The chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines has revealed the last messages between air traffic control and the pilot of the doomed flight right before it crashed, killing all 157 people on board.
Tewolde GebreMariam said the last communication to captain Yared Getachew was relayed at 8.44am, local time, the minute the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed in a field just six minutes after leaving the airport in Addis Ababa.
"According to the air traffic controller's recorded voice exchange, the pilot recorded flight control problems, so he was having difficulties with the flight control of the aeroplane," GebreMariam told CNN.
"He asked to return back to base, and clearance was given to him.
"That was at 8.44am, at the same time the aeroplane disappeared from the radar."
GebreMariam said it was not yet known what flight control problems the flight crew experienced and if it involved an automated safety feature called an MCAS, which was suspected to be a factor in the crash of a Lion Air MAX 8 in October.
The MCAS was a new feature on Boeing's MAX 8 planes, an energy-efficient update of the best-selling 737 model.
GebreMariam said since the Lion Air disaster, MAX 8 pilots were given training to "re-emphasise the MCAS and flight control in general".
While the cause of both crashes was yet unknown, GebreMariam said the similarities were "substantial".
"They're both the same aeroplane model, brand new aeroplanes, and also the flights were very short," he said.
"The fact that many other countries are also now raising cautions on the aeroplane shows there is very significant similarities (between) the two accidents.
"There are a lot of questions to be answered on the aeroplane."
GebreMariam said the plane's black boxes "will be sent overseas" to be analysed because Ethiopia didn't have the necessary technology. He did not say where they would be read.
The main pilot of the crashed plane, Senior Captain Yared Gatechew, was regarded as a "commendable" pilot with an excellent flying record who had clocked up more than 8000 flight hours, according to the airline.
He was accompanied in the cockpit by first officer Ahmed Nur Mohammod Nur.
MAX 8 GROUNDING CASES MID-AIR CHAOS
It comes as planes bound for the United Kingdom were forced to turn back mid-flight after the country banned all Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft from flying in or out of its airspace.
Turkish Airlines 1997 was already en route from Istanbul to London Gatwick when the ban came into effect, meaning it had to change course immediately, CNN reports.
Turkish Airlines flight 1969 was on its way to Birmingham from Istanbul when it had to pull a similar move.
In a statement issued on Twitter, Turkish Airlines CEO Bilal Eksi said all Boeing 737 Max flights are suspended until the "uncertainty affecting safety is cleared."
Late last night Britain joined a growing number of countries grounding the new Boeing plane involved in the Ethiopian Airlines disaster as experts chased details on why the plane crashed shortly after takeoff on Sunday, killing all 157 on board.
Ireland matched the UK's decision, and the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a directive grounding all Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 model aircraft. It applies to all European Union airspace.
This afternoon the United Arab Emirates, a key international travel hub, has also banned Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 from its airspace after the crash.
It followed the announcement by Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority on Tuesday that it was temporarily suspending operation of the planes while investigations into the cause of the accident continue.
New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority has also suspended the operation of Boeing 737 Max aircraft to or from the country.
Oman, Norwegian Air Shuttle, South Korean airline Eastar Jet and Singapore Airlines-owned SilkAir have halted use of the Boeing 373 Max 8. Malaysia and Singapore suspended all flights into or out of their countries.
This is despite Boeing issuing a statement saying it has "full confidence in the safety" of its 737 MAX jets and it is not issuing any new guidance.
America's President Donald Trump weighed in, tweeting that additional "complexity creates danger" in modern aircraft and hinders pilots from making "split second decisions" to ensure passengers' safety.
He did not specifically mention the crashes but said that "I don't know about you, but I don't want Albert Einstein to be my pilot."
'IT LOOKED LIKE THE EARTH HAD SWALLOWED THE AIRCRAFT'
The Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in clear weather six minutes after taking off for Nairobi.
One witness told The Associated Press that he saw smoke coming from the plane's rear before it crashed in a rural field.
"The plane rotated two times in the air, and it had some smoke coming from the back then, it hit the ground and exploded," farmer Tamrat Abera said.
It should take five days before any victims' remains are identified, Ethiopian Airlines spokesman Asrat Begashaw told the AP. The dead came from 35 countries and included dozens of humanitarian workers.
A pilot who saw the crash site minutes after the disaster told the AP the plane appeared to have "slid directly into the ground." Captain Solomon Gizaw was among the first people dispatched to find the crash site, which was discovered by Ethiopia's air force.
"There was nothing to see," he said. "It looked like the earth had swallowed the aircraft … We were surprised!"
He said it explained why rescue officials quickly sent bulldozers to begin digging out large pieces of the plane.
Investigators on Monday found the jetliner's two flight recorders at the crash site. An airline official, however, told the AP one recorder was partially damaged.
"The engine is here, the wreckage, the humans, the flesh and remains, still we are collecting," one investigator at the site, Amdey Fanta, said yesterday.
Ethiopian Airlines, widely seen as Africa's best-managed airline, grounded its remaining four 737 Max 8s until further notice as "an extra safety precaution."
The carrier had been using five of the planes and was awaiting delivery of 25 more.
Airlines in China and Indonesia, Aeromexico, Brazil's Gol Airlines, India's Jet Airways and others also have temporarily grounded their 737 Max 8s.