WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After 10 days of Muslim bashing, a prime example The Washington Post's November 16 front page, above the fold headline "Pilot Prayed, Then Shut Off Jets Autopilot," alternative theories have begun to emerge for the October 31 crash of EgyptAir 990.
That evening, following the Washington Post's lead, relief pilot Gameel el-Batouty's prayer, identified as the shahadah (There is no god but God. Muhammad is the Messenger of God.) appeared on television screens with the clear implication that the utterance of this short prayer indicated a deliberate act of suicide and murder.
But the very next day, November 17, ABC's Washington affiliate stated that the pilot had said, "I have made my decision. Now I put my faith in God's hands." It is not clear whether the pilot also uttered the shahadah, or whether his utterance was incorrectly reported yesterday.
The National Transportation Safety Board advisory released November 17 indicated that the cockpit voice recorder working group expected to have a transcript completed next week.
The flight data recorder showed that the Boeing 767-300 pitch attitude moved from 40 degrees nose down to 10 degrees nose down. The speed brake handle moved from the stowed position to the deployed position. The last altitude registered was about 16,400 feet, at which time the aircraft was traveling at 574 knots.
The elevator split, which had previously been reported, was further defined by the FDR group. During the last 15 seconds maximum split between the elevators was about 7 degrees, and appeared to be lessening.
While the aircraft was at 33,000 feet, the autopilot cut off. Eight seconds later, the elevator moved into the nose down position, and the throttle was pulled back. 14 seconds after the nose down movement began, the aircraft reached Mach 0.86, and the master warning sounded. 13 seconds later, the engine start lever went to the "off" position. 14 seconds after that, the FDR, CVR and transponder shut off. From autopilot cutoff to end of data was about 50 seconds.
However, the lack of necessary facts did not deter U.S. media speculation.
The media consensus seemed to be that the pilot was depressed because he had been passed over for promotion, he had financial problems because of his child's health condition, and this drove him to crash the plane into the Atlantic.
These theories were challenged by his family who claimed that the pilot was financially well off, and they took television crews on a tour of the home Mr. Batouty had built for his upcoming retirement.
Still for the past ten days the recitation of an Islamic prayer, repeatedly mentioned by the media, confirmed for them the pilot's state of mind. Newsweek magazine based its cover story on the assertion that the pilot recited "Tawakilt ala allah" (I put my trust in God) 14 times.
Now doubts about who said what, and other theories have begun to emerge.
The London based Independent reported on November 20 (Andrew Marshall, "Doubt cast on suicide theory for air crash"): "The American theory turns on a few facts whose interpretation is disputed. The cockpit voice recorders apparently show that the aircraft's captain, Ahmed al-Habashi, left the flight deck, leaving the relief co-pilot, Gamil al-Batouti, at the controls. He had been reported to have said "I made my decision now", before repeating a Muslim prayer variously translated as "I put my faith in God's hands" or "I depend on God".
"But yesterday," said the Independent, "an unnamed official told news agencies that Mr. Batouti did not say "I made my decision now" casting some doubt on the pilot suicide theory.
The Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ (Michael Hedges, "Pilot Who Saved Jet in '79 Says: Be Wary Of Crash Probe Theories," November 23) described an event where a "Boeing jetliner had leveled off above 30,000 feet after leaving New York when, mysteriously, it began a steep and terrifying descent, falling at speeds that briefly topped 800 mph."
"The aftermath of that incident two decades ago has caused [the pilot Harvey 'Hoot'] Gibson to be skeptical of quick explanations for aircraft crashes, like the theory that EgyptAir Flight 990 was downed October 31 by a suicidal pilot." reported the Star-Ledger. "...Gibson says he believes his flight suffered from some sort of rudder failure, the cause in later years of at least two airline crashes involving Boeing 737s .. It was the same rudder on the 727 as the 737."
On November 24 the Associated Press reported ("Egyptian Expert Offers Blast Theory") that "Gen. Issam Ahmed, head of the country's flight training program, urged Egyptian investigators to look closely at what happened in the rear of the plane and not to let their U.S. counterparts impose the suicide scenario." Said the general, "The two pilots took the right steps, including turning off the autopilot and the engines in an attempt to control the plane."
Today, November 26, Mr. Gibson and Gen. Issam Ahmed have been joined by others challenging reckless media speculation.
The Washington Times reported today on its front page ("Austrians offer malfunction theory of EgyptAir crash") that the "crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 might have been caused by a flight stabilizer breakdown that could have sent the plane plunging into the sea, an Austrian institute said yesterday."
Said the independent Austrian Institute of Aerospace Medicine and Space Biology, "The abnormal dive of the Boeing 767 could be due to a so-called 'stabilizer runaway... The stabilizer runaway batters the plane so strongly that the autopilot is insufficiently strong and it is automatically turned off on purpose in such a case."
FOX News reported ("Airline Pilots' Group Hits Out at EgyptAir Probe") that an "international airline pilots' group Friday stepped into the controversy over the probe into the EgyptAir flight 990 crash, denouncing what it said was a media frenzy about suicide as a cause."
Captain Ted Murphy of the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations told Reuters, "The big issue is the failure of the industry to resist the temptation to talk. Authorities have to resist giving an answer straight away."
Faced with these emerging theories The Washington Post began backing off from its earlier focus on the pilot's prayer. Said the Post (David A. Vise and Don Phillips, "No Letup For FBI In Probe Of Crash"): "While his prayer in Arabic--"I have put my faith in God's hands"--has played a role in the probe, it is less significant, officials said, than the actions he took in the cockpit."
As we said on November 16, "What may be criminal is to rule out other explanations for the crash. At this stage all options should be kept open, but speculation on the basis of a prayer uttered by the pilot is at the very least irresponsible."
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