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The mystery of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409

By Charles Bremner | TimesOnline

Stormy weather or sabotage are being cited in the aviation world as possible factors in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 409 off Beirut.

There is no evidence yet to suggest what caused the modern Boeing 737-800 airliner to hit the Mediterranean minutes after take-off. But attention focused on powerful thunder storms in the area and the possibility that an explosion could have caused the sudden end to the flight.

The crew were talking to the area “departure control” which was handling their flight when their transmissions stopped. This could mean that the aircraft suddenly broke up or that the crew were too busy handling an emergency to transmit a message.

The airport was under heavy rain and a line of thunderstorms were positioned off the coast, along the route of the Boeing as it climbed out of Beirut. The pilots would normally avoid the violent “cells” in the cumulonimbus thunder clouds, but these have brought down airliners in the past.

Most recently, in May 2007, a Kenyan Airways Boeing 737 crashed after a night take off in thunderstorms and heavy rain from Douala, Cameroon, killing all 114 on board. The cause of the crash has still not been determined, but the bad weather is thought by experts to have played a big role.

The explosive turbulence inside a cumulonimbus can upset even the biggest airliners. Such storms were an element in the crash last June 1 of Air France flight 447 off Brazil, according to the preliminary findings.

Lightning strikes are not normally a danger to airliners but dense rain can occasionally cause jet engines to “flame out” and stop. In this case, the crew would normally report their predicament to controllers, telling them that they were gliding and attempting to restart.

It is too early to rule out sabotage, as the Lebanese Government did, unless it holds information that it has not released.

If the pilots did not reported any problem, an explosive or other foul play cannot be excluded, aviation experts said. Speculation over possible sabotage or terrorism is natural, given Beirut’s position in the Middle East and Ethiopia’s support for the government of Somalia in its conflict with Islamist insurgents.

Eye-witness reports of a mid-air explosion should not be taken at face value. Such reports are common whenever a night-time crash is witnessed. The usual reason is the much higher speed of light than sound. The witness sees the fire of a distant crash before the noise, giving the false impression of preceding it.

Simple pilot error has sometimes caused airliners to crash after night take-off.

In January 2004, an Egyptian Boeing 737 hit the Red Sea shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all the 148 aboard, most of them French tourists. It was found that the automatic pilot was not connected and the pilots, flying in pitch dark, let the aircraft fly almost on to its back before they lost control.

Ethiopian Airlines is viewed as one of the best on the African continent and the Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most reliable aircraft. The last fatal incident involving the airline was in November 1996. A hijacked Boeing 767 crashed-landed off the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel. Fifty of the 175 people aboard survived.

The Boeing 737 has been manufactured since 1967 with over 6,000 aircraft delivered. On average there are 1,250 737s airborne at any given time.

14 thoughts on “The mystery of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409

  1. In my view all the comments are prelims. There seems a missing link in all of the stories I have read so far? Could it be some sort of sabotage due to EAL success?
    Let us wait and see

  2. Considering the 20 years of experience of flying various types of aircarfts the pilot is said to have, by the CEO of EAL, I also suspect more than pilot error, either terrorism (thanks to EPRDF, ethiopia has many enemies neighbouing it) or sabotage to be the reason for this horrific tragedy where our beautiful young sisters and others perished. Time will tell what went wrong!

    RIP, my sisters, the crew and all the other passengers of flight 409.

  3. I was the employee of Ethiopian Airlines and I am so proud of the pilots’ performance, the dependability of the maintenance and Engineering dept, and also the design future of the B737-7/8 airplanes. With all these positive ideas, my heart had broken with this mysterious event had happened to the beloved Airliner and innocent people onboard.
    With this dark information at an hand, it would be very difficult to speculate about the cause.
    But, why did the control tower let the airplane in to a challenging weather condition probably occurred in less than 10,000feets, where it is very difficult to take action?
    -Is the control tower ordered the pilot to change his course before or after entering to a bad weather or any other event?
    -How far was the airplane from the airport or how long had been flying when the control tower gave an order to change his course?
    -If the airplane had veered, was that from the command of the pilot’s, or it’s accidentally or inadvertent action?
    All these and other mysteries of this sad incident will be revealed after the CVR and the DFDR data analysis is completed.
    Last, I feel so sad about this accident, oh GOD please let the families and friends of those innocent passengers and crew members have patience and strength.

