ADDIS ABABA (Ethiopia) • The pilot of a Nairobi-bound Boeing 737 that crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa yesterday had alerted controllers that "he had difficulties" and wanted to turn back, the head of Ethiopian Airlines said.
In circumstances similar to last year's Lion Air crash in which the pilot also requested to return to the airport soon after take-off, chief executive officer Tewolde GebreMariam told reporters the pilot was given clearance to return to Addis Ababa.
Flight ET302 left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8.38am local time (1.38pm Singapore time) before losing contact with the control tower just a few minutes later at 8.44am. The plane crashed near the town of Bishoftu, 62km south-east of Addis Ababa, the airline said.
"There are no survivors," the airline tweeted, alongside a picture of Mr Tewolde holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site.
The plane was carrying 149 passengers and eight crew members.
The aircraft model - a Boeing 737 MAX 8 - was the same as that of the Indonesian Lion Air jet that crashed near Jakarta last October minutes after take-off, killing all 189 on board.
Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, Mr Tewolde said. The dead included Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British and Dutch citizens.
The crash came on the eve of a major annual assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme opening in Nairobi.
At Nairobi airport, many relatives of passengers were left waiting at the gate for hours, with no information from the airport authorities. Some learnt of the crash from journalists.
"We are just waiting for my mum. We are just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She is not picking up her phone," said Ms Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and weeping.
It was not clear what caused the crash. The new aircraft had no recorded technical problems, and the pilot had an excellent flying record, Mr Tewolde said at a media conference.
"We received the airplane on Nov 15, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning," he said.
The flight had unstable vertical speed after take-off, the flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted.
Boeing sent condolences to the families, and said it was ready to help investigate.
This is the second recent crash of the relatively new 737 MAX 8, the latest version of Boeing's workhorse narrow-body jet that first entered service in 2017.
The 737 is the world's best-selling modern passenger aircraft and one of the most reliable.
A preliminary report on last October's Lion Air crash focused on airline maintenance and training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor, but did not give a reason. Since then, the cockpit voice recorder has been recovered and a final report is due later this year.
Under international rules, responsibility for leading the crash investigation lies with Ethiopia, but the US National Transportation Safety Board will also participate because the plane was designed and built in the United States.
Ethiopian Airlines is one of the biggest carriers on the continent by fleet size.
The plane was among six of 30 Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets the rapidly expanding carrier has ordered. The fleet will continue flying since the cause of the crash is not clear, the CEO said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE