million from insurance alone, before any law suit can even be litigated--what happened in the night sky off the Massachusetts coast will more than likely pass into future generations as one of aviation's biggest unsolved mysteries. Unless, of course, someone produces a suicide note, or some aircrew has an experience similar to the above scenario. And lives to tell the tale.
John Carlisle has been a pilot for over thirty years. He relied on published reports of the NTSB investigation and interviews with Boeing 767 pilots to produce this article--Ed. Back to Top
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