“Zulu” was the nickname of a Boeing 757-260ER, serial number 23916, that flew for Ethiopian Airlines. Zulu’s last voyage occurred 17 years ago today, on November 23, 1996, and involves an almost unbelievable story of a terrorist plot gone horribly awry, and with spectacular but sad consequences.

The odyssey of Flight 961 began shortly after Zulu took off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya, one hop on a chain of flights ultimately terminating at Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Three men in their 20s stood up, seized a fire axe and a fire extinguisher from the wall near the cockpit, and began shouting at the passengers. All three were drunk. They burst into the cockpit and demanded that the pilot, Leul Abate, fly them to Australia. The three hijackers told Abate and the passengers (over the intercom) that they were dissidents from the Ethiopian government and wanted asylum in Australia. They said there were eight more hijackers aboard–although no one could see them–and if anyone tried to interfere they would detonate a bomb they’d brought on board.

There was just one problem: Flight 961 didn’t have nearly enough fuel for a trip to Australia. Abate told the hijackers this but they didn’t believe him. One of them had been reading in the in-flight magazine that a Boeing 757 could fly all of that distance with a full tank, and he believed the plane had been fully fueled in Addis Ababa. (It hadn’t–it’s customary for airliners to carry only the fuel they need for a given journey, which makes total sense). Abate pretended to comply, but actually flew along the African coastline, hoping to convince the hijackers to let him land in the Comoros Islands. Abate had some experience with this–he’d been hijacked twice before, in 1991 and 1995, and in both cases “talked down” the hijackers from their demands. Presumably the terrorists in those previous incidents had been sober, which the three men who took Flight 961 were not.

flight 961 two

This is what the Zulu aircraft looked like during the brief time it was owned by Air Tanzania, in 1991-92.

Four hours later Zulu was flying on fumes. One of the drunk hijackers noticed that they were still in sight of land, which they shouldn’t have been if they were indeed flying to Australia. Conflict broke out in the cockpit. One of the hijackers attacked the co-pilot with the axe. A hijacker grabbed the controls and tried to fly the plane himself. Flight 961 was then approaching the Comoros. The fight with the hijackers meant that Abate had lost his point of reference for the Comoros airport. As the plane ran out of fuel, both engines died. The flight was doomed to go down.

Abate and the co-pilot, injured and bleeding from the axe attack, managed to fight off the hijackers and grab the controls. By now Zulu was careening directly toward the ocean. Abate had to attempt a water landing at more than 200 miles an hour, which had never been done successfully. He ditched the plane in shallow water only 500 yards from a luxury tourist hotel. Zulu began to break apart after striking a coral reef. As soon as it slammed to a halt the fuselage began taking on water. Passengers with their life vests inflated were trapped in the cabin. A total of 125 people died. Fifty survived, including the pilots.

All three hijackers perished in the crash. There were only three of them, not eleven, and the “bomb” they threatened to detonate turned out to be a whiskey bottle wrapped in paper. In an interview given after the disaster Abate said he thought the hijackers intended to die and that their act of terrorism was a suicide pact. They turned out to be disaffected, unemployed Ethiopians, unconnected to any larger political or ideological cause.

A tourist at the hotel near where Flight 961 crashed recorded stunning video of the plane going into the water. Clips from this video are included in the excerpt below, some kind of show on air disasters. It’s pretty bizarre.

Although 125 people were killed, pilots Leul Abate and Yonas Mekuria were regarded as heroes for saving the lives of the survivors. They were both awarded medals. Both of them still fly for Ethiopian Airlines. Citizens of 25 countries were among the dead. One of the American survivors was the U.S. Consul General of Bombay, whose wife was aboard and also survived.

This incredible story is like something out of a movie, and a not very realistic one at that. But it really happened, and is a disaster that deserves to be remembered.

The image of “Zulu” flying for Air Tanzania was taken in 1991 by Torsten Maiwald and is used/relicensed under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.