Wednesday 28 September 2016

Somalia plane pilot describes flight after explosion leaves hole in cabin

Published 03/02/2016 | 10:31

A gaping hole in the plane forced it to make an emergency landing at Mogadishu's international airport. (AP)
A gaping hole in the plane forced it to make an emergency landing at Mogadishu's international airport. (AP)

The pilot of a passenger plane that was damaged in an explosion from a suspected bomb over Somalia has described how the crew jumped into action to fly the plane back to Mogadishu airport.

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In an interview with The Associated Press, Serbian captain Vlatko Vodopivec said he and others were told the explosion that created a hole in the passenger cabin was caused by a bomb, though civil aviation authority officials said they had found no evidence so far of a criminal act in the blast on the Airbus 321 jetliner.

"It was my first bomb; I hope it will be the last," the pilot said. He said the blast happened when the plane was at around 11,000 feet.

"It would have been much worse if we were higher," he added.

Mohamed Hassan, a police officer in Balad, an agricultural town about 18 miles north of Mogadishu, said residents had found the dead body of a man who might have fallen from the plane.

Daallo Airlines said all passengers except one got off the plane safely. It previously said the plane carried 74 passengers.

Abdiwahid Omar, the director of Somalia's civil aviation authority, told the state-run Radio Mogadishu that authorities were not sure if the body found in Balad was the missing passenger.

A mobile phone video taken on board the plane pans from passengers, some wearing oxygen masks, in seats toward the back of the airliner in flight, and then swivels to the empty front area with a hole in the side of the cabin.

There is a loud sound of rushing air. The video was taken by Awale Kullane, Somalia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations.

The passengers at the back appear calm. A child wearing an oxygen mask attached to the overhead compartment sits quietly. Near the hole, oxygen masks dangle and sway from overhead compartments.

"When we heard a loud bang, the co-pilot went back to the cabin to inspect the damage and I took over the commands as the procedure demands," the pilot told AP, adding that the engines and hydraulics functioned normally so he had no problem flying the aircraft back to Mogadishu.

"Smoke came into the cockpit, but it was mostly concentrated in the back of the aircraft," he said. "The stewardesses did a great job calming down the passengers and following the emergency procedure."

He said the crew included an Italian co-pilot and two Greek, two Kenyan and one Bosnian flight attendant.

Investigators moved the plane from the runway to a private hangar. Foreign technical experts were involved in the inquiry, said Ali Mohamoud, an aviation official at the Mogadishu airport.

Two passengers on board the flight that was headed to Djibouti said they heard a loud bang that left a hole in the passenger cabin.

Mr Kullane, who recorded the video, said on Facebook that he "heard a loud noise and couldn't see anything but smoke for a few seconds". When visibility returned he realised "a chunk" of the plane was missing.

"I think for the first few seconds and minutes ... I was terrified and most people were terrified," he later said. "Of course we give credit to the pilot who landed that plane."

An official investigation is under way and a preliminary report will be issued later this week, officials said.

Daallo Airlines said in a brief statement posted on Facebook that the Airbus A321 was operated by Hermes Airlines.

Hermes Airlines is based in Athens. Its main business is providing planes on a "wet lease" basis, meaning it leases insured planes staffed and serviced by its crew to other carriers. Hermes' fleet includes four A321s, one Airbus A320 and one Boeing 737, according to its website.

Somalia faces an insurgency perpetrated by the Somali Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, which is responsible for many deadly attacks across the nation.

Press Association

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