(COLOMBO, LANKAPUVATH) – Aviation authorities have begun investigating how a new Boeing plane with an experienced pilot crashed minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board.
The destruction of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302, which was on its way to Nairobi, is the second calamity involving a Boeing 737 Max 8, a new model that experienced a similar accident in Indonesia in October.
The largest number of the victims were Kenyans. At least seven Britons were on the flight, which left Bole airport at 8.38am local time (5.38am GMT).
At least 19 people affiliated with the United Nations were among those killed, according to the UN migration agency chief. Many were delegates on their way to the UN environment assembly, which starts in Nairobi on Monday. Eighteen Canadians also died.
The pilot said he was experiencing technical problems and asked to return to the airport. The control tower lost contact with the aircraft at 8.44am. Wreckage was later discovered near the town of Bishoftu, 39 miles (62km) south-east of the Ethiopian capital.
The flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted that the plane had unstable vertical speed after takeoff.
The cause of the accident is not yet known. The Ethiopian Airlines chief executive, Tewolde GebreMariam, said routine maintenance had revealed no problems with the plane, and the captain Yared Getachew had flown more than 8,000 hours with an “excellent flying record”. The airline took delivery of the plane in November.
“As I said, it is a brand new airplane with no technical remarks, flown by a senior pilot and there is no cause that we can attribute at this time,” he told reporters.
Questions have been raised about the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8, which has been in commercial operation since 2016. The same model was involved in the Lion Air crash, where a jet plunged into the Java Sea soon after takeoff last year, killing 189 people.
More than 300 of these planes are in operation with different airlines. Ethiopian has six more. Asked whether they would be grounded, GebreMariam said no because “we don’t know the cause of the accident”.
Several airlines around the world fly the 737 Max 8. On Sunday night reports said China had asked its local airlines to temporarily ground the planes.
In a statement, the airline said it would conduct a forensic investigation in conjunction with officials from Boeing, the Ethiopian civil aviation authority, the Ethiopian transport authority other international bodies.
The plane contained passengers from more than 30 nationalities. According to the airline, Kenya had 32, Canada 18, Ethiopia nine, Italy, China and the US eight each, the UK and France seven each, Egypt six, the Netherlands five, India and Slovakia four each, Sweden and Russia three each and other countries one or two.
Sebastiano Tusa, 66, a renowned Italian archaeologist, was among those killed, the Italian government said. He had been flying to Kenya for a project with Unesco.
A Slovakian MP, Anton Hrnko, wrote on Facebook that his wife, son and daughter had all been killed in the crash. “It is with deep sorrow that I announce that my dear wife, Blanka, son Martin and daughter Michala, died in the air disaster in Addis Ababa this morning.”
Kenyan authorities offered support to families and friends waiting at Nairobi airport. The transport secretary, James Macharia, said they would be transported to an emergency centre at a nearby hotel. “It is a very sensitive emotional matter,” he said.