One glimpse at the terrifying trajectory of the Ethiopian Airlines jetliner that crashed on Sunday shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa and it is clear something was dreadfully wrong from the start.
As The New York Times notes, controllers also observed that the aircraft, a new Boeing 737 Max 8, was oscillating up and down by hundreds of feet - a sign that something was extraordinarily wrong.
Pilots are reportedly abuzz over publicly available radar data that showed the aircraft had accelerated far beyond what is considered standard practice, for reasons that remain unclear.
“The thing that is most abnormal is the speed,” said John Cox, an aviation safety consultant and former 737 pilot.
“The speed is very high,” said Mr. Cox, a former executive air safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association in the United States. “The question is why. The plane accelerates far faster than it should.” -NYT
According to officials with Ethiopian Airlines, the crew of flight 302 told air traffic control they they were experiencing "flight control" problems just a few minutes before contact was lost. Pilot Yared Getachew - who had more than 8,000 hours of flying experience, reported the initial "flight control" problem in a calm voice within one minute of departure.
According to the radar, the aircraft was flying far below the minimum safe altitude recommended during takeoff. Within two minutes, the plane had climbed to a safer altitude, and the pilot reported that he wanted to remain on a straight course to 14,000 feet.
The plane then proceeded to rapidly climb and fall by hundreds of feet while flying unusually fast, according to the Times. Air traffic controllers "started wondering out loud what the flight was doing."
The plane's trajectory was so erratic that two other Ethiopian flights - 613 and 629, where ordered to remain at higher altitudes.
While the controllers were instructing the other planes to keep their distance, a panicked Captain Getachew interrupted just three minutes into their flight and requested to turn back as the plane accelerated to even higher speeds well beyond the plane's safety limits.
Flight 302 was immediately cleared to turn back, turning right as it climbed even further.
A minute later, it disappeared from the radar while flying over a restricted military zone.
As the Times notes, the crash of flight 302 is reminiscent of the October crash of another Boeing 737 Max 8 which crashed in Indonesia.
Both took place soon after takeoff, and the crews of both planes had sought to return to the airport.
The possibility that the two crashes had a similar cause was central to regulators’ decision to ground all 737 Maxes, a family of planes that entered passenger service less than two years ago.
After the Indonesia crash, a new flight-control system meant to keep the jet from stalling was suspected as a cause. In both cases, pilots struggled to control their aircraft. -NYT
The investigation of the Ethiopian crash is still in its early stages - with the so-called black boxes containing voice and flight data arriving in France on Thursday for further analysis.
Boeing, meanwhile, has been working on a software update for all 737 Max 8 jets which is expected by April. Meanwhile, questions remain over whether pilots should have undergone more training as airlines rolled out more technologically advanced models.
As we reported on Tuesday, several pilots repeatedly warned federal authorities of safety concerns over the 737 Max 8, with one captain calling the plane's flight manual "inadequate and almost criminally insufficient," according to the Dallas Morning News.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the transportation committee in the House of Representatives, Peter Defazio (D-OR) said he would investigate the FAA's certification of the 737 Max, including whether pilots have received inadequate training.