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EgyptAir Crash Prompts Twin Probes

November 1, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Investigators tried Sunday to determine if a sudden mechanical failure or possibly terrorism caused an EgyptAir jetliner to plunge rapidly _ nearly 300 feet per second _ from six miles high and crash into the Atlantic.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI worked side-by-side with help from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Boeing Co., which made the 767 that crashed off Nantucket, Mass., with 217 aboard.

All were trying to digest an array of evidence that included radar tapes showing that the plane plummeted from an altitude of 33,000 feet down to 19,100 feet in 36 seconds, before at least some part of it continued to remain visible for nearly another minute and a half.

That would put the initial descent rate at about 23,200 feet per minute, about two to three times a standard emergency descent rate. The continuing images and slower descent rate after 19,100 feet could indicate an in-flight breakup, with smaller pieces drifting down at a slower rate, investigators suggested.

The fact that air traffic controllers were able to monitor the transponder signal for part of the descent indicated the plane continued to have electrical power at least during the first part of the rapid descent, aviation experts said.

President Clinton and other U.S. officials said there was no immediate evidence of terrorism, but that was being investigated as a possibility.

The NTSB chairman, Jim Hall, refused to say if the radar tapes showed an aircraft in pieces.

``We do not know at this point what caused the crash,″ Hall told reporters. ``We are beginning what may be a long investigation.″

Also in the mix was a recent travel alert from the FAA saying someone had warned a bomb would be placed on a flight originating from Los Angeles or New York, and word that a passenger got off the EgyptAir flight when it landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport en route from Los Angeles to Cairo.

It turned out the passenger, Ed McLaughlin, works for a company that helps airlines notify family members of air accident victims.

``The whole question is what does the radar tape show,″ said Michael Barr, director of the aviation safety program at the University of Southern California.

``If it was a whole blip and it doesn’t show any break-up at 33,000 feet, it could be an incident with a loss of pressurization,″ he said.

Under those circumstances, a pilot might push to nose down and race to get below 12,000 feet, where the air is safe to breathe. But such a precipitous drop would risk breaking the plane.

``If there are multiple hits coming down from 33,000 feet, that would indicate an in-flight breakup and another range of possibilities,″ Barr said.

In a Sept. 24 ``information circular″ obtained by The Associated Press, the FAA said several U.S. agencies received letters in August warning ``that a bomb or explosive device with `spiral expansion’ would soon be used on a flight departing from either Los Angeles airport or New York’s JFK airport.″

The alert had been in effect until Saturday.

EgyptAir Flight 990 departed Los Angeles on Saturday and stopped at Kennedy International, bound for Cairo. The plane took off from JFK at 1:19 a.m. Sunday en route to Cairo and disappeared from radar screens about 40 minutes later, according to the FAA.

At a news conference in Cairo, the head of EgyptAir, Mohammed Fahim Rayan, said he had no information of any direct threat against his airline.

Also, an FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the person who made the claim cited in the FAA memo was in prison and they had no information that the warning was related.

Hall said that the EgyptAir flight was cruising at 33,000 feet when it began to descend about 1:50 a.m. Sunday. About 36 seconds later, it was at 19,100 feet. He said ``reflections″ were seen on radar screens until 1:52 a.m., almost 90 seconds more.

John Nance, an aviation analyst and veteran airline captain, said that if controllers knew the plane’s altitude as it went down, it would indicate the jet still had partial electrical power.

While radar locates a target in the sky, controllers do not know the identity of the blip or its altitude without information broadcast from the airplane’s transponder.

That broadcast can only be made with the help of electricity supplied by the plane.

The presence of electricity might also help the investigation, because it would likely mean that the electric-powered flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder continued operating after the initial plunge.

``Exactly what that means I don’t know, but it is an entirely different situation from TWA (Flight 800) and Pan Am 103, which had breakups and an immediate loss of power,″ Nance said.

The TWA plane blew up off Long Island in July 1996, killing all 230 aboard. Investigators believe the plane’s nearly empty center fuel tank exploded. Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing all 270 board. Investigators concluded that the plane was brought down by a bomb.

One other source for the investigation is the plane’s production and maintenance history.

According to a French Internet site that tracks Boeing’s production line, the EpyptAir 767 came off the assembly line immediately before a Lauda Air 767 that crashed over Thailand in 1991.

The EgyptAir plane, tail number SU-GAP, made its first flight on Sept. 15, 1989, and was delivered on Sept. 26, 1989, said the site, decollage.org.

The Lauda Air plane made its first flight Sept. 26, 1989 and was delivered Oct. 16, 1989. It crashed in May 1991 after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 10 crew and 213 passengers.

Boeing spokewoman Barbara Murphy refused to comment on the plane’s production history, citing the pending crash investigation.

A crash uniting the FBI and the NTSB was reminiscent of the TWA explosion, when the two worked side-by-side. The FBI eventually ruled that the crash did not involve a criminal act, but not before both sides reported a strain in the relationship.

Since then, they have pledged better cooperation.

``I think we’re going to see another parallel investigation for a while,″ said Barr, the USC teacher. ``The FBI will stay involved until they can be fairly certain that it wasn’t a criminal event.″

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