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Boeing 737 Max Hit Trouble Right Away, Pilot’s Tense Radio Messages Show

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The captain of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines jetliner faced an emergency almost immediately after takeoff from Addis Ababa, requesting permission in a panicky voice to return after three minutes as the aircraft accelerated to abnormal speed, a person who reviewed air traffic communications said Thursday.

“Break break, request back to home,” the captain told air traffic controllers as they scrambled to divert two other flights approaching the airport. “Request vector for landing.”

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.

All contact between air controllers and the aircraft, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 to Nairobi, was lost five minutes after it took off on Sunday, the person said.

The person who shared the information, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the communications have not been publicly released, said the controllers had concluded even before the captain’s message that he had an emergency.

The account of the cockpit communications shed chilling new detail about the final minutes before the plane crashed, killing all 157 people aboard. The crash, which has led to a worldwide grounding of Max 8s, was the second for the best-selling Boeing aircraft in less than five months.

Regulatory authorities in the United States and Canada say similar patterns in the trajectories of both planes may point to a common cause for the two crashes. But they cautioned that no explanation had been ruled out yet, and said the planes might have crashed for different reasons.

The new disclosures about the last moments of Flight 302 came as pilots were discussing what they described as the dangerously high speed of the aircraft after it took off from Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport.

Pilots were 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.”

Then the controllers observed the plane going up and down by hundreds of feet, and it appeared to be moving unusually fast, the person said. The controllers, the person said, “started wondering out loud what the flight was doing.”

Two other Ethiopian flights, 613 and 629, were approaching from the east, and the controllers, sensing an emergency on Flight 302, ordered them to remain at higher altitudes. It was during that exchange with the other planes, the person said, that Captain Getachew, with panic in his voice, interrupted with his request to turn back.

Flight 302 was just three minutes into its flight, the person said, and appeared to have accelerated to even higher speeds, well beyond its safety limits.

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