BEIRUT // The pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from Beirut flew in the opposite direction from the one recommended by the Beirut control tower, Lebanon's transportation minister said today. All 90 people on board were feared dead after the plane went down in flames around at 2.30am on Monday morning, during a night of lightning and thunderstorms. The transportation minister, Ghazi Aridi, said that the tower "asked him to correct his path but he did a very fast and strange turn before disappearing completely from the radar." It was not clear why that happened or whether it was beyond the pilot's control. Like most other aeroplanes, the Boeing 737 is equipped with its own onboard weather radar which the pilot could have used to avoid flying into thunderheads.
Lebanese officials have ruled out terrorism or "sabotage." The plane was headed to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. No survivors have been found more than 24 hours after the crash. Emergency workers have pulled bodies from the sea and the numbers reported so far range from a dozen to more than 20. Searchers were trying to find the plane's black box and flight data recorder, which are key to determining the cause of the crash.
The Lebanese army and witnesses say the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defence official said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces. An aviation analyst familiar with the investigation said Beirut air traffic control was guiding the Ethiopian flight through the thunderstorms for the first two to three minutes of its flight. The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said this was standard procedure by Lebanese controllers to assist planes departing from the airport in poor weather conditions.
It is unclear exactly what happened in the last two minutes of flight, the official said. Ethiopian Airlines said late yesterday that the pilot had more than 20 years of experience. It did not give the pilot's name or details of other aircraft the pilot had flown. It said the recovered bodies included those of Ethiopians and Lebanese. Rescue teams and equipment sent from the United Nations and countries including the United States and Cyprus were helping in the search today. Conditions were cold but relatively clear - far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast. Hours after the crash, pieces of the plane and other debris were washing ashore, including a baby sandal, passenger seats, a fire extinguisher, suitcases and bottles of medicine.
At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, was among those on board, according to the French embassy. Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said reports of fire could suggest "some cataclysmic failure of one of the engines" or that a bird or debris had been sucked into the engine. He noted that modern aircraft are built to withstand all but the foulest weather conditions.
"One wouldn't have thought that a nasty squall in and of itself would be the prime cause of an accident like this," said Mr Yates, an analyst based in Manchester, England. * AP