Lebanese minister: Pilot in crash off Beirut coast did not heed control tower’s recommendation

By Zeina Karam, AP
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pilot in Beirut crash didn’t follow tower’s advice

BEIRUT — The pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the sea minutes after takeoff flew in the opposite direction from the path recommended by the Beirut control tower, Lebanon’s transportation minister said Tuesday.

All 90 people on board were feared dead after the plane went down in flames around at 2:30 a.m. Monday, during a night of lightning and thunderstorms.

Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi told The Associated Press that the tower had asked the pilot “to correct his path but he did a very fast and strange turn before disappearing completely from the radar.”

It was not clear why that happened or whether it was beyond the pilot’s control. Like most other airliners, the Boeing 737 is equipped with its own onboard weather radar which the pilot may have used to avoid flying into thunderheads.

Lebanese officials have ruled out terrorism or “sabotage.” The plane was headed to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

No survivors have been found more than 24 hours after the crash. Emergency workers have pulled bodies from the sea; the numbers reported so far range from a dozen to more than 20.

Searchers were trying to find the plane’s black box and flight data recorder, which are key to determining the cause of the crash.

On Tuesday, rescue teams and equipment sent from the U.N. and countries including the United States and Cyprus were helping in the search. Conditions were chilly but relatively clear — far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast.

Pieces of the plane and other debris were washing ashore, and emergency crews pulled a large piece of the plane, about 3 feet (1 meter) long, from the water.

An aviation analyst familiar with the investigation said Beirut air traffic control was guiding the Ethiopian flight through the thunderstorms for the first 2-3 minutes of its flight.

The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said this was standard procedure by Lebanese controllers to assist airliners departing from the airport in poor weather conditions.

It is unclear exactly what happened in the last 2 minutes of flight, the official said.

Patrick Smith, a U.S.-based airline pilot and aviation writer, said there were many possible causes for the crash.

“Had the plane encountered extreme turbulence, or had it suffered a powerful lightning strike that knocked out instruments while penetrating strong turbulence, then structural failure or loss of control, followed by an in-flight breakup, are possible causes.”

Ethiopian Airlines said late Monday that the pilot had more than 20 years of experience. It did not give the pilot’s name or details of other aircraft the pilot had flown. It said the recovered bodies included those of Ethiopians and Lebanese.

The Lebanese army and witnesses say the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defense official also said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces.

At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, was among those on board, according to the French Embassy.

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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