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Ethiopian Airlines flight crashes just after takeoff, killing all 157 aboard

A brand-new Ethiopian airlines plane bound for Nairobi crashed Sunday, killing all 157 people on board, including eight Americans and 18 Canadians.

The recently acquired aircraft was the same Boeing 737 Max 8 model involved in a crash in Indonesia in October. Preliminary investigation into that accident focused on a malfunctioning sensor and computer system that pushed the plane's nose down.

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Flight data from the Ethiopian crash appears to show a similar erratic flight path to the Indonesia crash, with the plane first ascending, then descending, then ascending sharply before it fell from the sky.

According to the Ethiopian Airlines chief executive, Tewolde Gebremariam, the flight took off at 8:38 a.m. and lost contact six minutes later, crashing near the city of Bishoftu less than 40 miles to the southeast of Addis Ababa.

"The pilot mentioned he had difficulty and he wanted to return so he was given clearance to Addis," he said.

"It is a brand-new airplane, it had no technical remarks and was flown by a senior pilot and there is no cause we can see at this time," he added, saying the plane was only four months old, had flown 1,200 hours so far and had arrived from Johannesburg that morning.

Gebremariam would not speculate on the causes of the crash and said the investigation would involve Ethiopia's civil aviation authority, representatives of Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Flight data viewed by the Washington Post show the flight getting into trouble almost immediately after departure. A normal takeoff for most passenger jets is a steady climb to about a thousand feet, followed by an accelerating climb. However, on this flight, a minute and a half after takeoff, the plane inexplicably begins to descend - for nearly a minute - before climbing again.

During this time, the plane's speed keeps on increasing to what is far above normal for this phase of a takeoff. The plane undergoes a sharp pull up - 600 feet in just 10 seconds - and is flying at 380 nautical mph when around 270 would be closer to normal.

Three minutes later it crashes.

The victims included more than 30 nationalities, including 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians, eight Italians, eight Americans and seven British, as well as four U.N. passport holders.

The airline set up emergency hotline numbers for families and friends of victims and changed the cover image on its Facebook page to black.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the crash site and expressed his "profound sadness at the loss of life and wishes healing to friends and families of the bereaved." Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also tweeted his condolences.

Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa (Los Angeles Times)

Ethiopian Airlines announced the acquisition of the brand new Max aircraft in July. There are currently six others in service to the airline and Gebremariam said there are no plans to suspend their use.

The Max model is the newest version of Boeing's workhorse 737 model, the world's most popular commercial aircraft.

Boeing issued a statement that it was "deeply saddened" about the crash, adding that a "Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board."

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Following the October crash of Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia, Boeing issued an emergency notice that an erroneous sensor input could "cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane," leading to "possible impact with terrain."

In the Lion Air crash, a malfunctioning sensor convinced the airplane's software that the flight was stalling and corrected by pointing the nose down.

Rescuers in January found the cockpit voice recorder from the Lion Air flight that crashed in October. Investigators have downloaded data from both of the aircraft's data recorders - collectively known as black boxes - and are using them to aid in an ongoing investigation into what caused the almost new plane to crash in clear skies.

The full investigation is expected to be completed later this year, likely in November, Indonesian officials say.

Ethiopian Airlines is the continent's largest airline in terms of destinations and passengers served. It has ambitions to becoming the gateway to Africa and is widely seen as one of the best managed airlines in Africa.

It has more than 100 destinations worldwide, including flights to Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The airline's last major accident was in 2010 when an aircraft plunged into the Mediterranean shortly after takeoff from Beirut's airport, killing all 90 people on board.

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