Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961

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Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961
The aircraft involved in the accident is seen here at London Gatwick Airport in 1991, while on lease to Air Tanzania.
Hijacking summary
Date 23 November 1996
Summary Fuel exhaustion due to hijacking, water landing
Site Grande Comore, Comoros
Passengers 163 (including 3 hijackers)
Crew 12
Injuries (non-fatal) 50
Fatalities 125 (including 3 hijackers)
Survivors 50
Aircraft type Boeing 767-260ER
Operator Ethiopian Airlines
Registration ET-AIZ
Flight origin Sahar International Airport
Mumbai, India
1st stopover Bole International Airport
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
2nd stopover Jomo Kenyatta Int'l Airport
Nairobi, Kenya
3rd stopover Maya-Maya Airport
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo
Last stopover Murtala Mohammed Int'l Airport
Lagos, Nigeria
Destination Port Bouet Airport
Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, a Boeing 767-200ER, was hijacked on 23 November 1996,[1] en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on a Bombay–Addis Ababa–Nairobi–BrazzavilleLagosAbidjan service,[2][3] by three Ethiopians seeking asylum in Australia.[4] The plane crash-landed in the Indian Ocean near Grande Comore, Comoros Islands, due to fuel exhaustion; 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board died, along with the hijackers; the rest of the people on board survived with injuries.[4]

At the time this incident took place, it was the deadliest hijacking involving a single aircraft.[5][nb 1] It fell to second place with the 11 September 2001 attacks. The incident is one of the only documented water landing attempts of a widebody airliner with survivors.[nb 2][7][not in citation given]


The aircraft involved in the accident was a Boeing 767-260ER, registration ET-AIZ, c/n 23916, that had its maiden flight on 17 September 1987.[8] Powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4E engines, it was delivered new to Ethiopian Airlines on 22 October 1987.[8][9] Except for a short period between May 1991 (1991-05) and February 1992 (1992-02) when it was leased to Air Tanzania, the airplane spent its life in the Ethiopian Airlines fleet.[8] It was 9 years old at the time the incident took place.

Captain Leul Abate (42), an experienced pilot with over 11,500 total flight hours, was the pilot-in-command. The first officer on the flight was Yonas Mekuria (34). He had flown more than 6,500 hours.[10]



When the aircraft, nicknamed Zulu by Ethiopian Airlines' pilots,[11] was still flying over Ethiopian airspace,[12] three Ethiopian men charged the cockpit and hijacked the aircraft after taking an axe and a fire extinguisher from the cockpit. According to a special report, "One of the men ran down the aisle toward the cockpit, shouting statements that could not be understood, and his two accomplices followed soon after." The report described the men as "young (mid-twenties), inexperienced, psychologically fragile, and intoxicated."[12] Ethiopian state-operated radio later identified the hijackers as two unemployed high-school graduates and a nurse; their names were Alemayehu Bekeli Belayneh, Mathias Solomon Belay, and Sultan Ali Hussein (they did not say who had which description).[13]

The men threatened to blow the plane up in flight if the pilots did not obey their demands. After forcing Yonas into the cabin, they announced over the intercom that they were opponents of the Ethiopian government seeking political asylum, having recently been released from prison.[12] The hijackers said that there were eleven of them when in fact there were only three.[11] Over the intercom, they declared in Amharic, French and English that if anyone tried to interfere, they had a bomb and they would use it to blow up the plane.[11][12] Authorities later determined that the purported bomb was actually a covered bottle of liquor.[12][14]

The hijackers demanded the plane to be flown to Australia.[4][12] Leul tried to explain they had only taken on the fuel needed for the scheduled flight and thus could not even make a quarter of the journey, but the hijackers did not believe him.[11] They had been reading the in-flight magazine stating that the 767 could make the trip on a full tank and the plane had been refueled at its last stopover as well as the maximum flying time of the airplane; 11 hours.[citation needed]

Instead of flying towards Australia, the captain followed the African coastline. The hijackers noticed that land was still visible and forced the pilot to steer east. Leul secretly headed for the Comoro Islands, which lie midway between Madagascar and the African mainland.[11]

Crash landing[edit]

Sequence showing the ditching of the aircraft.

The plane was nearly out of fuel as it approached the island group, but the hijackers continued to ignore the captain's warnings. Out of options, Leul began to circle the area, hoping to land the plane at the Comoros' main airport. This forced Leul to land at more than 175 knots (324 km/h; 201 mph).[11]

Leul tried to make an emergency landing at Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport on Grande Comore, but a fight with the hijackers at the last minute caused him to lose his visual point of reference, leaving him unable to locate the airport. While still fighting with the hijackers, he tried to ditch the aircraft in shallow waters 500 yards (457 m) off Le Galawa Beach Hotel, near Mitsamiouli at the northern end of Grande Comore island. Leul attempted to land parallel with the waves instead of against the waves in an effort to smooth the landing. Seconds prior to contacting the water the aircraft was banked left some ten degrees;[5] the left engine and wingtip struck the water first. The engine acted as a scoop and struck a coral reef, slowing that side of the aircraft quickly, causing the Boeing 767 to violently spin left and break apart. Except for the rear part of the airframe, the broken portions of the fuselage sank rapidly.[5] Island residents and tourists, including a group of scuba divers and some French doctors on vacation, came to the aid of crash survivors.[7][11]

