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Crash was intentional, U.S. says

The co-pilot caused EgyptAir Flight 990 to crash into the Atlantic Ocean. But we probably will never know why.

That is the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board after a 2{-year investigation of the flight, which crashed in October 1999 about 30 minutes after departing from New York, killing 14 crew members and 203 passengers.

The co-pilot, Gamil El Batouty, never said he was committing suicide. He just repeated this phrase:

"I rely on God."

Investigators used some tricky detective work and sophisticated sound techniques to determine what he did:

They measured the pitch of his voice and how fast he shut down the engine power. They conducted extensive tests on the plane's elevators, the horizontal tail panels that make the plane climb and descend. And they spent hours in flight simulators trying to see if something on the plane had broken.

Egyptian authorities have insisted it was not a suicide, so the NTSB chose not to call it a deliberate act. The safety board also sidestepped the touchy question of why Batouty would do it.

But the 160-page report indicates investigators could find no other reason to explain the crash except his bizarre actions in the cockpit.

"Throughout each step of the work, the NTSB followed its well-established, strict investigative process," NTSB chairwoman Marion Blakey said. "The report's analysis and conclusions are firmly supported by the physical evidence and recorded data."

The Boeing 767 took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in the early morning of Oct. 31, 1999.

Because the flight to Cairo was scheduled to take 10 hours, the crew included two sets of pilots. Batouty was supposed to be the relief first officer, to give the initial first officer a chance to sleep after flying a long distance. But Batouty volunteered to take the controls only 20 minutes after departure.

Most conversations were in Arabic and have been translated. Batouty was known as Jimmy to the other pilots.

"Go and get some rest, and come back," Batouty told the other pilot.

The pilot initially resisted, but eventually relinquished his seat.

The captain, who had remained in the cockpit, then left to use the lavatory.

Batouty was now alone in the cockpit.

Twenty-one seconds after the captain departed, Batouty quietly stated, "I rely on God."

The autopilot was disconnected, which was unusual because the plane was cruising in level flight at 33,000 feet. Batouty was now in control of the big plane.

"I rely on God."

The throttle levers were pulled back, reducing the engines to idle. The plane's elevators suddenly pointed the nose down. The plane began to plummet toward the Atlantic Ocean.

"I rely on God."

The plane was descending at such a steep angle that people and items in the cabin were suddenly weightless and flying around. Somehow, the captain managed to float back to the cockpit and get inside.

"What's happening?" he asked. "What's happening?"

"I rely on God."

The master warning horn was blaring. Red lights were flashing on the instrument panel.

It appears the captain struggled to pull up the nose, repeatedly saying, "Pull with me."

But Batouty did not reply. The plane continued on a horrifying roller-coaster ride and then crashed in the ocean about 60 miles south of Nantucket, Mass., killing everyone on board.

Investigators recovered about 70 percent of the wreckage from the ocean floor. Their best clues came from the two "black boxes."

When they combined the transcript of the cockpit tape with information from the flight data recorder, they were surprised to see Batouty's behavior. It appeared he was alone in the cockpit and made the plane dive.

The NTSB sound experts had heard hundreds of cockpit tapes in which pilots scream and fight to avoid death. But Batouty was strangely calm as his plane was racing toward the ocean. He remained calm even after the captain scrambled back into the cockpit and struggled to save the plane.

Investigators analyzed the pitch of the pilots' voices to quantify that odd behavior. People typically increase their pitch dramatically when they are under extreme stress.

The NTSB found the captain's pitch went up by as much as 65 percent as he called to Batouty for help. But Batouty's pitch remained surprisingly low, increasing by no more than 25 percent.

The wreckage matched the theory of deliberate action. It showed no sign of a mechanical failure before the plane hit the water.

The Egyptian government balked at the idea of a pilot suicide and urged the NTSB to look into mechanical possibilities. The investigators spent weeks exploring those theories but found none matched the information on the flight data recorder.

Another key factor: When aerodynamic experts used a Boeing simulator to recreate the crash sequence, they found that Batouty could have easily recovered. Yet all his actions seemed to point the plane toward the water as he repeated, "I rely on God."

The investigators spent many days interviewing people who knew Batouty or came into contact with him before the plane left New York.

An EgyptAir pilot who was a close friend said Batouty gave him several tablets of Viagra but would not give the whole bottle because Batouty was taking it back to friends in Egypt. (The Egyptian government said that helped to show he was not suicidal: He was saving the pills.)

The NTSB explored reports of sexual improprieties by Batouty in New York. FBI agents were told by hotel security workers that female guests had accused him of exposing himself.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that a formerEgyptAir pilot told investigators that Batouty crashed the plane into the Atlantic Ocean to take revenge on a company executive who had just demoted him because of sexual misconduct. The executive was riding as a passenger.

NTSB investigators were unable to corroborate that story.

_ Times staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or adairsptimes.com.

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