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The Fall of EgyptAir 990



On July 17, 1996, TWA 800 took off from JFK International Airport; twelve and a half minutes later, it fell into the ocean south of Long Island. On September 2, 1998, Swissair 111 took off from JFK Airport; fourteen minutes later it lost radio contact with air controllers; it continued flying north, eventually regained radio power, reported smoke in the cockpit as it neared Nova Scotia, then fell into the Atlantic Ocean. On October 31, 1999, EgyptAir 990 took off from JFK Airport; it flew east for thirty-one minutes, then suddenly dove into the ocean east of Long Island, south of Nantucket. The 676 people on board the three planes perished. No other large passenger plane taking off in the United States crashed during this three years and three months period.

The uniformity of the region in which the accidents occurred suggests that the region itself—the environment external to the plane—should in each case be included among the causes to be investigated. Substantial studies by the Joint Spectrum Center and by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have gone a long way toward reconstructing the electromagnetic environment of the first accident; but the work on behalf of TWA 800 is still incomplete, and in the cases of Swissair 111 and EgyptAir 990 it has barely begun.

The need for an external reconstruction is suggested not only by the uniformity of the region in which the accidents have occurred, but by the absence of any definitive internal cause: TWA 800 is believed to have fallen as a result of a central fuel tank explosion, but the ignition source of that explosion has not been found. (At its hearing on the accident this August, the National Transportation Safety Board divided potential ignition sources into “likely” and “unlikely” and designated an electrical “short circuit” as the least unlikely; but investigators repeatedly acknowledged that they have not found definitive evidence of that short circuit or even a probable location.)

Swissair 111’s fall is believed by both the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Boeing to be electrical in origin, but no one system on the plane, or section of wiring, or even segment of the flight has as yet been ruled out as a cause. EgyptAir 990, according to the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), suffered no mechanical malfunction that can account for its sudden dive toward the ocean: the absence of a mechanical cause has been repeatedly cited by the Safety Board and by the press as evidence that one of the pilots must have intentionally chosen to kill himself and all his fellow travelers (a point that I will return to).

The first part of the present article1 looked at the features shared by TWA 800 and Swissair 111. Each appears to have suffered an electrical catastrophe, but the cause of each crash has so far proven elusive. Each took off from JFK; each traveled east along Long Island on the “Bette” route (which lets planes avoid a region of ocean space, called W-105 and W-106, when it is reserved for military exercises); each took off on a Wednesday at 8:19 PM; each experienced its first difficulty twelve to fourteen minutes into the flight (a fatal difficulty for TWA 800, a radio difficulty of not-yet-understood gravity in the case of Swissair 1112 ); each flew during a week in which military exercises were scheduled; each flew on a night when submarines and Navy P3s were operating off the coast.

EgyptAir 990, like TWA 800 and Swissair 111, took off from JFK and crashed during the opening segment of its transatlantic journey. Like them, it suffered from a series of events that—as we will soon see—are compatible with an electrical accident.3 But it should be stated from the outset that EgyptAir 990 does not share all the external features that overlap in the accidents of the other two planes. It took off in the middle of the night, at 1:19 AM on a Sunday, not on a Wednesday at 8:19 PM. It did not travel, as the other two did, on the Bette route, which hugs the Long Island coast in order to skirt the northern edge of military exercise zones W-105 and W-106. (These are zones that are identified on flight maps as follows: “Warning: National Defense Operating Areas, Operations hazardous to the flight of aircraft conducted within these areas.”)


EgyptAir 990, as the map shows, instead flew directly into and through military exercise zone W-106, and then crossed into exercise zone W-105, where it flew approximately 120 miles before diving irrevocably toward the sea. Its crash site lies deep within military exercise zone W-105.

When EgyptAir 990 left JFK Airport, it was initially assigned a route that would have taken it down and around the military exercise zone W-105, a route described by the air controller as “Shipp Linnd Lacks Dovey.”4 The four names indicate a sequence of ocean intersection points; and as the map shows, had EgyptAir 990 flown to Shipp, then Linnd, then Lacks, then Dovey, it would never have entered military zone W-105.5 But it is normal practice, once a plane is in flight, for air controllers along its path to give it a more direct route, if the shorter route is clear of traffic or, in the case of warning zones, if the zone has been released by the military to the FAA. By 1:35 AM EgyptAir 990 had passed through two New York radar sectors, Kennedy and Manta, and had arrived at the third, Atlantic, which monitors the opening section of a transatlantic flight. A few seconds before 1:36 AM the Atlantic controller cleared EgyptAir 990 to fly directly to ocean point Dovey, without first passing Linnd and Lacks:

Atlantic Controller: EgyptAir 990, climb and maintain flight level three three zero [33,000]. Cleared direct Dovey.

