Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 After Being Hijacked <





Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 After Being Hijacked

By Mike Mitchell

On November 23, 1996 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was hijacked en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on a Bombay - Addis Ababa - Nairobi - Brazzaville - Lagos - Abidjan route, by three Ethiopians seeking political asylum. The plane crash-landed in the Indian Ocean near Comoros after running out of fuel, killing 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board. 

When ET-AIZ, the Boeing 767-260ER (nicknamed "Zulu" by Ethiopian Airlines pilots), entered Kenyan airspace, three Ethiopian men charged the cockpit and hijacked the airplane. According to a special report by, "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, named 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 out of the sky if the pilot, Leul Abate  and the co-pilot, Yonas Mekuria did not follow their demands, announcing 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. Authorities later determined that the bomb was actually a covered bottle of liquor.  

The hijackers demanded the plane be flown to Australia: the in-flight magazine stated the 767 could make the trip on a full tank and the plane had been refuelled at its last stopover. 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 Comoros's main airport. When the plane ran out of fuel, both engines failed. The crew used a ram air turbine to preserve the aircraft's most essential functions, but in this mode some hydraulic systems—such as the flaps—were inoperative. This forced Leul to land at more than 175 knots (about 320 kilometers per hour or 200 miles per hour).  

Leul tried to make an emergency landing on the airport at Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport, 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 metres off Le Galawa Beach Hotel near Mitsamiouli at the northern end of Grand Comoro island. Leul tried to land parallel with the waves instead of against the waves in an effort to smooth the landing. ET-AIZ's 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. Island residents and tourists, including a group of scuba divers and some French doctors on vacation, came to the aid of crash survivors.  

Flight 961 is an well-known example of why passengers must not inflate lifejackets until after exiting the plane. The pilot of Flight 961 had advised passengers to put on lifejackets but not inflate them. However, numerous nervous and panicking passengers did not heed the warning and inflated them while they were still in the fuselage. This meant that as the cabin flooded, they were pushed upward against the ceiling; making it impossible to dive and reach the exits, leaving them trapped inside the sinking fuselage. 

A tourist recorded a video of ET-AIZ crashing; she said that she began taping because she initially believed that the 767 aircraft formed a part of an air show for tourists. 

 ©AvStop Online Magazine                                                                 Contact Us                                                  Return To News


AvStop Aviation News and Resource Online Magazine

Grab this Headline Animator