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Ethiopian Airlines crash news: What we know so far and what investigators will be looking for

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All 157 passengers and crew aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight died when the plane crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa, according to a company spokesperson.

The Boeing 737 lost contact six minutes after departure from Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital, heading for Nairobi.

What do we know about the accident?

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This was the first of four daily departures from Addis Ababa on the routine 721-mile, two-hour flight to Nairobi.

The Boeing 737 was due to depart from Addis Ababa at 8.15am local time (5.15am GMT). It took off at 8.38am and lost contact with controllers six minutes later. The plane crashed about 25 miles southeast of the airport near the town of Bishoftu.

The airline’s chief executive, who is at the crash site, confirmed there were no survivors. “He expresses his profound sympathy and condolences to the families and loved ones of passengers and crew who lost their lives in this tragic accident,” said the airline.

leftCreated with Sketch. rightCreated with Sketch.

What will investigators be looking for?

The two “black boxes” – the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, are likely to be recovered and analysed swiftly. 

The air crash investigators will be looking at every possible aspect: weather, mechanical problems, and whether any criminal act was involved either by someone on the aircraft or elsewhere.

The fact that Addis Ababa is a high-altitude airport, above 7,500ft, will be taken into account.

Flight path: the intended link between Addis Ababa (ADD) and Nairobi (NBO), also showing the approximate crash site at Bishoftu (HAHM) (Great Circle Mapper)

What about the plane involved?

The Boeing 737, in terms of sheer numbers built, is the most successful aircraft of all time. The plane has an excellent safety record overall.

This particular aircraft, registration number ET-AVJ, was only four months old. 

It was the most up-to-date MAX variant, the same as was involved in a Lion Air crash in October shortly after take-off from Jakarta airport in Indonesia with the loss of 189 lives.

What is different about the MAX variant?

Its engines are higher and further forward on the wing than earlier models. That shift has some aerodynamic consequences, so Boeing uses “Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System” software to increase safety.

If sensors detect a high “angle of attack” – the angle between the wing and the airflow – that could potentially cause the aircraft to stall, the software will automatically nudge the nose downwards, even if the pilots are flying manually rather than on autopilot.

Could the two crashes be connected?

Initial investigations into the Indonesian accident suggest pilots may have been struggling to overcome a nose-down deployment.

Shortly after the Indonesian accident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive describing a possible problem whereby if an incorrect “angle of attack” reading is received by the flight control system, it will respond by tilting the nose downwards.

This, said the FAA, “could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane, and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss, and possible impact with terrain”.

It remains to be seen whether this latest tragedy will raise similar questions.

Who flies the 737 MAX?

More than 350 have been delivered to airlines around the world, with the biggest fleets belonging to Southwest and American of the US, and Air Canada. Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget airline, has ordered 135 but none have been delivered yet.

Around 5,000 more are on order. Airlines are attracted by the improved fuel efficiency on an aircraft type that has proven to be popular with passengers.

How is Ethiopian Airlines regarded in aviation circles?

The airline is Africa’s leading carrier, with a well-run and profitable network and a good safety record. The Independent reported a year ago: “If you want to fly on the continent’s best airline, with the world’s most modern aircraft, then it has to be Ethiopian.

“During traumas from famine to revolution, the airline has managed to deliver those two elusive qualities: customer service and profit.”

The business model is to connect Africa with Europe, North America and Asia, and to provide high-quality links through its hub in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian Airlines’ maintenance standards are well regarded. It operates one of the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world, the Airbus A350, on the link between Heathrow and Addis Ababa.

It has recently expanded in the UK with a link from Manchester to the Ethiopian capital.

What about its safety record?

Compared with some other African airlines, Ethiopian has a good record. But since its foundation in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines has suffered a number of accidents and hijackings.

The worst event in recent decades was the hijacking of a Boeing 767 in 1996, when the aircraft ran out of fuel and ditched near a beach in the Comoro Islands. 

An Ethiopian Airlines 737 also crashed shortly after take-off from Beirut in 1990 with the loss of 90 lives.

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