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Downed jet's pilot made 'fast and strange turn' after taking off from Beirut

BEIRUT — The pilot of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight made a "fast and strange turn" minutes after takeoff from Beirut in a thunderstorm, Lebanon's transportation minister said Tuesday, revealing new clues about the plane's few minutes in flight.

The minister cautioned, however, against making any conclusions about the cause of the crash, saying investigators still need to find the black boxes.

All 90 on board the plane bound for Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, were feared dead from the crash, which happened about 2:30 a.m. Monday. A second day of rescue operations using sonar-equipped boats and divers turned up only a few body parts, extinguishing hope of finding any survivors.

Search teams scoured the Mediterranean Sea floor trying to find the bulk of the wreckage as well as the black box and flight data recorder, which are critical to determining the cause of the crash.

Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi said the plane flew in the opposite direction from the path recommended by the control tower after taking off in stormy weather. He 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.

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

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.

Ethiopian Airlines said late Monday that the pilot had more than 20 years of experience.

Rescue teams and equipment sent from the United Nations and countries that included the United States and Cyprus were searching an area up to 6 miles out to sea. Conditions were chilly but relatively clear — far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast.

Downed jet's pilot made 'fast and strange turn' after taking off from Beirut 01/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 11:06pm]
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