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Pilot of crashed Ethiopian plane had ‘difficulties’, wanted to return

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No survivors on crashed Ethiopian Airlines flight carrying 157 passengers

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA: The pilot of a Nairobi-bound Boeing 737 that crashed six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa yesterday had alerted controllers "he had difficulties" and wanted to turn back the plane carrying 157 people, the head of Ethiopian Airlines said.

There are no survivors.

The pilot "was given clearance" to return to Addis Ababa, chief executive officer Tewolde GebreMariam told journalists in the Ethiopian capital when asked whether there had been a distress call, AFP reported.

Another plane of the same model crashed during a Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October.

Yesterday's flight left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8.38am (1.38pm, Singapore time), before losing contact with the control tower at 8.44am.

The flight had unstable vertical speed after takeoff, said flight tracking website Flightradar24 on its Twitter feed, Reuters reported.

Flight ET 302 crashed near the town of Bishoftu, 62km south-east of the capital Addis Ababa, the airline said.

The aircraft had shattered and was severely burnt, a Reuters reporter at the scene of the crash said.

"The group CEO who is at the scene right now deeply regrets to confirm there are no survivors," the airline tweeted alongside a picture of Mr GebreMariam in a suit holding a piece of debris inside a large crater.

The dead included Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British and Dutch citizens.

At Nairobi airport, many relatives of passengers were left waiting at the gate for hours, with no information from airport authorities. Some learnt of the crash from journalists.

"We're just waiting for my mum. We're just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She's not picking up her phone," said Ms Wendy Otieno, weeping.

Mr Robert Mutanda, 46, was waiting for his brother-in-law, a Canadian citizen.

"No, we haven't seen anyone from the airline or the airport," he told Reuters at 1pm, more than three hours after the flight was lost. "Nobody has told us anything, we are just standing here hoping for the best."

Kenyan officials did not arrive at the airport until 1.30pm, five hours after the plane went down.

This is the second recent crash of the relatively new 737 MAX 8, the latest version of Boeing's workhorse narrowbody jet that entered service in 2017.

The same model crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Oct 29, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight.

The cause of that crash is still under investigation.

A preliminary report issued in November, before the cockpit voice recorder was recovered, focused on airline maintenance and training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor but did not give a reason for the crash.

A final report is due later this year.

The crash comes as Ethiopian has been snapping up stakes in small carriers around the continent to pre-empt potential rivals and become the dominant pan-African airline.

Its last major crash was in January 2010, when a flight from Beirut went down after takeoff, killing all 90 onboard.