Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, which crashed killing 157 people, had an unusually high speed after take-off before the plane reported problems and asked permission to climb quickly, said a source who has listened to the air traffic control recording.
A voice from the cockpit of the Boeing 737 MAX requested to climb to 14,000 feet above sea level — about 6,400 feet above the airport — before urgently asking to return, said the source on condition of anonymity. The plane vanished from radar at 10,800 feet. “He said he had a flight control problem. That is why he wanted to climb,” the source said. Experts say pilots typically ask to climb when experiencing problems near the ground in order to gain margin for manoeuvre and avoid any difficult terrain.
The Ethiopian flight was set to follow the Standard Instrument Departure (SID) from the airport and followed standard procedure with a first contact just after departure, the source said. Everything appeared normal. After one or two minutes, the voice on the air traffic control recording requested to remain on the same path as the runway and to climb to 14,000 feet, the source said.
The aircraft’s ground speed after departure was unusually high, the source said, reaching around 400 knots (460 miles per hour) rather than the 200 to 250 knots that is more typical minutes after departure.
No more than two minutes later, the air traffic controller was in communication with other aircraft when the voice from Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 interrupted, saying “break, break”. He sounded very scared, the source said. “He requested permission to return. Air traffic control granted him permission to turn on the right because to the left is the city,” he said. “Maybe one minute passed before the blinking dot on the radar disappeared.”
After starting the turn, the plane disappeared from radar at an altitude of 10,800 feet above sea level, the highest it reached during the six-minute flight. Addis Ababa’s runway is at a high elevation of around 7,600 feet, suggesting the plane made it about 3,000 feet into the sky.