It has been seventeen years since US investigators suggested co-pilot Gameel El-Batouti intentionally caused EgyptAir flight 990 to crash into the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of America in an act of suicide that killed all 216 people on board with him.
In the aftermath of the crash of EgyptAir flight 804 into the Mediterranean last Thursday, similar allegations have been echoed by US news channel CNN concerning the fate of the plane that never completed its journey from Paris to Cairo.
Following the discovery of the Egyptian aircraft strewn in pieces through the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria, CNN voiced the theory that the crash was an act of pilot suicide.
The news channel's allegations have provoked a wave of outrage from the Egyptian government and the pilot’s family and friends, who have criticized CNN for being "disrespectful”. Those familiar with the 37-year-old pilot, Mohamed Shoukair, countered CNN's remarks with praise of his professionalism, pointing out that he did not have any motives to commit suicide.
The Egypt Foreign Affairs Ministry (MFA) harshly criticized CNN's theory.
“It is disrespectful of CNN to insinuate that the pilot of the tragic Egyptair flight MS804 committed suicide while families are mourning,” read a tweet posted by MFA spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zied. This was then re-tweeted by hundreds of followers.
The pilot’s father condemned the allegations of his son’s suicide, saying that he was one of the most professional pilots and he was held in high esteem by his colleagues at EgyptAir.
Captain Shoukair had clocked up 6,275 of flight hours, including 2,101 on A320 aircraft. The plane's co-pilot had 2,766 hours of experience.
“The same thing happened after the 1999 EgyptAir plane crash, when the pilot was also accused of intentionally crashing the plane,” stated Shoukair's father.
On October 31, 1999, EgyptAir flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 100km south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, killing all 217 people onboard. According to the official Aircraft Accident Brief compiled after the incident by the Washington National Transportation Safety Board, the crash was most likely caused deliberately by co-pilot Gameel al-Batouti.
Referring to flight data and auto recordings from the cockpit, the brief reported that while the captain was outside the cockpit, Batouti disabled the autopilot function. He was reported to have repeated the phrase, “I rely on God,” before causing the plane to pitch nose down into a rapid descent.
The New York Times pointed out in an article revisiting the incident last year that the investigators did not consider the question of motive. Egyptian officials, said the article, have challenged the conclusion of the accident brief, which was subsequently circulated in US media.
No emotional or financial motive
In response to CNN's allegations over flight 804 last week, Egypt's Minister of Civil Aviation, Sherif Fathy, praised the plane's pilot and talked of his wide experience of piloting: "I reject any accusation of Shoukair’s neglect of duty. He was a respectable, good-mannered person and I won’t accept anyone in Egypt or abroad accusing or defaming him. That is despicable,” Fathy said during a phone interview with Sada El-Balad satellite channel.
Shoukrair’s father stated that his son did not have any emotional or financial motives to commit suicide. Shoukrair was a billionaire born into a wealthy family, and was engaged and due to be married soon.
“My son was my only child; he was cheerful and passionate about life," said his father. "I took a phone call from him five minutes before his takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport. The call was very normal; he asked me if I wanted him to bring anything from Paris.”
He called for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to find the cause for the crash and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Atef Khedr, one of Shoukair's closest friends, said he was a joyful person who loved to do good for people.
“The likelihood of him committing suicide is absolutely nil, as he loved his life,” Khedr said.
The Egyptian Muslim activist and television preacher, Amr Khaled, posted a photo of him with Shoukair onboard a plane, saying that Shoukair had piloted a flight Khaled had once flown on, and was "one of the kindest pilots" he'd travelled with.
“May Allah have mercy on him, give his family endurance, and grant him rest in heaven,” Khaled wrote on his official Facebook page.
Meanwhile, a senior source from EgyptAir dismissed the accusation of suicide as a technical impossibility, stating that a pilot cannot deliberately execute a dive from such high altitude (37,000 feet) as it would be automatically overridden by the aviation and navigation devices built into the plane.
The source explained that the planes have inbuilt devices that monitor altitude, wind speed, number of engine revolutions and the pressure inside the cabin before any decisions can be made about whether to land the aircraft or even put the wheels down.
Echoing the source, former head of the Egyptian Airports Company Gad El-Karim told Al-Arabeya news channel that finding the wreckage of the plane 290 west of Alexandria indicates that the plane fell very quickly over a very deep part of the Mediterranean Sea. Hence, "neither the pilot nor the black box could send distress signals, as the crash was a surprise.The plane then settled on the seabed where the deep waters over it prevented the black box from sending any signals, or maybe the box’s battery was dead,” El-Karim said.
As investigations into the crash continue along various lines of enquiry, President Sisi stated on Sunday, “There is no concrete hypothesis we can give for the plane going down, so please do not rule out any theory in favor of another yet”. At this stage, the president said, neither the possibility of a technical fault nor an attack on the aircraft are being dismissed.
CNN's suicide theory has been considered by critics to fly somewhat in the face of this warning — one of several media outlets keen to put forward theories as to the cause for the crash. On Tuesday, the Head of the Forensic Medicine Authority Hesham Abdel Hamid denied news circulated by media outlets, including the AP, that body parts of victims from the crashed aircraft indicated that the plane had exploded.
An official report of the Egypt-led investigation into the crash of flight 804 is scheduled to be published in a month's time.
Amr Khaled poses for a photo with the late Captain Shoukair