EgyptAir 990: Three three zero, direct Dovey, EgyptAir 990.

On the map, this is the moment where the plane, heading south toward Linnd, now abruptly turns east and begins to fly across the W-105 zone.

To many people—certainly to this writer—it seems common sense that when a civilian plane crashes, the number and nature of all electromagnetic transmitters in the area at the time of the crash should be quickly identified. It seems common sense that this should be an automatic practice, just as many other forms of evidence-gathering at once go into effect when a plane falls. (In the first installment of this article, the former director of the Defense Department’s Joint Spectrum Center recommended that this be done.) When a civilian plane crashes in or near a military exercise zone, there is evidently all the more reason to ensure that such a comprehensive identification of transmitters be made.

No special trace of a maintenance problem, or a fuel problem, or a baggage compartment problem is needed to spur the NTSB to gather maintenance records, fuel samples, and the cargo manifest; the gathering of this material automatically begins the very day a large passenger plane falls. It should similarly not require special evidence or argument to ascertain the location of transmitters in the external environment.

The fact that EgyptAir 990 was permitted to fly through W-106 and W-105 should mean that no military exercises were occurring in those areas; and the NTSB has made available to the public the FAA daily logs which confirm that the military exercise zones were open to civilian flights during the hour (or what in the case of W-105 turned out to be a quarter of an hour) that EgyptAir 990 flew there. The NTSB has also made available to the public the record from Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility in Virginia Capes (this facility is often abbreviated FACFACS VaCapes, but it refers to itself throughout its own internal documents and its communications with the FAA as “GIANT KILLER”).

The records of this facility show only one exercise scheduled in W-105 on October 31, much later in the day than the 1:19 AM flight. But the absence of scheduled military exercises does not guarantee that no military craft were in the corridors around the warning zones or inside the warning zones.6 Military planes flying inside W-105 will not show up on FAA air controller tapes because at the point of entering the region they “go operational,”meaning they cease to be in communication with controllers. The possible dangers within the warning zones and corridors would arise not from munitions but from high-powered radar or other electromagnetic signals from fixed ground transmitters or from transmitters on craft passing through the area.

We already know (from news reports during the week immediately following the accident) that powerful Air Force radar antennas were tracking EgyptAir 990. Because these transmitters are designed to spot cruise missiles, they have capacities not shared by any civilian radars. A civilian radar can read the altitude of a plane only if that plane has a functioning transponder, the device that identifies the location of a plane. The Air Force antennas, in contrast, are designed to identify the altitude of a flying object, even when the flying object itself has no transponder, either because it wants to disguise its altitude (as in the case of a cruise missile or again in the case of a Navy or Air Force plane carrying out an exercise) or because it has lost the use of its transponder (as occurred in the case of EgyptAir 990, as well as TWA 800 and Swissair 111, before they crashed).

EgyptAir 990’s dive into the sea took place in three phases: a plunge from 33,000 feet down to 16,000 feet, a sudden rise back up to 24,000 feet, then a final plunge to the bottom of the sea. EgyptAir 990 lost its transponder toward the bottom of its first dive. It is only because the aircraft was an object of scrutiny on the part of the Air Force antennas at Riverhead, Long Island, and Truro, Cape Cod, that we know about the last two segments of flight—the sudden rise and the final fall.7 What other transmitters were observing EgyptAir 990, and what other transmitters were communicating with one another in the vicinity of EgyptAir 990, are questions that need to be answered.8

In recent years the military has increasingly attended to “littoral,” or coastline, warfare, as opposed to warfare taking place on the open seas, the focus of military practice in an earlier period. One of the constant tasks of powerful military radars—those carried on Aegis cruisers, for example9—is perfecting their ability to track a small flying object and, crucially, to hold the image of that flying object distinct from “the clutter” of civilian coastline life. Inevitably, then, civilian planes are being monitored by such transmitters and antennas: they are part of the coastline clutter from which real targets must be differentiated. Under what circumstances, and during which periods, civilian flights become a special target of observation is a subject not widely discussed in the United States, and one that ought to be.10

  1. 1

    Published in the September 21, 2000, issue of The New York Review. The complete text with full citations from official documents appears on the New York Review website, www.nybooks.com. The same website will soon carry an appendix to the two-part article describing the possible sources of electromagnetic interference with TWA 800 that remain to be investigated.

