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

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

His image as a faithful husband and devout Muslim were tarnished by continuing accusations of sexual improprieties that included exposing himself to teenage girls, propositioning hotel maids and stalking female hotel guests, the transcripts and police reports show.

A few hours before the crash, Rushdy, the senior EgyptAir supervisorial pilot, told Batouty that, because of his sexual misconduct, he would be banned on transatlantic flights to the United States, according to Taha.

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The U.S. flights carry prestige and additional pay because of their length.

Outwardly, Batouty still seemed an easygoing family man, Taha said. But Taha and other colleagues interviewed by investigators said that under a veneer of normality lurked a life of quiet desperation.

Seeking Asylum

Taha, who was interviewed in London, where he sought asylum because he feared retribution from Egyptian authorities for speaking to U.S. officials after the crash, made sweeping accusations of widespread immorality and corruption among those who run EgyptAir, which is owned by the Egyptian government.

Egyptian aviation officials dismiss him as an antigovernment Muslim fanatic.

U.S. officials, apparently reluctant to say anything on the record that might rupture relations with the Mubarak government, said they would not comment publicly. However, transcripts of FBI interviews show that many of the questions agents asked Egyptian officials were based on what Taha had told them.

During nine hours of interviews with The Times, Taha provided detailed accounts from inside EgyptAir during the early weeks of the Flight 990 investigation. He said he knew Batouty well.

Taha and investigative transcripts gave this account of the hours before the plane’s departure from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York:

As Batouty rode to the airport in a van shortly before midnight Oct. 30, he was accompanied by a number of other EgyptAir personnel, including Rushdy, a man described by Taha as the personification of Batouty’s problems.

Because of its length, Flight 990 carried two full crews. Capt. Ahmed El Habashi, 57, and First Officer Adel Anwar, 38, were scheduled to handle the takeoff, the first five hours of the flight and the landing in Cairo. Capt. Nour El Din Sayed, 52, and First Officer Batouty were scheduled to fly the less demanding “cruise” portion of the flight over the mid-Atlantic.

Rushdy, who hours earlier had reprimanded Batouty and told him he would not fly to the U.S. again, was among several EgyptAir personnel seated in the first-class section. Bautouty sat there too, awaiting his turn in the cockpit.

With Habashi and Anwar at the controls, Flight 990 lifted off a JFK runway at 1:20 a.m. Oct. 31 and made a routine climb toward cruise altitude. Transcripts show radio conversations between the cockpit crew and air traffic controllers were similarly routine, with no indication of any problems.

Not long after takeoff, Rushdy visited the cockpit, according to a transcript of the cockpit voice recording recovered from the wreckage. He chatted with the cruise crew about flight procedures.

As Rushdy left the cockpit, Batouty entered.

“I think Gamil [Batouty] had been looking at the door, looking at the moment when Rushdy is out of the cockpit,” Taha said. “This is the most suitable moment to fulfill what he is going to do.”

Batouty suggested he take over the co-pilot seat immediately, according to a translated transcript of the Arabic conversations in the cockpit.

Anwar objected, but Batouty persisted.

“You will get up,” he told the younger man, according to the transcript. “Go and get some rest and come back.”

Anwar complained but left the cockpit after a couple of minutes. Batouty took his seat.

At 1:48 a.m., as the plane cruised at 33,000 feet beyond the eastern tip of Long Island, Habashi left to use the toilet. The cockpit voice recorder picked up the sound of the door closing behind him.

Batouty was alone in the cockpit.

In the next 20 seconds, as the plane continued to fly normally, the recorder picked up several unintelligible words before a voice said faintly, “I rely on God.” In the moments that followed, the recorder picked up thumping noises.

Taha, a Muslim, said Batouty probably was offering a Muslim prayer, bowing, crossing his arms, tapping his knees with his hands and thumping his feet on the floor.

“He is preparing himself, as he would if he were to be executed,” Taha said. “He’s asking God to support him to finish his mission.”

A few seconds later, the man at the controls disengaged the plane’s automatic pilot, according to readings from the flight data recorder, which was the second “black box” recording device salvaged from the wreckage. The recorder indicated that there was nothing wrong, at any time, with any of the plane’s mechanical and control systems.

Once again, the voice in the cockpit repeated, “I rely on God.”

An instant later, the engines were throttled back and the control yoke was pushed forward, putting the twin-engine jet into a steep dive.

During the next two minutes, as the plane hurtled nose-first toward the ocean, a voice in the cockpit repeated those same words seven more times: “I rely on God.”

Suddenly, despite zero-gravity conditions from the dive that must have made movements extremely difficult, Habashi, a large man with arthritic knees and an ailing back, managed to clamber back into the cockpit.

“What’s happening, Gamil?” he shouted, according to the voice recorder. “What’s happening?”

Batouty’s only answer was those same words: “I rely on God.” An instant later, he shut off the fuel supply to both engines.

“What is this?” Habashi yelled in apparent disbelief. “What is this? Did you shut the engines?”

In the seconds that followed, the flight data recorder showed an abnormal configuration of the plane’s elevators, sections of the wing-like structure in the tail that pitch the plane up and down.

The two halves of the elevator, one on either side of the tail’s vertical fin, normally move in tandem, but the recorder indicated that they were moving in opposite directions.

Investigators say this could only mean one thing: One of the pilots was pushing forward on the control yoke, trying to keep the plane plunging toward the sea. The other was pulling back on the yoke, trying to pull the plane out of the dive.

