The possible last moments of Egypt Air Flight 990
By: Steve Miller
Daily Sparks Tribune
November 22, 1999
Prior to the official analysis of the Egypt Air Flight 990 crash indicating that suicide was the probable cause for the disaster, I had blocked from my mind the details of one of the worst and most frightening events of my own life as a professional instructor pilot.
It was 1980 and I was working as an instructor at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. My flight school was offering $35.00 introductory flights to the public to generate new student pilot starts. I was scheduled to fly with a prospective student on such a flight that eventful morning.
Our flight school was known for being proficient in training pilots from nations throughout the Near East. Many of these students later took jobs with airlines such as Egypt Air, and El Al.
As chief instructor pilot for the company it was my responsibility to take flight instructors in training along on flights as observers. Going along on this flight were my wife, and a commercial pilot working on his flight instructor rating.
The customer arrived at the scheduled time. I proceeded to interview him with the customary questions about his background and motivation for wanting to learn to fly.
He explained that he was a minister in a Muslim ministry in Los Angeles and that he wanted to be able to commute between Las Vegas and LA to perform his ministerial duties in both cities. His reason for learning to fly seemed logical so we proceeded outside to the airplane.
The man was very calm as the four of us walked along and chatted about the whether. He asked numerous questions about the airplanes we walked passed on our way to our waiting Piper Warrior - it seemed like just another ordinary day in the life of a flight instructor.
My wife had ridden along on several of these introductory flights and enjoyed the half-hour experience. The flight instructor trainee who accompanied us was days away from taking his final exam and wanted to observe my method of selling the expensive Private Pilot course to a prospective customer.
We entered the cockpit and I placed my customer in the left seat or captain's position as is customary when acquainting a student with the controls of an airplane. The passengers settled down in the rear seats.
I asked my customer to put his feet lightly on the rudder pedals and his hands lightly on the control wheel to feel the movements of the controls during taxi and take off -- he complied. We took our position in line for take off behind a group of airliners waiting at the end of runway 19.
After several minutes the tower cleared us for takeoff to the South, we began rolling. I once again cautioned my customer to let his hands and feet rest lightly on the controls to better understand how they function in takeoff and flight. I cautioned him to not apply any pressures to the controls unless I instructed him to do so. He nodded in compliance and starred straight ahead down the runway.
The man had a distant look in his eyes as we began to develop speed on takeoff, but everything still seemed routine.
The small airplane lifted into the cool blue sky and we climbed away from the Earth. Then, about three hundred feet above the remaining runway, the man's eyes opened fully and with all his strength he abruptly pushed the control wheel forward until it loudly hit the control panel and his arms locked in a death grip! We were going straight down with only a few seconds left before impact!
I pulled back with all of my strength on the right control wheel and overpowered the man. The airplane suddenly leveled out just before the wheels hit the asphalt. I retarded the throttle and slammed on the brakes. The plane bounced and then skidded to a noisy stop.
The tower sent fire engines out to the airplane though there was no fire and just minor damage to the landing gear strut. Upon further examination of the plane our mechanic discovered that we had severely bent the control yoke by pulling and pushing at the same time causing major damage.
Unlike the Boeing 767 involved in the Egypt Air disaster, light airplanes have both control yokes solidly connected together.
The man who had said that he was in need of a quick and convenient means of transport between Muslin ministries had inexplicably attempted to take his own life along with three innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In attempting to explain to officials the cause of our abrupt and unannounced contact with the Earth, I learned that there is no law prohibiting what almost occurred. I had no other choice but to let the man who probably tried to end our lives walk away unpunished.
As the student instructor and I walked the man to his car, he would not respond to our repeated questions about what had just occurred, he just starred straight ahead. I tried to control my natural urge to grant him his wish to become some kind of martyr.
The student instructor suddenly grabbed the man and tried to strangle him! I somehow found myself defending the thwarted assassin because I did not want him to have his death wish fulfilled at the expense of my friend's freedom.
After the brief altercation, the stranger departed never to be seen again.
I actually gave my thwarted assassin the benefit of the doubt at the time, though I wish he had left a suicide note to prove my point. Otherwise how would I have proved that murder/suicide was his actual intention? He might have said that he had just panicked and did not recall pushing the controls forward.
I only now truly understand what may have really happened to me in light of the Egypt Air tragedy and the similarities between the two men involved. Maybe the man in my story was the same guy as did-in Egypt Air nineteen years later?
Just think what a public service I would have accomplished if I had not reacted so quickly in 1980! If it somehow was the same person, he would have taken only four lives in place of the 287 souls lost over the Atlantic!
Today, I can't help but read every detail of aircraft accident reports. Each time the unexplainable happens as was the case with Egypt Air, I flash back to those horrible moments over McCarran Airport when that man's eyes opened so wide and he slammed the airplane's control yokes against their forward stops.
I hate to say that I actually know what it must have felt like to be in the cockpit of Egypt Air Flight 990 on that eventful night.
Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman and writes a weekly column in the Las Vegas Tribune. Visit his website at: http://www.stevemiller4lasvegas.com