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Chinese Boeing jet crashes in mountains with 132 on board, no sign of survivors

China Eastern Airlines logo is pictured in Beijing
The China Eastern Airlines logo at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China March 21, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wangvv

March 21, 2022

By Martin Quin Pollard

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) – A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board on a domestic flight crashed in the mountains of southern China on Monday after suddenly falling from cruising altitude. Media said there were no signs of survivors.

The airline said it deeply grieved for the passengers and crew, without specifying how many people were killed on the jet, an earlier model than the 737 MAX with a strong safety record.

Boeing said it stands ready to assist China Eastern and is in contact with US regulators for transportation security over the incident.

Chinese media showed brief freeway video footage from a vehicle’s dashcam, which appeared to show a jet dove to the ground behind trees at an angle of about 35 degrees from vertical. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.

The plane was en route from the southwestern city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, when it crashed.

China Eastern said the cause of the crash is under investigation. Multiple factors are typically involved in such accidents, and experts warned it is far too early to draw any conclusions about the possible causes, especially given the little information available.

Investigators will search the wreckage and flight recorders for factors that may have caused the plane to crash vertically and crash into the mountains at high speed.

The airline said it had dispatched a working group to the site. There were no foreigners on the flight, Chinese state television reported, citing China Eastern.

Passengers’ relatives, friends and colleagues gathered in a cordoned off area at the jet’s destination, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, late Monday.

A man surnamed Yan said a colleague was on the plane and notified the 29-year-old’s mother.

“When she picked up the phone, she choked,” Yan said, adding that he was “heavy-hearted” upon hearing the news.

China Eastern staff made arrangements for relatives who wanted to travel to the crash site on Tuesday, Yan said. Reuters has not been able to independently verify Yan’s identity.

The plane, with 123 passengers and nine crew members on board, lost contact over the city of Wuzhou, the China Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) and the airline said.

The flight departed Kunming at 1:11 p.m. (0511 GMT), FlightRadar24 data showed, and was scheduled to land in Guangzhou at 3:05 p.m. (0705 GMT).

The plane, which Flightradar24 said was six years old, flew at 06:20 GMT at 29,100 feet. It then began a rapid descent to 7,425 feet before recovering to 8,600 feet and then quickly descending again, data from FlightRadar24 showed. The last altitude tracked was 3,225 feet above sea level.

Media quoted a rescue official as saying the plane disintegrated and caused a fire that destroyed bamboo trees. People’s Daily quoted a provincial fire department official as saying there was no sign of life among the rubble.

State media showed a piece of the plane on a scarred mound of earth. There was no sign of fire or personal effects.

CRUISE

Crashes during the cruise phase are relatively rare, although this time accounts for the majority of flight time.

Boeing said last year that between 2011 and 2020 worldwide, only 13% of fatal road accidents occurred during the cruise phase, while 28% occurred on final approach and 26% on landing.

“Normally, during the travel phase, the aircraft is on autopilot. So it’s very difficult to fathom what happened,” said Li Xiaojin, a Chinese aviation expert.

Online weather data showed partly cloudy conditions with good visibility in Wuzhou at the time of the crash.

President Xi Jinping urged investigators to determine the cause of the crash as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Boeing said in a statement that its thoughts are with the passengers and crew.

“Boeing is in contact with the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and our technical experts stand ready to assist in the investigation led by (CAAC),” the company said.

The disaster comes as Boeing tries to recover from multiple overlapping crises, including the coronavirus pandemic and crashes involving its 737 MAX model. Shares of the planemaker ended 3.6% lower.

China Eastern has grounded its fleet of 737-800 aircraft, state media reported. According to FlightRadar24, it has 109 aircraft.

Hong Kong-based China Eastern Airlines shares closed down 6.5% after news of the crash broke, while US-listed shares ended 6.3% lower.

“Good record”

Aeronautical data provider OAG said this month that state-owned China Eastern Airlines is the world’s sixth-largest airline by planned weekly seat capacity.

The 737-800 has a good safety record and is the predecessor of the 737 MAX model, which has been grounded in China for more than three years after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

The crash has put the US manufacturer’s best-selling family of planes back in the spotlight and comes amid the 737 MAX safety crisis and the global pandemic, which has decimated demand for air travel and strained its finances.

Investigators will look for the plane’s black boxes — the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder — to shed light on the crash.

Plane crash investigations are typically led by the country of the accident and involve the involvement of the plane’s country of origin, so US investigators are expected to become involved in the investigation of the US-made Boeing jet.

The US NTSB said it had appointed a senior aviation security investigator as the US accredited representative for China’s investigation.

China’s flight safety record has been among the best in the world for a decade, though it’s less transparent than countries like the US and Australia, where regulators release detailed reports of non-fatal incidents, according to Greg Waldron, managing editor Asia at industry publication Flightglobal.

(Reporting by newsrooms in Beijing and Shanghai and Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; writing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Rami Ayyub; edited by Simon Cameron-Moore, Hugh Lawson and Bernard Orr)

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Bobby Allyn

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