“Pull with me!” Habashi shouted. “Pull with me! Pull with me!”

At that moment, both the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder went dead, presumably because of a loss of electrical power brought on by the shutdown of the engines.

Breakup of Plane

Radar data show that the plane flew on for almost two minutes more, climbing several thousand feet before dipping nose-first once again. The data show that it began to break up, likely from stresses of the dive, before dropping into the sea.

No one can be sure about what happened during those final two minutes, but veteran pilots agree on two things:

* Nothing that Batouty apparently did at the controls before the recorder blackout--shutting off the autopilot, pushing forward on the yoke, shutting down the engines--makes any sense unless he was deliberately crashing the plane.

* Habashi’s reaction--pulling back on the yoke--was the logical response of a flight captain attempting to save his plane.

Taha said that as soon as the “black box” transcripts were available to investigators, Hassam Mushrafa, EgyptAir’s chief of operations, summoned all crew members in Cairo to a special meeting at headquarters. About 50 attended.

Taha said he attended and realized the crash was no accident.

He said Mushrafa emphasized that his information was confidential, not to be shared outside the room: “ ‘Don’t talk to each other. Don’t talk to your families. Don’t talk on the telephones about this.’ ”

Mushrafa then ran through the series of events depicted by the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, Taha said. The account he heard matches information later released by the NTSB.

Taha said Mushrafa never used the words “deliberate” or “suicide” but that every pilot in the room understood the importance of what Mushrafa was saying: Batouty had crashed the plane on purpose.

Joseph P. Kreindler, an attorney for the families of several of the victims, said he took a deposition from an EgyptAir engineer who participated in the investigation.

“I asked him, is there any evidence of a mechanical defect?” Kreindler said. “He said no.”

Despite the lack of official Egyptian cooperation, investigators learned a lot about Batouty, much of it through interviews with pilots.

Their reports show:

He was born in Egypt on Feb. 2, 1940, the son of a prosperous landowner who served as mayor of a town on the outskirts of Cairo.

Interested in flying from his youth, Batouty earned his wings from the Egypt Air Institute before joining the Egyptian air force, rising within a decade to the rank of major.

“He liked the military and he was highly regarded and successful,” said a good friend and fellow EgyptAir pilot, Mohamed Badrawi. “But the needs of the air force changed, and they let him go.”

Batouty returned to the air institute as a teacher, eventually becoming the institute’s chief instructor. In that capacity, he trained many of the men with whom he would later fly, often as a subordinate, at EgyptAir.

In 1989, he joined EgyptAir as a Boeing 737 co-pilot. Because of his long stay at the institute, he was older than most others of similar rank.

When the opportunity for advancement came, he refused to take the required tests. At 59, an age when all his peers were captains, Batouty was still a first officer at half their pay.

Taha said Batouty pretended not to mind being a second in command. “But he really did care, of course.”

To cover up his lack of rank, he wore a sweater to cover his sleeve, which showed only three stripes instead of four, Taha said. “And he never wore his cap, which would have revealed he wasn’t a captain.”

Badrawi said Batouty didn’t take the promotion tests because he lacked ambition and because his skills in English--used in air traffic control facilities throughout the world--were mediocre.

In light of these deficiencies, Badrawi said, Batouty’s fitness as a co-pilot was considered “low average.”

But because his family was prosperous and politically connected and because of his long service as an instructor, the veteran co-pilot was given special privileges, including the lucrative flights to the United States.

Taha and Badrawi said these flights were important to Batouty because his teenage daughter suffered from lupus, an illness requiring costly treatments at the UCLA Medical Center.

Despite the prosperity of his relatives and the fact that he owned two comfortable homes, Batouty was running short of cash. Badrawi said Batouty borrowed $6,000 from the airline, $2,500 from the pilots’ union and $1,000 from Badrawi.

Despite these financial problems, Batouty still seemed calm and untroubled, according to several fellow pilots interviewed by the FBI. But others, including Medhat El Keddah, said they perceived a quieter, more somber Batouty.

“I kept asking him what was wrong,” Keddah said.

About six months before the crash, security personnel at the Pennsylvania Hotel, where EgyptAir pilots stay in New York between flights, started hearing complaints about Batouty’s behavior.

Some teenage girls said he stood naked at the window of a room across from theirs and masturbated in full view, according to FBI reports. A hotel maid said he had offered her wine, money and chocolate in exchange for sex, the reports said.

A desk clerk told the FBI that Batouty had tried to pick up women in the lobby, and when he failed, followed them to their rooms and listened at their doors. The FBI report said that on one occasion a woman agreed to meet him, but their tryst failed because he forgot her room number.

The hotel complained to EgyptAir, and the FBI report said Batouty conceded to a clerk, “I may be in trouble.”

Even Badrawi, often Batouty’s staunchest apologist and defender, acknowledged that the veteran co-pilot may have been in hot water. “No matter how much you are respectable,” Badrawi told the FBI, “if you make a mistake, you can suddenly become unrespectable.”

Although EgyptAir officials deny it, Taha said that the night before the crash, Rushdy met with Batouty in a room at the Pennsylvania Hotel. It was during that meeting, Taha said, that Batouty was stripped of his flights to the United States.

A few hours before the plane took off, Keddah told the FBI, Batouty handed him $35 in cash, telling him, “If anything should happen to me, give the money to my son.”

Keddah said he gave the remark little thought at the time.


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