Report: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961
On November 23, 1996, an
Ethiopian Airlines B-767 aircraft en route from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to
Nairobi, Kenya, was hijacked by three Ethiopian males. The aircraft carried
163 passengers and 12 crew members from over 35 nations. The hijacking occurred
at approximately 11:20 a.m. (zulu) in Ethiopian airspace. Approximately 20
minutes into the flight, the three Ethiopian males separately approached
the cockpit from the rear of the aircraft. At least two of them had been
in the lavatory before the aircraft took off. 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 hijackers were described
as young (mid-twenties), inexperienced, psychologically fragile, and intoxicated.
They were clean shaven and dressed in Western clothes, and one wore a black
stocking cap which covered his face.
|The broken wing of Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 ET-AIZ rests in the shallow water off Moroni, Comoros Islands in this 1996 file photo. (File Photo/AP)
When the three men reached the cockpit, one or more forced their way in.
After 15 minutes, the co-pilot had been beaten and forced from the flight
deck. The hijackers were armed with a fire extinguisher and small fire ax,
and they threatened to blow up the plane with a bomb. The hijackers announced
on the intercom in Amharic, French, and broken English that they were "opponents"
of the Ethiopian government seeking political asylum and had recently been
released from prison. They stated they were changing the direction of the
aircraft and threatened to blow it up if interfered with. It was later discovered
that their "bomb" was a covered, unopened bottle of liquor.
The hijackers instructed the pilot to fly to Australia at an altitude of
39,000 feet, saying they knew that the aircraft could reach that destination
since it could fly 11 hours. During the course of the hijacking, however,
arguments erupted as the pilot tried to convince the three men that the plane
was running out of fuel.
Two of the hijackers remained in the cockpit, while the third man was posted
outside the door. During the four-hour ordeal, the hijackers were primarily
interested in keeping firm control of the cockpit area, and they never returned
to other sections of the aircraft. Occasionally, however, the two men in
the cockpit met with their accomplice. The hijackers appeared uninterested
in the passengers as long as they kept away from the cockpit. No interaction
existed between the hijackers and passengers; passports, identity papers,
or nationalities were not requested. The mood of the hijacking was unusual
in that the passengers carried on their normal activities of eating, reading,
sleeping, and conversing quietly without interference.
The passengers had the impression that the hijackers were unprepared and
not well rehearsed. The consensus among the passengers was that an assault
against the hijackers would be safer when the aircraft landed for refueling
rather than in flight because of the risk of provoking the three men to detonate
the explosive device. Escaping out the emergency exits once the aircraft
had landed to refuel was also part of the passengers' planning. Overall,
the passengers were calm; however, they were unaware of arguments between
the pilot and the hijackers regarding the aircraft's destination and dwindling
fuel reserves. The passengers, furthermore, had no idea of the direction
of the aircraft and only guessed it had taken a southern route to eastern
The pilot was flying south along the east coast of Africa instead of east
over the Indian Ocean toward Australia as instructed by the hijackers. Three
and one-half hours into the flight, one engine ran out of fuel and stopped,
causing the aircraft to drop from 39,000 to 25,000 feet. Upon realizing that
their instructions had not been followed, the hijackers reacted strongly
by threatening the pilot, who thought the hijackers would detonate the explosive
device or take some other extreme action. The pilot then made the first of
only two communications to the passengers during the ordeal, informing them
of the fuel shortage and the loss of an engine. His further instructions
were to maintain calm and prepare for an emergency landing by securely putting
on, but not inflating, life jackets.
The reaction of the passengers to these instructions ranged from calm to
panic. In the business class section, the search for life jackets was initiated
by a passenger. While the flight attendants assisted those who were distraught,
the passenger located the life jackets in an unmarked metal box Iying between
the seats and assisted in distributing them.
The plane continued to lose altitude and began to sway. A few passengers
stood up motioning an intent to confront the hijackers, but the rest of the
passengers urged against the action. Much of this time was consumed by
instructions being exchanged between passengers and crew on proper use of
the life jackets. Despite the crew's instructions, sounds of life jackets
being inflated could be heard throughout of the aircraft.
Soon after his first communication to the passengers, the pilot make his
second and final announcement instructing passengers to assume a pre-crash
position. This involved their bending forward with pillows on their heads
in order to brace for a hard landing. The passengers' reactions were the
same as earlier, varying from calm to panic. At least one flight attendant
prayed on the floor, and a father held three children in his lap. One physically
large passenger again urged that the hijackers be attacked, but the consensus
among other passengers remained that such action would result in everyone's
death. The pilot signed off by stating that the passengers knew the hijackers
were responsible and implied that if the hijackers survived, the passengers
would be able to identify them.
By now, the aircraft had run out of fuel, the second engine had stopped,
and the plane continued to lose altitude. Electricity was out and the cabin
became dark and quiet. The plane was approaching the Comoros Islands. The
pilot had been given clearance to land at Moroni Airport, Grand Comoro, but
he knew the plane would not reach it. He tried to land the plane in the water
near the Galawa seaside resort. The hijackers, however, realizing that they
had failed, attempted to take control of the instruments. They wanted to
turn the hijacking into a suicide mission by crashing into the resort. The
struggle in the cockpit between the pilot and a hijacker was evident as the
aircraft, gliding at 200 miles per hour without flaps down, approached the
water. Presumably, a wing tip skimmed the water, which caused the plane to
overturn at least once and break into three segments. The plane crashed 500
yards from the resort and 16 miles from Moroni Airport; 123 of the 175 passengers
and crew died. The majority of the survivors were hanging on to the fuselage
section, which was floating; the rear section of the plane was submerged.
Many victims were killed as a direct result of the impact, or they drowned
because their inflated life jackets prevented them from swimming out of the
water-filled fuselage. The pilot and copilot survived but the hijackers did
not. Two suspects were initially detained but were not identified by the
survivors as the hijackers and were released.
Several boats and small vessels were immediately sent from the resort to
the crash site. The resort's open air restaurant was turned into a triage
station staffed by ten vacationing French and South African doctors, and
patients were later sent to Moroni Hospital. Looting of the wreckage and
victims by some locals also took place.
Flight 961 was one of the deadliest hijackings in history. From 1990-1995,
ten hijackings took place in Ethiopia by Ethiopians seeking political asylum
and escape from poverty conditions in their country. However, only one injury
resulted from these hijackings, and all the hijackers surrendered to authorities
when the incidents were safely over. Flight 961 is significant in that it
validates a continued threat to civil aviation in a region where air carrier
activity has increased substantially in recent years. The threat against
air carriers in the area is also heightened by the hijackers' change to lethal
tactics not demonstrated in previous incidents.