Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961
|Date||23 November 1996|
|Summary||Fuel exhaustion due to hijacking, water landing|
|Site||Grande Comore, Comoros|
|Passengers||163 (including 3 hijackers)|
|Fatalities||125 (including 3 hijackers)|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 767-260ER|
|Flight origin||Sahar International Airport
|1st stopover||Bole International Airport
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
|2nd stopover||Jomo Kenyatta Int'l Airport
|3rd stopover||Maya-Maya Airport
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo
|Last stopover||Murtala Mohammed Int'l Airport
|Destination||Port Bouet Airport
Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, a Boeing 767-200ER, was hijacked on 23 November 1996, en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on a Bombay–Addis Ababa–Nairobi–Brazzaville–Lagos–Abidjan service, by three Ethiopians seeking asylum in Australia. The plane crash-landed in the Indian Ocean near Grande Comore, Comoros Islands, due to fuel starvation; 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board died, along with the hijackers; the rest of the people on board survived with injuries.
At the time this incident took place, it was the deadliest hijacking involving a single aircraft.[nb 1] It fell to second place with the 11 September 2001 attacks. The incident is the only true[further explanation needed] water landing of a widebody airliner with survivors.[nb 2][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. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4E engines, it was delivered new to Ethiopian Airlines on 22 October 1987. Except for a short period between May 1991 and February 1992 when it was leased to Air Tanzania, the airplane spent its life in the Ethiopian Airlines fleet. 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.
When the aircraft, nicknamed Zulu by Ethiopian Airlines' pilots, was still flying over Ethiopian airspace, 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 Airdisaster.com 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." 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).
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. The hijackers said that there were eleven of them when in fact there were only three. 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. Authorities later determined that the purported bomb was actually a covered bottle of liquor.
The hijackers demanded the plane to be flown to Australia; as 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. 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.
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.
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).
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; 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. Island residents and tourists, including a group of scuba divers and some French doctors on vacation, came to the aid of crash survivors.
Many passengers died because they inflated their life jackets in the cabin, causing them to be trapped inside by the rising water. This led to future notices about not inflating the vests before exiting the plane.
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.
Fate of the passengers and crew
The passengers originated from the following countries:
|Nationality||Number on board||Survivors|
|Republic of the Congo||Unknown||Unknown|
|Japan||Unknown||At least 1|
|United Kingdom||7||At least 2|
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.
Leul and Yonas both survived. For his actions, Leul was awarded the Flight Safety Foundation Professionalism in Flight Safety Award.
Among those killed was Mohamed Amin, a wartime photojournalist and publisher of Selamta, Ethiopian Airlines' in-flight magazine. 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.
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."
Franklin Huddle, the U.S. Consul General of Bombay at the time, and his wife Chanya "Pom" Huddle both survived the crash. 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." Huddle credited his and his wife's survival to a last-minute upgrade to business class.
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.
In the media
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.
- Air Canada Flight 143
- Air Transat Flight 236
- Ethiopian Airlines accidents and incidents
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- List of notable accidents and incidents on commercial aircraft
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