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Ethiopian Airlines, With a Tradition of Training Pilots, Wants to Become Africa’s Leading Carrier

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At 29, he was the airline’s youngest captain. Despite his youth, Yared Getachew had already spent a decade at Ethiopian Airlines, piloting flights that had him home at night and later flying wide-body jets that crossed continents and oceans.

Like so many of the airline’s pilots before him, Captain Getachew, who died on Sunday in the crash of Flight 302, was a graduate of the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy. The competitive school, which has been training pilots since 1964, has become an intrinsic part of the company’s Vision 2025 campaign to become Africa’s dominant carrier.

It is already a Star Alliance partner with United Airlines, Lufthansa, El Al and many other airlines, allowing it to book passengers on the other companies’ flights and carry their passengers as well. Ethiopian has aggressively established hubs in northwest and southeast sub-Saharan Africa, and added flights to Asia and the United States.

“We consider ourselves lucky to be part of this company, especially at this time of expansion and growth,” said Captain Yeshiwas Zeggeye, a pilot for Ethiopian and the president of the Ethiopian Airline Pilots Association. “It was a time when the airline expanded more than expected, and being part of that growth is a very good feeling.”

But the carrier suffered a blow when Flight 302, bound for Nairobi, Kenya, went down shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing all 157 people on board. An investigation is underway to determine why the plane, a Boeing 737 Max 8, crashed into a valley southeast of the airport just minutes after takeoff.

[Read our ongoing coverage of developments following Sunday’s crash.]

Since the crash, Ethiopian and more than a dozen other airlines around the world have grounded the model, in part because another accident involving a Max 8, owned by Lion Air, occurred in Indonesia in October, killing 189. The Federal Aviation Administration said that the inquiry of the latest crash had just begun and that it did not have enough information to take any action.

Ethiopian Airlines’ training academy, which 4,000 students pass through each year, trains not just pilots but also cabin crew, mechanics, and sales and management professionals. It draws those being groomed for jobs at Ethiopian and students from across Africa.

Nawal Taneja, an airline business strategist and a professor emeritus at Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies, said on Monday that he was impressed by what the airline was doing with the school when he toured it last year, because it allows the airline to meet its substantial need for workers. The school uses it to feed its three flight markets — domestic, trans-African and long haul.

“It is run very well,” Mr. Taneja said, “and the management team is strong.”

Besides Captain Getachew, who even at such a young age had accrued 8,000 flight hours, the accident killed the first officer, Ahmed Nur Mohammod Nur, a more recent academy graduate, who had logged 200 flight hours.

Captain Getachew was remembered fondly. While most pilot cadets entered the academy after college, he was still in his teens when he was admitted immediately after high school, Captain Zeggeye said. The son of an Ethiopian father and a mother who lives in Nairobi, he flew the route between Addis Ababa and Nairobi “on a daily basis,” Captain Zeggeye said.

Friends and co-workers of the crew filled the pilots’ union hall in Addis Ababa for a memorial service Monday, reflecting on the news, which some described as surreal.

In the front of the room, photos of the uniformed crew members sat on chairs on a raised platform. One by one, their loved ones rose to offer personal stories.

The older pilots remembered Captain Getachew as the eager youngster. They spoke of his love of sports and how he would not miss the twice-weekly pilots’ soccer game. In his colleagues’ reminiscences, one word in particular kept coming up.

“He was very disciplined,” Captain Zeggeye said. “People didn’t expect such discipline at an early age.”


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