Egypt Air Flight 990 departed from Cairo and never reached its destination, New York City, but crashed in Massachusetts in 1999. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation revealed rampant miscommunication- both during the flight itself and after its crash. The flight which began with squabbles about pilots’ sleep schedules and workplace politics in tight quarters ended in a steep descent. While on-board relations may or may not have played a role in the crash, the tensions between NTSB and Egyptian investigators exacerbated an already-mysterious crash and emphasized the political repercussions which such a disaster can have. However, the focus of the investigation should have remained on what went wrong. That information is still unknown.
Despite tense discussions early in the flight about getting the proper amount of sleep, the pilots were professionals and dealt with these arguments as graciously as possible. They were united in their goal to reach NYC. The transcript reveals that when the relief first officer (RFO) disengaged autopilot to adjust the plane’s elevation, he whispered to himself, “I rely on God” (NTSB 5). For the next two minutes, the plane begins to descend rapidly, and the qualms of the pilots do not prevent the captain from coming to the cockpit to investigate this unexpected behavior. The transcripts imply that there was some unreported malfunction before the alarms began to sound, and the last recorded statement was the captain’s request: “Pull with me”. From the transcripts and technical information available, investigators have posed three possibilities: a) the RFO intentionally caused the plane to crash, b) the RFO made an error and did not reveal this to the Captain due to personal and professional motivations, or c) the power control actuators (PCA) or elevator flight control cable failed. Keeping the connecting thread of miscommunication in mind, the following pages will discuss these four possible causes and the relevant textual supports for each.
Although (officially) the NTSB concluded that there was not enough evidence to confirm or deny the possible suicide of the RFO, there was certainly no shortage of suspicious information. Aside from repeating “I rely on God” even before there was a clear rapid descent, early leaks in information from the voice recordings and even from NTSB officials’ statements, the investigation was conducted with strong bias and little care for protocol (114). EgyptAir countered these accusations by pointing out that the RFO had not asked to take over that shift (NTSB 54). If he were so intent upon committing suicide, then it would appear that he did so very meticulously and in a patient and premeditated manner. This description itself, for many critics of the rumors, precludes insanity as a contributing factor. The transcripts also reveal that the RFO uttered an unintelligible word before he began repeating the phrase and before the sound of buttons clicking is heard (NTSB 105-106). Taken out of context, other conversations sound equally suspect. For example, one pilot asks another: “What’s with you? Why did you get all dressed in red like that?” (99). In short, any departure from the expected is examined so suspiciously that it is difficult to determine what is truly suspect. EgyptAir explicitly stated their position, writing in their official NTSB addendum that “The facts do not support the initial, and widely reported, theory that the [relief] first officer deliberately dove the plane toward the ocean” (48). According to EgyptAir, the Arabic phrase “Twakkalt al Allah” (“I rely on God”) is also a cultural, religious expression which cannot be translated into English without some explanation (132).
Another possibility is related to incompetency. Because the wind sheer increased dramatically while only the RFO was in the cockpit and the Captain or another officer was not immediately summoned, some believe that the RFO was simply in over his head. Additionally, the RFO was recorded earlier in the flight as he spoke to another pilot about how the Captain only did what he wanted to do (91-92). Clearly, the Captain was not respected by the RFO, and, for this reason, his hesitance to call for help may have been two-fold. NTSB accusations also came a mere two days after the voice recorder was discovered, which clearly demonstrates that these beliefs could not have been conclusive according to procedure.Although the NTSB insinuated that it believed that the RFO was suicidal and/or incompetent, it failed to recognize other glaring risk factors, such as the discussion in the cockpit about missing charts. A female crew member explains that the charts of the flight plan and the Atlantic Ocean were not on-board and could not be replaced (76-80).