Pilot of plane hit by explosion describes unfolding scene

(AP) -- The pilot of a passenger plane that was damaged in an explosion from a suspected bomb over Somalia described on Wednesday how the crew jumped into action to fly the plane back to Mogadishu airport and keep the passengers calm as smoke enveloped the passenger cabin.



In a telephone 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 Wednesday they had found no evidence so far of a criminal act in Tuesday's blast aboard 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 (3,350 meters).



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



Mohamed Hassan, a police officer in Balad, an agricultural town 30 kilometers (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, but did not elaborate. It previously said the plane carried 74 passengers.



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



Cellphone video taken aboard 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 bunched in the back appear calm. A child wearing an oxygen mask attached to the overhead compartment sits quietly, a blanket covering the legs. 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 in a telephone interview from a U.N. military base in Mogadishu before he was to fly to Athens, Greece. "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.



Kullane, who shot the video aboard the plane, said on Facebook that he "heard a loud noise and couldn't see anything but smoke for a few seconds." When visibility returned he realized "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 underway 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.



On Dec. 11, 1994, a bomb blew a 2-foot (0.61-meter) hole in the floor leading to the cargo hold of a Philippine Airlines jetliner with 293 people aboard, but the pilot was able to make a safe emergency landing. One passenger was killed and 10 others were injured on the Manila-to-Japan flight.



The plane was flying at about 33,000 feet (10,058 meters) when the blast occurred. The flight landed about an hour later at Naha airport on Okinawa in southern Japan.



Ramzi Yousef, who was sentenced to life in prison for the Feb. 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, was convicted in the bombing of the Philippine Airlines flight.



___



Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia. AP writer Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.


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