Pilot in Beirut crash made ‘fast and strange turn,’ transport minister says

By Zeina Karam, AP
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pilot in Beirut crash made ‘fast and strange turn’

BEIRUT — The pilot of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight made a “fast and strange turn” minutes after takeoff from Beirut in a thunderstorm, Lebanon’s transportation minister said Tuesday, revealing new clues about the plane’s few minutes in flight.

The minister cautioned, however, against making any conclusions about the cause of the crash, saying it was far too early and investigators still need to find the black boxes.

All 90 people on board the plane bound for Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, were feared dead from the crash, which happened at around 2:30 a.m. Monday. A second day of rescue operations using sonar-equipped boats and divers turned up only a few body parts, extinguishing hope of finding any survivors.

Search teams scoured the sea floor trying to find the bulk of the wreckage as well as the black box and flight data recorder, which are critical to determining the cause of the crash.

Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi revealed that the plane flew in the opposite direction from the path recommended by the control tower after taking off in stormy weather.

He said the pilot initially followed the tower’s guidance, but then abruptly changed course and went in the opposite direction.

“They asked him to correct his path but he did a very fast and strange turn before disappearing completely from the radar,” Aridi told The Associated Press.

“Nobody is saying the pilot is to blame for not heeding orders,” Aridi said, adding: “There could have been many reasons for what happened. … Only the black box can tell.”

It was not clear why the pilot veered off the recommended path. 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 rather than following the flight tower’s recommendation.

Ethiopian Airlines said late Monday that the pilot had more than 20 years of experience.

Rescue teams and equipment sent from the U.N. and countries that included the United States and Cyprus were searching an area up to six miles (10 kilometers) out to sea. Conditions were chilly but relatively clear Tuesday — far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast.

Ethiopian Airlines Chief Executive Girma Wake said the American vessel that the U.S. Navy has dispatched to help in search operation is capable of lifting the plane’s fuselage from the water.

“When they lift it up, we hope they will find trapped bodies in the fuselage,” Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa.

By mid-afternoon, part of the wreckage and some life rafts were recovered from the area, the airline said.

Crews have pulled bodies from the sea; the numbers reported so far range from a dozen to more than 20. Several officials have revised their numbers, saying they miscounted.

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. A recovery team member, Safi Sultaneh, identified it as a piece of a wing.

Lebanese officials have said there is no indication of terrorism or “sabotage.”

A senior security official involved in the crash investigation said the black box would provide more definitive answers, but he noted that conditions including the weather are more likely culprits than anyone bringing the plane down on purpose.

“The probability of sabotage in these circumstances is much less than all other probabilities,” he said, asking for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

But experts said it was too early to rule out anything, even terrorism.

“Quite frankly you can’t say that at this stage,” aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said. “It’s a political statement at this point. You can’t rule out anything.”

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.”

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.

In the southern Lebanese village of Hanaway, hundreds of people gathered in the mansion of Hassan Tajeddine, 49, one of the few people whose bodies have been identified from the crash.

Tajeddine, a father of three boys and a girl, comes from a wealthy and influential Shiite family in southern Lebanon. Several prominent members of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group were attending the funeral.

“Why did they allow this plane to talk off?” asked Hussein Saad, the man’s uncle.

Tajeddine’s coffin was covered in black cloth with writings from the Muslim holy book.

At the Government Hospital in Beirut, the mood was somber Tuesday for families gathered outside hoping for news of loved ones.

“We don’t have much hope left,” said Adnan Bahr, a relative of 24-year-old Yasser al-Mahdi. “They’re all gone with the sea.”

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Bassem Mroue in Hamaway, Lebanon, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Katharine Houreld in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.

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