Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961

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Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 is a Boeing 767-200ER that was hijacked by 3 Ethiopian hijackers. The hijackers forced Captain Leul Abate to fly to Australia when they were in route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. The aircraft, which most Ethiopian Airline pilots called "Zulu", ran out of fuel and crash-landed in the Indian Ocean near the Grande Comore, Comoros Islands. 125 of the 175 passenger and crew onboard died.

Aircraft and Crew


The aircraft was a Boeing 767-200ER, registration ET-AIZ. It had it's maiden flight on 17 September 1987. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4E engines and were delivered to Ethiopian Airlines on 22 October 1987. The aircraft was nine years old when the crash took place.


The crew onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 were Captain Leul Abate, aged 42, and First Officer Yonas Mekuria, aged 34. Leul was an experienced pilot with more than 11500 total flying hours 4,067 hours of them in the Boeing 757/767. He was the pilot-in-command. First Officer Yonas Mekuria had flown more than 6,500 hours, 3,042 of them in the Boeing 757/767.

Prior to the crash, Leul, The pilot-in-command, had been hijacked twice. The first one occurred on 12 April 1992 on Flight ETH574, a Boeing 727-260. Two hijackers with hand grenades forced the pilot to fly to Nirobi, then to Canada. After a 5-hour standout, the hijackers surrendered. The second one occurred on 17 March 1995, flying a Boeing 737-260. Five hijackers demanded to be taken to Libya, and the airplane was diverted to El Obeid, Sudan. The hijackers changed their minds and demanded to be taken to Sweden. But Sudanese authorities refused to refuel the aircraft, and after several hours of standoff the hijackers surrendered. In both cases, the aircraft were undamaged and nobody was injured or killed.



Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 was delayed so that they could wait for a connecting flight. The aircraft took off at 08:09 UTC.


Around 08:29 UTC, when the aircraft was still flying in the Ethiopian Airspace, 3 Ethiopian men carrying a fire extinguisher and an axe stormed the cockpit and hijacked the plane.

The hijackers, later recognized as Alemayehu Bekeli Belayneh, Mathias Solomon Belay, and Sultan Ali Hussein, threatened Captain Leul Abate that if he didn't obey their commands, they would blow up the plane in-flight. They told the captain that there were eleven of them when actually they only had three and hurt the first officer to forced him out. Over the intercom, they declared in Amharic, French and English that if anyone tried to interfere, they had a bomb and they would use it to blow up the plane. Authorities later determined that the bomb was acually just a covered bottle of liquor.

They then forced Leul to fly to Austraila. Leul tried to explain that their fuel they had left won't even go a quarter of the flight, and that they would crash into the ocean, but the hijackers pointed out in an in-flight magazine that the maximum flying hours of the Boeing 767 was eleven hours, and they only needed ten hours of fuel to get to Austraila.

Captain Leul Abate later commented:

      [The hijackers] knew they wouldn't make it to Australia - they just wanted us to crash. They should be dead. The way they were talking they didn't want to live.

Instead of flying straight to Australia, Captain Leul Abate followed the African coastline southward. The hijackers noticed that land was still visible and forced the pilot to steer east. Leul secretly headed for the Comoros Islands, which lie midway between Madagascar and the African mainland. During this time two of the hijackers went into the cabin, with the lead hijacker staying in the cockpit.

Crash Landing The plane was almost out of fuel as it approached the island group. But the hijackers continued to ignore the captain's warnings. Leul ran out of options and began circling the island group. He hoped that he could land at They will have to land at the Comoros' Main airport. This forced Leul to land at more than 175 knots (324 km/h; 201 mph).

At 11:41 UTC, the right engine of the 767 flamed out. The hijacker exited the cockpit to talk to the other hijackers. Leul took this opportunity to make use the aircraft's public address system and made the following announcement:

      Ladies and gentlemen this is your pilot, we have run out of fuel and we are losing one engine [at] this time, and we are expecting [a] crash landing and that is all I have to say. We have lost already one engine, and I ask all passengers to react..... to the hijackers....

Hearing this, the hijacker ran back in the cockpit and snatched Leul's microphone out of his hands. Shortly after this, the left engine also flamed out. This forced the 767 to glide. The Cockpit Voice recorder (CVR) then recorded the following (lowercase words were spoken in Amharic while words typed in uppercase were spoken in English):

      Leul: "For the sake of my responsibility AT LEAST the passengers must know the condition.
      Hijacker: "Descend it increase the speed further."
      Leul: "It doesn't have any difference. PLEASE. All the same. We are going to die. Why don't you- I thought there is no need to. For the passengers-"
      End of recording

Leul's sentence was cut off as the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) stopped working due to the loss of the two engines.

Leul tried to land at Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport on Grande Comore, but a fight with the hijacker made him lose visual point of reference, leaving him unable to locate the airport. While still fighting with the hijacker, he tried to ditch in shallow waters 500 yards (460 m; 1,500 ft) off Le Galawa Beach Hotel, near Mitsamiouli at the northern end of Grande Comore island. Leul tried to ditch parallel to the waves in an effort to smooth the ditch.

The Boeing 767-200ER ditched in the Indian Ocean near Grande Comore island. Captain Leul Abate knew the 767 would brake, so he tried to smooth the landing. Unluckily, the plane still broke apart in the oceans. 125 of the 175 passenger and crew onboard died.

Notable Deaths

Mohamed "Mo" Amin, a wartime photojournalist and publisher of Selamta, Ethiopian Airlines' in-flight magazine. He was believed to be standing near the entrance to the cockpit arguing or negotiating with the hijacker presumed to be guarding the cockpit during the final moments of the flight.

Brian Tetley, Mohamed Amin's colleague.

Leslianne Shedd, a CIA officer, who was posted to Ethiopia, died in the crash. At the CIA's 2012 Annual Memorial Ceremony to Honor Fallen Colleagues, the Agency recalled survivors of the crash telling the CIA that "Leslianne...spent her final moments comforting those around her."

Antal Annus, the Hungarian ambassador to Kenya at the time of the crash.