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Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Nairobi crashes, all 157 on board killed

People gathered at the scene of the deadly Ethiopian Airlines plane crash, about 38 miles southeast of Bole International Airport on March 10. (Video: Reuters)
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ADDIS ABABA, Ethi­o­pia — A new Ethio­pian Airlines plane bound for Nairobi crashed Sunday, killing all 157 people on board, including eight Americans and 18 Canadians.

The recently acquired aircraft was the same Boeing 737 Max 8 model that was involved in a crash in Indonesia in October. The preliminary investigation into the October crash focused on a malfunctioning sensor and computer system that pushed down the plane’s nose.

Data from the Ethio­pian Airlines crash appears to show a similar erratic flight path, with the plane first ascending, then descending, then ascending sharply before it fell from the sky.

According to Ethio­pian Airlines’ chief executive, Tewolde GebreMariam, the flight took off at 8:38 a.m. and lost contact with air traffic control six minutes later, crashing near Bishoftu, less than 40 miles southeast of Addis Ababa.

A new Ethio­pian airlines plane bound for Nairobi crashed March 10, killing all 157 people on board. (Video: Reuters)

“The pilot mentioned he had difficulty and he wanted to return, so he was given clearance to Addis,” GebreMariam said.

“It is a brand new airplane, it had no technical remarks and was flown by a senior pilot, and there is no cause we can see at this time,” he added, saying the plane was only four months old, had flown 1,200 hours and had arrived from Johannesburg that morning.

The pilot has been identified as Yared Getachew, 28, of Addis Ababa. According to a statement issued by relatives in Northern Virginia, Getachew had 8,000 hours of flight time and was the youngest pilot in Ethio­pian Airlines history to captain a Boeing 737.

GebreMariam would not speculate on the causes of the crash and said the investigation would involve Ethiopia’s civil aviation authority, representatives of Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Flight data viewed by The Washington Post shows the flight getting into trouble almost immediately after departure. A normal takeoff for most passenger jets involves a steady climb to about a thousand feet, followed by an accelerating climb. However, on this flight, a minute and a half after its takeoff, the plane inexplicably began to descend — for nearly a minute — before climbing again.

During that time, the plane’s speed kept increasing to what is far above normal for that phase of a takeoff. The plane underwent a sharp pull up — 600 feet in just 10 seconds — and was flying at 380 nautical miles per hour, when about 270 would be closer to normal.

Three minutes later, it crashed.

The victims included people of more than 30 nationalities, including 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians, eight Italians, eight Americans and seven Britons, as well as four people who held passports of the United Nations. Among the dead was Cedric Asiavugwa, a third-year student at Georgetown University Law Center and a member of the school’s campus ministry.

The airline set up emergency hotline numbers for families and friends of victims and changed the cover image on its Facebook page to black.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the crash site and expressed his “profound sadness at the loss of life” and wished “healing to friends and families of the bereaved.” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also tweeted his condolences.

Ethio­pian Airlines announced the acquisition of the Max aircraft in July. Six others are in service to the airline, and GebreMariam said there are no plans to suspend their use.

The Max model is the newest version of Boeing’s workhorse 737, the world’s most popular commercial aircraft.

Boeing issues warning on potential instrument malfunction after Indonesia crash

Boeing issued a statement saying that it was “deeply saddened” about the crash, adding that a “Boeing technical team will be travelling to the crash site to provide technical assistance under the direction of the Ethiopia Accident Investigation Bureau and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.”

After the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency notice that an erroneous sensor input could “cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane,” leading to “possible impact with terrain.”

In that crash, a malfunctioning sensor convinced the airplane’s software that the flight was stalling and corrected by pointing the nose down.

Rescuers in January found the cockpit voice recorder from the Lion Air flight. Investigators have downloaded data from both of the aircraft’s data recorders — or black boxes — and are using it to aid in an ongoing investigation into what caused the crash.

The full investigation is expected to be completed later this year, probably in November, Indonesian officials say.

Ethio­pian Airlines is Africa’s largest airline in terms of destinations and passengers served. It has ambitions of serving as the gateway to Africa and is widely seen as one of the best managed airlines on the continent.

It serves more than 100 destinations, including Washington, New York and Chicago.

The airline’s last major crash was in 2010, when an aircraft caught fire and plunged into the Mediterranean after taking off from Beirut’s airport, killing all 90 people on board. Bad weather and a technical fault were cited.

Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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