Tuesday, January 26, 2010

UPDATE: Pilot in Beirut crash didnt follow tower advice

The pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the sea flew in the opposite direction from the path recommended by the control tower after taking off from Beirut in thunderstorms, Lebanon's transportation minister said Tuesday.

All 90 people on board were feared dead after the plane bound for the Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, went down in flames minutes after takeoff at around 2:30 a.m. Monday.

Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi said the pilot initially followed the tower's guidance, but then abruptly changed course and went in the opposite direction.

"They asked him to correct his path but he did a very fast and strange turn before disappearing completely from the radar," Aridi told The Associated Press.

It was not immediately clear why the pilot veered off the recommended path. Like most other airliners, the Boeing 737 is equipped with its own onboard weather radar, which the pilot may have used to avoid flying into thunderheads rather than following the flight tower's recommendation.

"Nobody is saying the pilot is to blame for not heeding orders," Aridi said, adding: "There could have been many reasons for what happened. ... Only the black box can tell."

Ethiopian Airlines Chief Executive Girma Wake said the Lebanese minister's comments were premature.

"Rushing remarks, I don't think that helps anybody," Wake said in Addis Ababa.

Lebanese officials have said there is no indication of terrorism or "sabotage."

A senior security official involved in the crash investigation said the black box would provide more definitive answers, but he noted that other factors -- including weather conditions -- are more likely culprits than anyone bringing the plane down on purpose.

"The probability of sabotage in these circumstances is much less than all other probabilities," he said, asking that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

No survivors had been found more than 24 hours after the crash. Emergency workers have pulled bodies from the sea; the numbers reported so far range from a dozen to more than 20. Several officials have revised their numbers, saying they miscounted.

"We hope they will find trapped bodies in the fuselage," Wake said.

The Lebanese army and witnesses say the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defense official also said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces.

Searchers were trying to find the plane's black box and flight data recorder, which are critical to determining the cause of the crash.

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