Many passengers died because they inflated their life jackets in the cabin,[12][14] causing them to be trapped inside by the rising water. This led to future notices about not inflating the vests before exiting the plane.[citation needed]

A tourist recorded a video of ET-AIZ crashing. She said that she had begun taping because she initially believed that the 767 formed a part of an air show for tourists.[15]

Fate of the passengers and crew[edit]

The passengers originated from the following countries:[16]

Nationality Number on board Survivors
 Austria Unknown Unknown
 Cameroon Unknown Unknown
 Canada Unknown Unknown
 Republic of the Congo Unknown Unknown
 Ethiopia Unknown Unknown
 France 4[17] Unknown
 Germany Unknown Unknown
 Hungary 1[17] Unknown
 India 19 Unknown
 Israel 8[3][17] 1[18]
 Italy 4[19] 4[20][21]
 Japan[22] Unknown At least 1[23]
 Kenya Unknown Unknown
 Lesotho Unknown Unknown
 Nigeria Unknown Unknown
 Somalia Unknown Unknown
 South Korea Unknown Unknown
 Sri Lanka Unknown Unknown
 Sweden Unknown Unknown
  Switzerland Unknown Unknown
 Uganda Unknown Unknown
 Ukraine Unknown Unknown
 United Kingdom 7 At least 2[17][24]
 United States 4 3[17][23]
 Yemen Unknown Unknown
Total 125 50

Of the passengers, 42 boarded in Bombay, including:[17]

  • Three Americans
  • Nine Nigerians
  • Nine Sri Lankans
  • 19 Indians

The rest of the passengers boarded in Addis Ababa.

One hundred and twenty-five of the 175 passengers and crew members were killed, as well as all three hijackers. Many of the passengers who died survived the initial crash, but they had disregarded or did not hear Leul's warning not to inflate their life jackets inside the aircraft, causing them to be pushed against the ceiling of the fuselage by the inflated life jackets when water flooded in. Unable to escape, they drowned. An estimated 60 to 80 passengers, strapped to their seats, presumably drowned.[3][25]

Leul and Yonas both survived. For his actions, Leul was awarded the Flight Safety Foundation Professionalism in Flight Safety Award.[26]

Notable passengers[edit]

Among those killed was Mohamed Amin, a wartime photojournalist and publisher of Selamta, Ethiopian Airlines' in-flight magazine.[27] He was believed to be standing near the entrance to the cockpit arguing and negotiating with the hijacker presumed to be guarding the cockpit during the final moments of the flight. Brian Tetley, Amin's colleague, also died.[28]

CIA officer Leslianne Shedd, who was posted to Ethiopia, died in the crash. At the CIA's 2012 Annual Memorial Ceremony to Honor Fallen Colleagues, the Agency recalled survivors of the crash telling the CIA that "Leslianne...spent her final moments comforting those around her."[29]

Franklin Huddle, the U.S. Consul General of Bombay at the time, and his wife Chanya "Pom" Huddle both survived the crash.[23] Huddle said that he chose to fly on Ethiopian Airlines while planning a safari trip to Kenya because of the airline's reputation. Huddle said in an interview that Ethiopian Airlines was one of two in Africa to have Federal Aviation Administration certification. Huddle wanted a flight during the day, reasoning that flying during the day was "safer."[11] Huddle credited his and his wife's survival to a last-minute upgrade to business class.[30]

Other passengers who perished on the aircraft included Lt.Gen.(Ret.) Antal Annus, the Hungarian ambassador to Kenya[16] and a French foreign ministry official.[31]


The incident has become a well-known hijacking because of the videotape.[15] This was one of very few large airliner water landings, and was the first hijacked water landing. Both the captain and first officer of the flight received aviation awards, and both continued to fly for Ethiopian Airlines.[11]

In the media[edit]

The crash was featured in three episodes of Mayday (Air Emergency, Air Crash Investigation). The first appearance was in season 1 to explain what might have happened if Air Transat Flight 236 had ditched instead of landing in a nearby airport. In season 3, an episode ("Ocean Landing") covered the events of Flight 961 in detail. Most recently, it featured in the season 10 episode covering US Airways Flight 1549, to explain the risks of that crew's decision to ditch in the Hudson River. It was also featured in a 2010 episode of the Biography Channel series I Survived..., in which a survivor told his story of what happened on the plane.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In 1990, the Guangzhou Baiyun aircraft collision resulted in 128 fatalities,[6] yet the event involved three aircraft, one of them a hijacked one.
  2. ^ The Airbus A320 involved in US Airways Flight 1549 was a narrow-body aircraft, not a wide-body aircraft.


