Cairo yesterday sent its most senior aviation official and a team of intelligence officers to Washington, as Egypt battled against American claims that a suicidal relief pilot could have been responsible for sending EgyptAir's flight 990 into a fatal dive off the north-east coast of the US last month.
Officially, the team headed by General Abdel Qatu was going to Washington to help US investigators understand the "cultural nuances" of the Arabic conversation on the cockpit recorder.
But there was outrage in Cairo at the claim that the Islamic el shahada prayer - believed to have been uttered by the relief pilot before the autopilot was disengaged, was a prelude to suicide and the deaths of all 217 on board.
Enraged Egyptian air team arrive
Last night the Egyptian Pilots' Federation rejected suggestions that a suicidal crew member might have caused the Cairo-bound Boeing 767 to crash on October 31.
"EgyptAir pilots are subject to rigorous medical check-ups every six months," it said in a statement. Captain Walid Murad, head of the federation, added: "The record of Egyptian pilots is honourable and there has been no record of a single suicide in the history of Egyptian aviation."
The pro-government newspaper al-Akhbar said a Muslim committing suicide would never say the shahada : "[As Muslims] we consider suicide an act of disbelief in God and all religions. Your expectation that the co-pilot committed suicide is a false claim."
A voice, thought to be that of relief pilot Gameel el-Batouty was detected by the voice recorder as saying in Arabic: "I made my decision now. I put my faith in God's hands."
A US investigation official said Batouty was believed to be alone in the cockpit at the time and spoke just before the autopilot was turned off.
Another source close to the investigation said Egyptian airline officials assisting US investigators said Batouty had been tentatively identified as occupying the co-pilot's seat and uttering a prayer just before the autopilot was disengaged. Batouty, who was 59, faced retirement from the state airline next year.
Many Egyptians are convinced that sabotage in general, and Israel's security service Mossad in particular, are the likeliest causes of the crash of a flight that was carrying 33 Egyptian army officers.
US investigators have delayed handing over their inquiry to the FBI, pending the arrival of the Egyptian team.
Batouty's colleagues said he was a "very balanced and efficient pilot". He had been scheduled to take over control of the plane later in the flight from co-pilot Adel Anwar.
Another investigation source said the tape showed Batouty apparently came into the cockpit at some point and "said he wanted to fly", and that his request was accepted.