Warning: Confronting images

Grave concerns have been raised over the safety of the new Boeing 737 MAX 8 after haunting new details of yesterday's tragic Ethiopian Airlines crash emerge.

The pilot of the plane, with 157 people on board, reported difficulties and asked to turn back, according to the airline's CEO.

Tewolde GebreMariam told reporters at a press conference the pilot of flight ET 302 that crashed on Sunday — killing everybody on board — reported technical difficulties and asked for clearance to return to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

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Flight data shows the flight left the city at about 8.38am local time and climbed to 2600m. However, just six minutes later, takeoff contact with the aircraft was lost.

GebreMariam told reporters the pilot was given clearance to turn back after reporting a problem — citing the air traffic controllers record.

He added the pilot had an "excellent flying record" and clocked up more than 8000 hours experience.

A routine maintenance check didn't reveal any problems, so GebreMariam said the cause of the crash was still unclear.

"It is a brand-new aeroplane with no technical remarks, flown by a senior pilot and there is no cause that we can attribute at this time," he told reporters.

However, experts have called for all fleets to be grounded as flight radar data for the Boeing 737 MAX 8 service shows its vertical speed was unstable after takeoff.

It was the same type of aircraft as the plane involved in a deadly Lion Air crash off Jakarta in October, killing all 189 people on board.

The new Boeing model was recently unveiled to great fanfare by the US aviation giant. Its first flight was less than two years ago.

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The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, looks at the wreckage of the plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa. Photo / AP
The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, looks at the wreckage of the plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa. Photo / AP

However, aviation analysts have now expressed grave concerns over the new model — saying the similarities between yesterday's crash and the Lion Air disaster are too great to be ignored.

Both were run by well-known airlines with strong safety records.

The Lion Air flight crashed 13 minutes after takeoff, while the Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed just six minutes into its journey.


"It's highly suspicious," Mary Schiavo, an aviation analyst and the former inspector general of the US Transportation Department, told CNN.

"Here we have a brand-new aircraft that's gone down twice in a year. That rings alarm bells in the aviation industry because that just doesn't happen."

In last night's crash, all eight crew and 149 passengers on-board, including tourists, business travellers and "at least a dozen" UN staff, were killed.

Overnight, Ethiopia declared a national day of mourning for Monday amid a global stream of condolences for loved ones, many of whom gathered in tears at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

"Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO deeply regrets the fatal accident involved on ET 302/March 10 on a scheduled flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi," it said on its Facebook page.

"The group CEO who is at the accident scene right now regrets to confirm that there are 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."

A day of national morning has been declared in Ethiopia. Photo / AP
A day of national morning has been declared in Ethiopia. Photo / AP

Ethiopia's state broadcaster Fana Broadcasting Corporate said the passengers included 33 nationalities.

Authorities said Canadians (18), Chinese (8), Americans (8), Italians (8), Indians (4), French (7), British (7), Dutch (5), Russian (3), Moroccan (2), Israeli (2), Belgian (1), Ugandan (1), Yemeni (1), Sudanese (1), Togolese (1), Mozambican (1), Norwegian (1) and Egyptians (6) were among the foreigners killed in the crash, along with Ethiopians (9) and Kenyans (32). Four held a UN passport.

WIFE, SON, DAUGHTER DEAD

Perhaps, one of the most heartbreaking stories of the tragedy is that of Slovak MP Anton Hrnko's family.

"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," he wrote on Facebook.

Flight ET302 ploughed into a field 60 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa on what the GebreMariam labelled a "very sad and tragic day".

An eyewitness told AFP the plane came down in flames.

"The plane was already on fire when it crashed to the ground. The crash caused a big explosion," Tegegn Dechasa recounted at the site littered with passenger belongings, human remains and aeroplane parts around a massive crater at the point of impact.

Rescuers remove body bags from the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed shortly after takeoff near Addis Ababa. Photo / AP
Rescuers remove body bags from the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed shortly after takeoff near Addis Ababa. Photo / AP

"The plane was in flames in its rear side shortly before the crash. The plane was swerving erratically before the crash."

The Boeing 737-800MAX was brand new, delivered to state-owned Ethiopian Airways on November 15, said the carrier, Africa's largest.

DIASTER FOR THE UN

The passengers included "at least a dozen" UN-affiliated staff headed for an annual assembly of the UN Environment Program, which opens in Nairobi on Monday with some 700 heads of state, ministers, business leaders, senior UN officials and civil society representatives, a UN source told AFP.

"Deeply saddened by the news this morning of the plane crash in Ethiopia, claiming the lives of all on board. My heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all the victims — including our own @UN staff — who perished in this tragedy," tweeted UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Some of the UN staff were from the World Food Program and UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the agencies said.

Ethiopian and American investigators would investigate the crash, said GebreMariam.