  1. ^ "1996 spawns worst-ever accident totals". Flightglobal. Flight International. 15 January 1997. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012. "The 23 November 1996, hijack of an Ethiopian Airlines 767 resulted in the death of 128 people when the pilots were forced to ditch the aircraft near the Comoros Islands." 
  2. ^ "Terror Aloft, Death at Sea". The New York Times. 1 December 1996. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c "Plane is hijacked; crashes in Ocean off east Africa". The New York Times. 24 November 1996. Archived from the original on 4 March 2014.  Archived 25 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b c Hijacking description at the Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved on 24 May 2011.
  5. ^ a b c "Ethiopian hijacking results in worst-ever fatalities". Flight International: 8. 4 December 1996 – 1996-12-10. Archived from the original on 1 September 2012. Retrieved 1 September 2012. 
  6. ^ "Corrections". The New York Times. 27 November 1996. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Lendon, Brad (16 January 2009). "Previous jet ditchings yielded survival lessons". CNN. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c "Boeing 767 – MSN 23916". Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 3 January 2012. 
  9. ^ "Accident information : Boeing 767 Ethiopian Airlines ET-AIZ". Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 3 January 2012. 
  10. ^ "Ethiopian Airlines B767(ET-AIZ) Aircraft Accident in the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros, in the Indian Oceanon November 23, 1996". Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority. 4 May 1998. Archived from the original on 27 March 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i "African Hijack"/"Ocean Landing," Mayday series', season 3, episode 13
  12. ^ a b c d e f g "Special Report: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961". Archived from the original on 23 September 2012. Retrieved 23 September 2012. 
  13. ^ "Government Names Ethiopian Airlines Hijackers". Minnesota Daily. 5 December 1996. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012. "Two unemployed high school graduates and a nurse were identified Wednesday as the hijackers of a jet that crashed off the Comoros Islands last month... The Ethiopian men were identified as Alemayehu Bekeli Belayneh, Mathias Solomon Belay and Sultan Ali Hussein. Officials did not say which was the nurse or how old they were." 
  14. ^ a b Blomfield, Adrian (25 January 2010). "Beirut: 90 feared dead as Ethiopian Airlines plane crashes into Mediterranean". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  15. ^ a b "Honeymooners capture dramatic images of Ethiopian jet crash," CNN (via Archive.Org)
  16. ^ a b Cohen, Tom (25 November 1995). "I was sinking fast . . . I had to get out". The Independent. Associated Press. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f McNeil Jr., Donald G. (25 November 1996). "Terror in the Air, and Frantic Rescue From the Sea". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 8 January 2014. 
  18. ^ Levin, Lital (24 November 2011). "Today before, Search after Ethiopian plane crash survivors". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 12 March 2014. Retrieved 10 March 2014. 
  19. ^ "Un miracolo per i due diplomatici a bordo," Corriere della Sera. 24 November 1996. Retrieved on 23 December 2013. Archived 24 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Il boato, poi la morte in faccia," Corriere della Sera. 25 November 1996. Retrieved on 23 December 2013. Archived 24 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ "Italiana superstite ha una lesione vertebrale. E' testimone di Geova, rifiuta trasfusioni," Corriere della Sera. 26 November 1996. Retrieved on 23 December 2013.
  22. ^ "Ethiopia mourns crash victims," CNN. 25 November 1996. Retrieved on 24 November 2009.
  23. ^ a b c "'I Thought I Had Finished My Life' – Tale Depicts Drunken Abductors Who Fought With Pilot – Survivors Tell of Terror As Jetliner Tumbles Across Ocean's Surface". The Seattle Times. 25 November 1996. Archived from the original on 25 September 2013. 
  24. ^ "British woman swam from hijack plane". The Independent (HighBeam). 25 November 1996. Archived from the original on 23 November 2012. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  25. ^ "Ethiopian airline crash kills at least 50". Moroni: CNN. 23 November 1996. Archived from the original on 21 September 2012. Retrieved 21 September 2012. 
  26. ^ "Flight Safety Foundation Award in Flight Professionalism". Flight Safety Foundation. Archived from the original on 21 May 2013. Retrieved 8 October 2009. 
  27. ^ Episode Seven, Mo & Me: Part 1, Part 2
  28. ^ "Mohamed Amin, 53, Camera Eye During the Famine in Ethiopia". The New York Times. 26 November 1996. Archived from the original on 1 September 2012. Retrieved 1 September 2012. 
  29. ^ "CIA Holds Annual Memorial Ceremony to Honor Fallen Colleagues" (Press release). Central Intelligence Agency. 22 May 2012. Archived from the original on 25 May 2012. Retrieved 25 May 2012. "Leslianne Shedd was serving a highly successful tour in Ethiopia when, in November 1996, hijackers forced down her plane over the Indian Ocean, killing over 125 people. Survivors of that flight tell us that Leslianne—an outstanding young woman—spent her final moments comforting those around her." 
  30. ^ "No Resting Place," Brown University Alumni Magazine
  31. ^ "Bizarre ordeal recounted in Ethiopian Airlines crash". Moroni: CNN. 24 November 1996. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 25 August 2012. 
  32. ^ "37 – Franklin/Jeff and Frank/Connie". Archived from the original on 2 September 2012. Retrieved January 2013. 

External links[edit]