Pilot Struggling with Hijacker Ditches off Beach (Comoros, 1996)

The media often unfavorably compare this ditching with the “Miracle on the Hudson,” described later in the chapter. They fail to point out that the Ethiopian pilot was fighting off a hijacker, had insufficient electrical power and thus only limited control of the aircraft, and had to cope with swell of the sea.

 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, November 23, 1996

In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 was seized by three hijackers, who thought that the range quoted in the in-flight magazine meant it could fly all the way to Australia, when in fact the pilots had only loaded enough fuel for the leg in question, which was a quarter of the distance.

They would not believe this was not possible and insisted on going on. In an impossible situation, the captain, Leul Abate, tried to keep within sight of the African coast, but the hijackers noticed this. Pretending he was complying and going out toward the open sea, the captain flew toward the Comoros Islands. The fuel was running out when they neared them, but this did not prevent the hijackers remonstrating with the pilots and preventing them from landing at the main airport.

Finally, with no fuel left and no engine power, they had to ditch in the sea just off a beach. The left wing and its engine touched the water first, and as a result the aircraft started to spin leftward and broke up. Of the 175 crew and passengers, only 48 survived. Premature inflation[i] of life jackets, despite a warning not to do so, was the cause of a number of fatalities.

[i] Besides their bulk making it more difficult for people to get out, prematurely inflated life jackets can cause the wearer to float upwards if the cabin fills with water resulting in their being trapped against the ceiling (or the floor if the aircraft is upside-down).

Ethiopian Airlines Ditching