Ethiopian pilots band together one year after traumatic crash

Just hours after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed southeast of Addis Ababa last March, mourners began flocking to a building…

Just hours after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed southeast of Addis Ababa last March, mourners began flocking to a building down the road from where it took off: the headquarters of the country’s independent pilots’ association.

On a normal day, the compound has the feel of a country club, with members playing tennis and basketball or lunching with their families on the restaurant’s terrace.

But as details of the tragedy trickled in, leaders organised an impromptu vigil in the main hall, placing photos of the flight’s captain and crew on stands surrounded by candles and roses.

It soon became a draw both for Ethiopian Airlines employees — some of whom would drop in to cry for an hour on their lunch breaks — and people who had no direct connection to the crash.

“That week there was no parking in this compound. There were people coming from all over Addis,” said Yeshiwas Fentahun, the president of the pilots’ association at the time.

“The fact that we had this set-up here was very important, not just for us but for everyone who was affected by the accident.”

Long after the crash of the Boeing 737 MAX ceased dominating headlines, the pilots’ association continues to play a central role in the grieving process of its roughly 800 members.

Over the past year, pilots have come to the compound for counselling, taken up collections for victims’ families and even renamed the compound’s football pitch for Yared Getachew, the captain of the doomed flight who was an avid player.

It’s the kind of support that members will lean on ahead of the anniversary of the crash on Tuesday, when faded memories are likely to seem fresh again, Yeshiwas said.

“Yes, people do move on, but it’s not always easy to move on,” he said. “It’s not something you should take for granted.”

– Support for families –

The Airline Pilots’ Association of Ethiopia was founded in 1964, nearly two decades after Ethiopian Airlines began operating.

The headquarters has long provided an all-hours hangout for pilots returning from the company’s more than 120 destinations.

It can become a major element of social life for pilots like Captain Yared, who at the time of the crash was engaged to a fellow association member.

Whenever he was in town, Yared would turn up on Tuesday and Thursday nights for the association’s pick-up football matches.

Yeshiwas, the former president who is now a union leader, has fond memories of Yared, a dual Ethiopian-Kenyan national, trash-talking the other players in his poor Amharic.

“He’d even make fun of the way we play very often,” Yeshiwas said. “It was always fun to have him around.”

But the association is more than a social club.

When a member falls ill or loses a relative, the others contribute to fundraising drives spearheaded by the association’s so-called Human Factor Committee.

It was this committee that sprang into action after the Flight 302 crash, identifying the family members of the eight Ethiopian Airlines employees among the 157 fatalities.

“The process started within a day or two,” said Yegzeru Belete, who worked for four decades as an Ethiopian Airlines pilot before retiring last year.

Within months, the association had raised 600,000 Ethiopian birr (more than $18,000) for each family, money it delivered to their homes in Addis and — in the case of First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed — Dire Dawa, some 215 miles (350 kilometres) east of the capital.

The association also organised counselling sessions for pilots, stepping in to provide a service that Yeshiwas said the airline overlooked.

“I would have been happier if Ethiopian Airlines had taken a more aggressive move in giving… better support for its pilots and the cabin crew,” Yeshiwas said. “I didn’t see that happen.”

Ethiopian Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.

-Lingering trauma-

These days, the rhythm of life at the association’s headquarters is more or less back to normal.

But the nature of the Flight 302 accident means that one year later, the trauma is never far from pilots’ minds.

Media reports continue to provide new details about the flight handling system — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — singled out as a major factor in the crash, as well as speculation about when 737 MAX planes might return to the skies.

The airline’s probe is not yet completed, though chief investigator Amdye Ayalew told AFP this week that officials were planning to release an interim version of their report sometime before the one-year anniversary.

These persistent reminders make the support offered by the pilots’ association all the more essential, Yeshiwas said.

“It’s not an easy thing” to keep flying after a crash, he said.

“You keep on thinking about what the pilots could have thought, what feelings they may have felt just before the crash,” he said. “Your mind can’t stop asking these questions.”