The captain of the August 15 Ethiopian Airlines flight during which he and his copilot fell asleep while en route from Khartoum in Sudan to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has resigned. His departure comes amid fallout from the incident, during which the Boeing 737-800 overflew its intended destination of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport while maintaining cruise altitude.
Addis Ababa Airport air traffic controllers tried to contact the crew repeatedly without success. After flying for 25 minutes beyond the runway, the 737’s autopilot disconnect alarm woke the crew, who then maneuvered the aircraft for a safe landing.
The captain is a Bolivian national who served with Ethiopian airlines for more than four years. The first officer is a young Nigerian who joined the airline last year after graduating from the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy.
Following the incident, Ethiopian Airlines management suspended both pilots. A committee established by the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority continues to investigate the incident. “We are undertaking investigations with technical support from the Ethiopian Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau,” a member of the committee told AIN. “We will soon finalize the report and submit it to the airline with safety recommendations.”
On August 20, the national airline announced that it had put the pilots on administrative leave. However, a senior executive of Ethiopian Airlines told AIN that management already has decided to terminate the contracts of both pilots. “But we have to wait for the investigation report,” he said. “It is a matter of procedure.”
After making a safe landing, the captain returned to Bolivia the same morning, boarding an Ethiopian Airlines connecting flight to Rio de Janeiro. Sources told AIN that the captain tendered his resignation via email. The committee formed by the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority interrogated the captain by telephone.
The young Nigerian first officer, who lives in Addis Ababa, submitted to an interview with investigators in person. He arrived in Addis Ababa the day before the flight in question from Kigali, Rwanda, some 15 hours before departing again to Khartoum. “He told us that he slept for five to six hours during the day,” a committee member told AIN.
“The captain had accrued even more off-duty hours before the Khartoum flight. “It was not clear what made them fall asleep, ” an official working at Ethiopian Airlines Flight Operations department said. “But this is not an isolated incident in the industry…[and] to avoid similar incidents we have issued an advisory note to our pilots. We will see the investigation report and implement the recommended precaution measures accordingly.”
Ethiopian Airlines employs more than 1,800 pilots, of which about 200 are expatriates from the U.S., South America, Europe, and a few from Nigeria. The largest airline in Africa, Ethiopian flies a young fleet of 120 aircraft including Boeing 787s, 777s, and 737s, Airbus A350-900s, and De Havilland Dash 8-400 turboprops. To meet the growing demand for pilots the airline hires mostly ex-pat captains. “We have an adequate number of first officers,” an airline official told AIN. “Since we have a shortage of captains we hire ex-pat captains. For the case of Nigerian first officers, we hired them to show our solidarity in forging a new partnership with the government of Nigeria for establishing a new national carrier in Nigeria.”
The Nigerian federal government recently selected Ethiopian Airlines as a strategic partner to jointly establish a new national carrier in the West African country.