GUANGZHOU, China, March 21 (Reuters) – A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 (600115.SS) with 132 people on board crashed in the mountains of southern China on Monday after a sudden drop in altitude cruise around the time it normally begins to descend before landing.
Media said there were no signs of survivors on the domestic flight.
The airline said it mourned the passengers and crew deeply, without specifying how many people were killed on the jet, a pre-737 MAX model with a strong safety record.
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Chinese media released brief video footage on the highway from a vehicle’s dashcam apparently showing a jet plunging to the ground behind trees at an angle of about 35 degrees from vertical. Reuters could not immediately verify the images.
Flight MU5735 was en route from the city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, in the southwest, to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, on the Hong Kong border, when it crashed.
China Eastern said the cause of the accident is under investigation. Such crashes usually involve multiple factors and experts warned it was far too early to draw conclusions about potential causes, especially in light of the scant information available.
Investigators will search the wreckage and flight recorders for factors that could have caused the plane to plummet vertically and crash into the mountains at high speed.
The airline said it sent a task force to the site. There were no foreigners on the flight, Chinese state television reported, citing China Eastern.
Relatives, friends and colleagues of the passengers gathered late Monday in a cordoned off area bound for the plane, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport.
A man named Yan said a colleague was on the plane and told the 29-year-old’s mother.
“When she picked up the phone, she choked up,” Yan said, adding that he had a “heavy heart” upon hearing the news.
China Eastern staff were making arrangements for relatives to visit the crash site on Tuesday, Yan said. Reuters was unable to independently verify Yan’s identity.
The plane, with 123 passengers and nine crew on board, lost contact over the city of Wuzhou, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the airline said.
The flight left Kunming at 1:11 p.m. (05:11 GMT), according to data from FlightRadar24, and was scheduled to land in Guangzhou at 3:05 p.m. (07:05 GMT).
The plane, which the flight tracking service said was six years old, was flying at 29,100 feet at 0620 GMT. The same flight number a day earlier began a normal gradual descent from the same altitude, also at 0620 GMT, and landed safely in Guangzhou, according to Flightradar24.
The flight that crashed instead began a rapid descent at 7,425ft before briefly recovering to 8,600ft and then descending rapidly, according to data from FlightRadar24. The last altitude recorded was 3,225 feet above sea level.
Media quoted a rescue official as saying the plane disintegrated and started a fire destroying bamboo. The People’s Daily quoted a provincial fire department official as saying there were no signs of life among the debris.
State media showed a piece of the plane on a hill of scarred dirt. There were no signs of fire or personal effects.
Accidents during the cruise phase of flights are relatively rare, even though this period accounts for the majority of flight time. Accidents during the descent phase when the aircraft leaves cruising altitude for the first time are even rarer.
Boeing said last year that 13% of fatal commercial accidents worldwide between 2011 and 2020 occurred during the cruise phase, while 3% occurred during descent, none on initial approach, 28% on final approach and 26% on landing.
Online weather data showed partly cloudy conditions with good visibility in Wuzhou at the time of the crash.
President Xi Jinping called on 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 passengers and crew.
“Boeing is in contact with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and our technical experts are ready to assist in the (CAAC)-led investigation,” the company said.
The disaster comes as Boeing seeks to rebound from several overlapping crises, including the coronavirus pandemic and crashes involving its 737 MAX model. Shares of the aircraft maker closed down 3.6%.
China Eastern grounded its fleet of 737 planes to 800, state media reported. It owns 109 aircraft, according to FlightRadar24.
Shares of China Eastern Airlines in Hong Kong closed 6.5% after news of the crash, while its U.S.-listed shares closed down 6.3%.
Aeronautical data provider OAG said this month that state-owned China Eastern Airlines was the world’s sixth-largest carrier by planned weekly seat capacity. Read more
The 737-800 has a good safety record and is the predecessor of the 737 MAX model which was grounded in China for more than three years after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
The accident thrust the US manufacturer’s best-selling aircraft family back into the spotlight and comes as it struggles to emerge from the 737 MAX safety crisis and global pandemic, which have decimated the demand for air travel and strained its finances.
Investigators will search the plane’s black boxes – the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder – to shed light on the crash.
The US NTSB said it had appointed a senior aviation safety investigator as the accredited US representative to the China investigation. Read more
Air accident investigations are usually conducted by the country of the accident and include the participation of the country of origin of the aircraft, so American investigators should join the investigation of the Boeing manufacturing aircraft American.
According to Greg Waldron, Asia editor at Industry publication Flightglobal. Read more
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Reporting from Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms and from 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; Written by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Hugh Lawson and Bernard Orr
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