Flight Recorder Sheds Little Light on EgyptAir Crash

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Investigators are still in the dark about the mysterious crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 after an initial review of the cockpit voice recorder yielded few clues. The second black box from EgyptAir Flight 990 was flown to Washington on Sunday, after being recovered from the Atlantic Ocean floor on Saturday evening.

Terrorism has not been ruled out as a cause of the October 31 crash, 60 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, which cost the lives of all 217 people on board. National Travel Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman James Hall told reporters the tape was found in "good condition" but had not yielded the hoped-for information. "No conclusions could be drawn from their initial reviews," Hall said in a statement.

Officials from EgyptAir and the Egyptian government were to participate in the examination of the tape, Hall told CNN earlier. The recorder itself is damaged. It had become separated from the "pinger" - its tracking device - and its identification tag was missing.

Last week, information from the flight data recorder, released by the NTSB, showed that the plane was forced into a nose dive after the plane's auto-pilot had been disengaged. During the descent the plane's engines were cut off.

One theory held that there was some kind of a struggle in the cockpit, either between the pilots or between the pilots and some third party; or that there was a panicked scramble to gain control of the aircraft once it started to dive. The voice recording though, indicated that neither of those scenarios took place.

One FBI official was quoted on CNN as saying that they had "no evidence" that any "crime was committed" which could have caused the crash. However, in Cairo a former EgyptAir accident investigator said he believed the flight had been sabotaged. "Why should the plan fall in such a manner?" asked Essam Ahmed, former head of EgyptAir's committee in charge of accident investigation. He suggested that someone had placed a bomb in the bathroom behind the cockpit, which exploded and caused the accident.

Chris Yates, Editor of Jane's Aviation Security, said it was "strange" that the flight data recorder didn't register any malfunctions. Yates told CNSNews.com that the indication the auto-pilot was manually disconnected and signs that the plane may have been deliberately thrust into a "controlled descent" from 33,000 to 18,000 feet were very "curious and odd."

Speaking before analysis of the tape was available, he proposed two scenarios: The pilot could have been "instructed to do things he would not normally have done" -- such as disconnect the auto-pilot -- by a hijacker, for instance, or there could have been an explosion onboard the aircraft. The steep and rapid descent could have also have caused the engines to cut off and the auto-pilot to disconnect. "Something has gone on on that aircraft that is totally unusual and very strange," Yates said.

Ely Karmon of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism told CNSNews.com that while it's "not impossible" that a terrorist attack could have downed flight 990, it was "dangerous" to speculate at this stage. Karmon conceded, however, that it was not unusual in the case of the downing of airplanes for no one to claim responsibility for the attack.

"Generally [in] most explosions of airplanes, there is no claim of responsibility," he said. Even if someone does claim responsibility, usually the group concerned uses a fictitious name, or someone "crazy" who did not commit the deed claims to have done so. "[They] don't take responsibility because they're afraid of counter-reactions" which could "produce economic damage," Karmon said, in a reference to international sanctions campaigns against rogue states such as Libya suspected of links to aircraft bombings.

As investigators also continued looking into the possibility of human error, EgyptAir announced on Saturday that the entire crew, including eight pilots and co-pilots onboard the plane, had checked out as healthy and fit for flight. The pilot flying the plane had undergone a routine physical and psychological exam just 10 days prior to the crash and the co-pilot had checked out fine in June. "Every pilot, cabin attendant, everybody who is working with equipment that needs safety ... is checked," EgyptAir chair Mohammed Fahim Rayan told reporters.

Cockpit voice recorder analysts are meeting today in Washington, to begin a thorough review of the voice recorder from EgyptAir Flight 900.