The end of EgyptAir Flight 990 began abruptly, with the jetliner dropping at or passing the speed of sound within about 20 seconds, but then the Boeing 767 slowed and somehow climbed nearly 8,000 feet before entering a final dive and breaking apart, according to a newly refined radar analysis.
An Air Force analysis of the plane's roller coaster-like plunge from 33,000 feet to the Atlantic Ocean raised more questions than it answered as investigators worked to understand why 217 people died early Sunday morning aboard the New York-to-Cairo flight.
John Clark, the National Transportation Safety Board's deputy director of research and engineering, would not speculate on the meaning of the new analysis by the Air Force's 84th Radar Evaluation Group. He said he wants to see more data, especially from the plane's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, whose locator beacons have tentatively been heard in a debris field 250 to 275 feet deep.
However, the Navy's salvage efforts have been put on hold at least through the weekend by high winds that have churned the Atlantic with 20-foot waves.
The Air Force analysis showed:
* Flight 990 dived for more than 40 seconds from 33,000 feet to 16,700 feet, where its altitude-reporting transponder stopped working. It reached its fastest speed about midway during this period, approaching or passing the speed of sound, about 735 mph at that altitude.
* The plane further descended to 16,000 feet before beginning a gentle right turn and abruptly beginning a climb back to 24,000 feet. There is no indication yet whether the crew initiated the climb or whether the plane followed its natural aerodynamic tendencies to climb when moving at high speed.
* From 24,000 feet, it began another descent.
* At 10,000 feet, the plane reached a point that was "not consistent with a flying airplane," Clark said. Radar analysis shows "multiple primary hits" that drifted slowly down, moving with the wind over the next two minutes and 40 seconds.
Although Clark avoided analysis, it is likely that the plane or a large part of it broke into hundreds of pieces at 10,000 feet. Asked if the radar data were "consistent" with an in-flight breakup, Clark said, "Could be."
Left unanswered was why the dive began, why the plane climbed, and why the transponder stopped working.
Whatever investigators determine, it will be little comfort to relatives of the 217 victims, some of whom are now frustrated and angry that authorities were insensitive when the Rhode Island coroner's office told them on Tuesday that only small body parts would be found.
"People are very, very angry," said George Arian, publisher of the New Jersey newspaper Donia Al-Arab, speaking on behalf of the Egyptian families here. "They were coming here because they were told to pick up [the bodies of their loved ones] and take them back to Egypt."
Victims' relatives erupted into angry outbursts during the briefing Tuesday afternoon when they were told via a translator that no intact bodies had been found, Arian said. He said many of the relatives said they never would have traveled all this way, leaving jobs and their communities.
Today, Mike Crow of Seattle, whose wife lost four family members in the crash, told reporters outside the hotel where the victims' families were staying that many of the relatives are "totally frustrated."
"The Rhode Island coroner said that if we get an entire [intact] body, it will be very surprising," he said.
Crow also said authorities know more about the crash than they are telling relatives. "That's the big question . . . how an airplane could fly perfectly fine from Los Angeles to New York" and then go down 30 minutes after takeoff. "We want to know what brought the airplane down."
A spokesman for the coroner's office referred questions to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation.
As part of the probe, the FBI has hundreds of agents, including bomb technicians, investigating the crash. Among the questions the bureau is focusing on is whether the Egyptian military officers who were passengers on the flight were permitted to board without passing through normal airport security.
"There are various stories about whether they all went through security before they went on the plane, so there are issues there we are still trying to nail down," an FBI official said. "Obviously, there is great interest on the part of the FBI in knowing who was on the plane, not just when it went down, but who was on when it flew into Newark or Los Angeles or New York."
Thus far, officials said, no evidence of criminal activity or terrorism in connection with the crash has been discovered. Nevertheless, the FBI is vigorously investigating the incident.
"People ask, 'Why are you even doing this?' " the FBI official said. "The answer is if there is any possibility of an act of terrorism or criminal activity, we want to have the evidence. We don't want to be in a position where we have to play catch-up two months down the road and identify people who have to be interviewed."
Staff writer David A. Vise in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: THE RECOVERY SO FAR (This graphic was not available)