Wednesday 7 December 2016

Plane explodes minutes after taking off into storm

Robert Fisk in Beirut

Published 26/01/2010 | 05:00

ALL weekend it had been storming across Beirut, bringing the first snows to the mountains above the capital -- a near tempest of lightning and thunder that blasted across the seafront Corniche and the runways of the city's international airport.

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The Lebanese often wondered just how safe it was to fly out of their country in these winter storms.

And in the early hours of yesterday morning, their fears were given terrible expression when Ethiopian Airlines flight ET409 exploded in the sky less than five minutes after take-off.

All day, while helicopters and ships searched for bodies, the pitiful detritus of the disaster -- a baby's sandal, baggage, medicine bottles, and airline seats -- were thrown up on Naameh beach. There had been 90 passengers and crew aboard, and by yesterday afternoon there was no hope of finding any alive. Many saw the explosion that burst in the cloudy skies at 2.30am, a scar of sudden bright light on the horizon two miles out to sea.

Desolation

Within hours, Beirut airport became the inevitable scene of human desolation. Should the plane have taken off in such dreadful weather? And was this the fault of the flight deck crew, or of Beirut operations which had given the pilot clearance to take off?

In a world where suspicions of sabotage accompany any aircraft crash, there was no reason to suspect a criminal hand behind the tragedy.

The Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, said as much yesterday morning. Of the 34 bodies -- two of them children -- recovered from the sea, many are so dismembered that they will need DNA examinations to be identified. The passenger manifest included Ethiopians, Lebanese, British, Canadians, and French -- including Marla Pieton, the wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon -- Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish nationals.

From their relatives came awful tales: of the mother who pleaded with her son to delay travelling because of the weather, of parents who could not understand why a plane should take off into a thunderstorm.

But taking off from Beirut in bad weather has always been an unsettling experience. The location of the airport means that outbound airliners must fly out to sea immediately after leaving the ground. The usual take-off runway forces pilots to bank heavily to starboard and passengers can see the ocean immediately below the right wing.

In bad weather, the sight of massive waves and sea spray under the starboard wing tip is usually a little terrifying.

It normally takes more than 10 minutes to rise above the turbulence and flight ET409 exploded when it was still in cloud. Beirut has a first-class record in on-time takeoffs, so the question must be asked if controllers allowed this to overcome any doubts about the weather. But planes had been taking off into the same storm for more than 12 hours before the disaster. Yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited the airport to meet distraught relatives.

The last crash at Beirut airport was more than 20 years ago when a Polish freight aircraft crashed in the hills to the south-east. (© Independent News Service)

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