The Fall of EgyptAir 990

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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…


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