Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October 31

egypt1Seven years ago today, at 1:52 a.m., EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged from 33,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 217 passengers from Canada, Egypt, Germany, Sudan, Syria, the United States, and Zimbabwe. The planned 10-hour flight, en route from New York to Cairo, lifted off from runway 22R at JFK Airport, where it had arrived less than an hour before from its origin in Los Angeles. Because of the duration of the journey, two crews -- a command crew and a relief crew, each consisting of a captain and first officer -- were required to make the trip. Several minutes after takeoff, the relief first officer, Gamil Al-Batouti, asked the command first officer if they might go ahead and rotate several hours ahead of schedule. The command first officer, who had already slept in preparation for the long first shift, was initially reluctant to switch positions with Al-Batouti, urging the latter to go ahead and get some sleep. After a brief and somewhat argumentative discussion, the command first officer relented and left the cockpit, grumbling audibly that Al-Batouti always "does what he pleases."

Five minutes later, the command captain also left the cockpit to use the bathroom and return a pen to the command first officer. While the captain was gone, Gamil Al-Batouti disconnected the plane's autopilot function, idled the throttle levers, and while repeating the phrase "tawakalt ala Allah" ("I rely on God") sent Flight 990 into a steep descent that was interrupted twice -- once when the captain returned and desperately fought to return the plane to a level position, and a second time when the plane struck the ocean surface south of Nantucket Island, scattering debris across a 400-yard area.