The pilot of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 that crashed March 10 issued a distress call, according to the airline’s group CEO Tewolde Gebremariam.

"From the air traffic control records, the pilot said that he was having difficulties and wanted to return. He was given clearance to return to Addis," Gebremariam said, speaking at a press conference in Addis Ababa Sunday.

He added that the aircraft had arrived at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport on a flight from Johannesburg around 06:00am local time on Sunday. No maintenance problems had been reported with the aircraft. The aircraft was delivered to Ethiopian on Nov. 15 and had flown more than 1,000 hours with the airline.

The aircraft's captain was a senior pilot with more than 8,000 hours, the CEO said. He had worked with Ethiopian since July 2010, had been a captain on Boeing 737s since Nov. 2017 and had "an excellent flying record."

Gebremariam confirmed that the aircraft had taken off at 8.38am local time and had crashed just six minutes later.

Expressing his condolences, to the families and friends of those who died, he added: "Today is a very sad and tragic day for all of us at Ethiopian."

The accident is the second of a MAX 8 in less than five months following the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash near Jakarta in which all passengers and crew were killed.

The Ethiopian 737 MAX 8, registered ET-AVJ, was operating flight ET302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, when it crashed near to Bishoftu in Ethiopia. There were no survivors among the 157 people onboard, comprising eight crew and 149 passengers.

Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network identified the aircraft as serial number 62450 with CFM LEAP-1B engines. All MAXs are powered by the LEAP-1B, which was developed for the newer variant of the 737.

Flightradar24 data indicates the aircraft operated what looks like a normal climb and acceleration for the first minute of its flight. The aircraft then leveled off at around 8,150 ft. before descending slightly ET-EVJ reached a speed of close to 400 knots. Flightradar24 reports significant variation in vertical speed, although that data may be unreliable. Local weather reports indicate clear visibility and no weather issues.

The aircraft is one of Ethiopian’s five MAX 8s. It was the fourth -8 delivered to the airline and was handed over on Nov. 15, 2018. The aircraft has been in service since Nov. 17. when it made its first revenue flight to Dubai.

On March 9, the aircraft performed three flights from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa, back to Johannesburg plus the return service to its home base. Each flight lasted around five hours, according to Flightradar 24 data.

On March 8, the aircraft was scheduled to operate flights 2861 and 2860 to Pointe Noire and back, but both services were canceled for an unknown reason. The aircraft remained on the ground in Addis Ababa. Flight 302 was the first planned for March 10.

Ethiopian is one of the largest airlines in Africa and one of the few operating a hub connecting intra-African markets to its extensive long-haul network. The airline operates 23 Boeing 737s, 10 Airbus A350s, five Boeing 767-300ERs, 19 Boeing 777s (among them four -300ERs) and 22 Boeing 787s.

Ethiopian has placed an order for 25 MAXs beyond the five it had in its fleet. The airline also has 13 A350-900s, two 787-9s, one 777F and 10 Bombardier Q400s on firm order, according to the Aviation Week Network Fleet Discovery database.

The Lion Air aircraft, registered PK-LQP, was delivered to Lion Air two months before it crashed. All 189 people on board were killed when the aircraft crashed into the sea around 13 minutes after take-off.

PK-LQP had a maintenance history of unreliable speed data input over the previous days, but the aircraft was retained in scheduled service after it had been cleared for operations by the airline’s maintenance division. That crash investigation is ongoing. One of the aspects being looked at is the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) Boeing introduced on the MAX. That system is designed to prevent the aircraft from stalling.

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Victoria Moores victoria.moores@informa.com

Jens Flottau jens.flottau@aviationweek.com

Alan Dron alandron@adepteditorial.com