  4. This is event is more than mystery,I don’t know how could I express my feelings about that but I want to express my deepest grief of those people who lost their life in this bad incident.My God rest their soul in peace and give strength to their Family.
    I hope our Excellent Air Lines will proceed with its developments and progress!
    Long Live Ethiopia and Long live Ethiopian Air lines too!!!!

  5. Its quite unfortunate that this tragedy greeted our beloved airline early this new year. I strongly believe that terrorism cannot be ruled out in this ugly incident, but whatever is responsible, the deed had been done. All we have to say is RIP to the fallen brethren. I am a frequent flyer of Ethiopian airline and i know how careful they are with their airline business. May it never happen again forever in Jesus’ name …. Amen

  6. Its very sad. I am Ethiopian, but I believe that the pilot made an error flying out at that time. It is the pilot who has the last say on whether to take off or not in times of a storm and if he took off in a storm, he/she ought to take full responsibility for

    One has to wonder about where airplane safety stands in relation to operational profit. I wonder why the airline is keen on increasing dramatically its routes and operational flight frequencies, while at the same time complaining about losing its best pilots to better paying carriers.

    Its also sad to note that detailed biographies of the top brass at Ethiopian airlines is not readily available. I wonder what kind of qualifications they bring to the table. Big purchasing and operational flight decisions are being made – but at what cost?

  7. Based on aviation regulations and procedures, the pilot always has the final say on taking off, delaying or cancelling the flight. In this case, he decided to take off and the rest is history.

    The recording from the control tower proves that on take off, the controller tells the pilot to go left but he goes right. The controller again tells the pilot he should go left to avoid the storm but the pilot continues to turn right and suddenly the plane takes a sharp turn and looses contact.

    Lets see what information the blackbox holds.

    RIP all

  8. To the last 2 posters.

    As far as I know, the Air Traffice Control Tower has the last say regarding taking off or landing. I travel quite a lot around the world. One time, we were all boarded the plane, buckled all the seat belts, and the pilot was ready to take off. he already had announced all the usual stuff to the passengers. All of a sudden, the pilot had said the the Air Traffice Control Tower had stopped all the taking off and landing of the planes. I saw planes taking off minute before us, but, not when it was our turn, we were not allowed. And the pilot told us that the Traffic Control Tower advised that there will be a major thunder cloud on the path where we will take off. Once it is cleared, the Control Tower will advise. We, the passengers, and the crew were sitting on the plane for close to an hour. Finally, the Traffic Control Tower gave us a “GO”. I wondered why would the Beirut Airport Control Tower will have a different ways of doing things…

    I strongly disagree that pilot needs to be blamed. Ethiopian Airline pilots are very well trained.

    May all the victims rest in peace!

  9. It was an al quaeda job.

    4 reasons why:

    1. Bodys were found in their seats with a seat belt, but without heads and hands…
    Only an explosion can cause such thing.

    2. Eye witnesses saw explosions

    3. Ministry of health of lebanon accidentialy told about it to press.

    “The plane exploded during flight and the cabin, as well as the bodies were found dismembered.

    4. US didn’t want to admit it or talk about it, because the very same day it crashed 25.1, Obama made a speech about how al quaeda has become less powerful (to relax people about the Amsterdam failure flight)

    Really strange how the entire world tries to ignore this.

  10. From all appearances, the plane crashed because of severe weather. More pressing is the question WHY the pilots ignored the tower by flying into the storm rather than around it, as instructed? Almost seems suicidal, which wouldn’t be the first time for that either.


  11. Is it true that everyone of the crew in this doomed plane were weyanne cards? oh well, what do you expect when people are selected in such sensitive place of work based on ethnic affiliation?

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