Pilot of plane hit by explosion describes unfolding scene

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The pilot of a passenger plane that was damaged in an explosion and fire over Somalia described on Wednesday how the crew jumped into action to fly the plane back to Mogadishu airport and keep the passengers calm even as smoke enveloped the passenger cabin and wind rushed through a hole blown through the fuselage.

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In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Serbian captain Vlatko Vodopivec said he and others were told the explosion 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 happened at about 11,000 feet," Vodopivec said. "It was my first bomb; I hope it will be the last."

The 64-year-old has flown for several European and African companies in a long piloting career.

"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," he said, 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 UN 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.

"We were told one person was sucked out of the plane, but that is still not confirmed," he added.

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, and obtained by The Associated Press.

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.

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 in the Horn of Africa said they heard a loud bang that left a hole in the passenger cabin.

Awale Kullane, Somalia's deputy ambassador to the UN who was on board the flight, said on Facebook that he "heard a loud noise and couldn't see anything but smoke for a few seconds." When visibility returned they realized "quite a chunk" of the plane was missing, he wrote.

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 its Facebook page that the Airbus A321 plane was operated by Hermes Airlines. It said the plane "experienced an incident shortly after take-off."

"The Aircraft landed safely and all of our passengers were evacuated safely. A thorough investigation is being conducted by Somalia Civil Aviation Authority," the Daallo statement said.

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

Mohamed Hassan, a police officer in Balad, an agricultural town 30 kilometres north of Mogadishu, said residents had found the dead body of ay man who might have fallen from a plane.

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

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


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