  2. 2

    Although the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has not singled out the radio blackout as a focus more important than any other part of the flight, it is certainly among the objects of their concern. On March 9, 1999, the Safety Board sent an “Interim Air Safety Recommendations” letter to David Michael Collenette, Canada’s minister of transport, urging that the duration of aircraft cockpit voice recorders be extended from their current length of one half-hour to a much longer period.

    The Safety Board cited as evidence of the need for an extended tape the thirteen-minute radio blackout on the Swissair 111 flight: the existence of extended voice recordings would have registered “cockpit conversations, flight deck noises, or attempted crew transmissions” that would have greatly assisted the Safety Board in assessing the blackout. Although only two sentences are devoted to the mysterious blackout, the fact that the request for extended tapes rests on this single concrete example suggests its potential gravity.

  3. 3

    The TWA 800 and Swissair 111 accidents, however, appear to be “unmistakably” electrical; in the case of the EgyptAir 990 accident there is persuasive, but not unmistakable, evidence that the accident could be electrical.

    The possibly electrical nature of the accident has been often noted, starting soon after the crash, by observers (see, for example, Chuck Taylor, Seattle Times, November 9, 1999, and 767 pilot Dan Gellert, cited in James Wallace, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 11, 1999).

  4. 4

    The words were used by the New York controller at the Kennedy Radar Sector when speaking to the New York controller at the Manta Sector, toward which EgyptAir 990 was flying (1:25 AM on transcript of FAA tape of New York TRACON, Kennedy Radar Sector, October 31, 1999, 1:16 AM to 1:31 AM, Addendum to Air Traffic Control Group Factual Report, NTSB, William English Chair, p. 3; and again on the transcript for the Manta Radar Sector, covering 1:19 to 1:39, p. 2). All transcripts, FAA logs, and military logs quoted in this section of the article are materials made available to the public by the NTSB on its accident website, www.ntsb.gov/events/EA990 (released on August 11, 2000).

  5. 5

    Needless to say, EgyptAir 990 may have crashed even had it followed a different route. But this article is concerned to examine the possibility (a possibility that has so far not received public attention) that the specific environment the plane was in—hence its route—may have had a crucial part in the accident.

    Usually when the term “W-105” is used, it refers, as I do in this article, to the region made up of four sections: 105A, C, D, E (see the map). “W-105B” and “W-106” are much less often used for military exercises.

  6. 6

    In fact, the single plane other than EgyptAir 990 with which the Atlantic controller is in contact during the period before the crash is a Navy plane with the call sign “Arise 57,” which was flying in a corridor between warning zones. (It is at the moment that Arise 57 checks in that the control-ler, who had briefly stepped away from the radar screen, returns and realizes that EgyptAir 990 has disappeared from radar and radio.) Arise 57 appears to be flying at a great distance—approximately 150 miles—from EgyptAir 990: the transcript indicates a flight path from ocean intersection point Champ to ocean fix Sea Isle (these two points are south of the region shown on the map).

    When the FAA released this portion of the transcript on May 16, 2000, Air Safety Week pointed out that the FAA should identify more specifically the Navy plane Arise 57.

  7. 7

    The role of Air Force transmitters in capturing the image of EgyptAir 990 was widely reported in the United States media, as was the work of the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which put together the images captured from different Air Force radar locations. The specification of Riverhead, Long Island, and Truro, Cape Cod, was less widely reported: it appeared in Matthew L. Wald’s November 4 and 5, 1999, New York Times stories ( the first of which was reprinted in newspapers in many states) as well as in November 4 reporting by CNN’s Carl Rochelle and Lou Waters.

    On aviation maps, the area near Truro, Cape Cod, has a printed warning: “CAUTION: USAF [US Air Force] PAVE-PAWS Radar Hazardous to Aircraft within 1 N[autical] M[ile].”PAVE-PAWS stands for “Precision Acquisition Vehicle Entry-Phased Array Warning System.”

  8. 8

    At his November 4, 1999, press conference, Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon was several times asked by a persistent reporter what activities the Air Force radars and their operators normally carry out (when not assisting in the analysis of a civilian plane crash). According to Mr. Bacon, the work of the Air Force radars includes both continuous blanket monitoring—

  9. 9

    For a description of such transmitters, see my article “The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference,” The New York Review, April 9, 1998.

  10. 10

    Should the civilian population become involved in military exercises without their knowledge or authorization? While it would not be possible for citizens to give their authorization on a flight-by-flight basis, certainly the general issue could be discussed and debated. The only public discussion so far came in the spring of 1997, when military planes followed so closely behind civilian planes in tracking exercises that the affected commercial pilots threatened to strike if the practice continued.

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