Rescuers in the southwestern Chinese region of Guangxi on Tuesday combed through the wreckage of a China Eastern flight that was seen descended almost vertically from the sky before disappearing in a massive explosion with 123 passengers and nine crew on board.
Workers found wallets, bank cards and ID cards belonging to those on board, but scant other sign of the 132 lives that are now believed to have been lost on a remote mountainside in Teng county, outside Guangxi’s Wuzhou city.
The flight took off from Kunming Changshui Airport at 1:10 p.m. local time on Monday, and was originally scheduled to arrive at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport at 3:05 p.m., but lost contact shortly after takeoff over Teng county.
Social media footage showed the Boeing 737-800 that was flight MU5735 from Kunming to Guangzhou plummeting from the sky in a vertical trajectory on Monday, then a massive fireball as it hit the ground, scattering debris and wreckage over a vast mountainous area.
The explosion from the crash was big enough to show up on NASA satellite images.
Chinese state media said search teams would work through the night with sniffer dogs to see if any traces of those aboard could be found.
But the steep, rough terrain and the huge search area were making it harder to locate the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, known as the “black boxes,” state broadcaster CCTV and Xinhua news agency reported, prompting searchers to fly drones across the area.
The crash site is surrounded on three sides by mountains and accessible only by foot and motorcycle on steep dirt roads in the semitropical region of Guangxi, meaning heavy digging machinery needed to be drafted in to widen road access to the area, despite rain and mud making the task harder, CCTV said.
Families of those lost on board the flight were traveling to departure and destination airports to await news.
Industry insiders said it was highly unusual for a flight to fall out of the sky in such a way without even sending a distress signal.
‘Twice the speed of sound’
An aircraft maintenance mechanic for China Southern surnamed Chen said the nose of the aircraft had wound up deeply embedded in the soil by the impact.
“The rest of the fuselage shattered under the impact,” he said. “The speed of the vertical fall would have been twice the speed of sound.”
“It took 120 seconds to fall to the ground from around 8,800 feet, descending at 73 meters per second,” Chen said. “The average [G-force acceleration caused by gravity] of its descent was 7.4 G, but by the time it hit the ground it would have been at 20G or more.”
An anonymous pilot posted a document online commenting on the crash, saying the pilots must have totally lost all control of the aircraft, citing the lack of distress signal, and pointing out that the aircraft wasn’t likely to have suffered mechanical failure, having been in service for just under seven years.
“[There’s the possibility of] a software issue, because the plane would have been under autopilot at that point, because they still had to fly over Zhaoqing before they could see Guangzhou airport … when you can switch to manual control,” Chen said.
“If the autopilot steering controls suddenly failed, they wouldn’t have been able to respond, as they were still a while away from Guangzhou, more than 10 minutes away,” he said.
Former naval officer Yao Cheng said even a software issue wouldn’t force the plane’s nose into the ground, however, making the crash look suspicious to his eye.
“Most planes have three layers of software, so that if there is an issue, control will pass to another program, with the option of transferring back to manual,” Yao said, adding that the plane hadn’t stalled, but had flown into the ground.
The aircraft was 6.8 years old and was delivered to China Eastern on June 22, 2015. The airline is assisting search and rescue operations in Teng county, while Boeing China said it would support the airline and cooperate with China’s transportation safety board.
An employee who answered the phone at the China Eastern Airlines emergency assistance hotline said there was no fresh information on the flight, while an employee at the company’s Yunnan branch said she was unaware of the situation.
An official who answered the phone at the Teng county fire department referred all inquiries to its WeChat account, while an official who answered the phone at the Wuzhou emergency coordination center said all information would be released via official channels.
“We can’t reply to your query, I’m sorry about that,” the official said. “If there is any news, it will be officially announced, and that’s what will stand.”
COVID hurt the airline sector
China Eastern Airlines Co., Ltd. issued an announcement on the Shanghai Stock Exchange on the evening of the crash, offering condolences to the families of those killed, and vowing to cooperate with investigations into the cause of the crash.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said it had sent a taskforce to the site to aid the search and recovery effort.
The crash ended a 4,227-day flight safety run maintained by airlines operating under CAAC.
The last major crash in China took place on Aug. 24, 2010, when a Henan Airlines passenger flight from Harbin to Yichun crashed a few hundred meters from the runway on landing, breaking in two and exploding, killing 44 people.
But posts to a group of aviators in China said the pandemic had hitting staff numbers at Chinese airlines hard, with the number of pilots operating in China falling by nearly 40 percent since 2020.
They said the entire industry has been in deep financial trouble since the pandemic began, with a number of non-fatal accidents and safety alerts reported in recent months.
“When economic growth falls, that’s not good for business, so it makes sense to cut maintenance costs,” an anonymous financial analyst told RFA. “Just how much that has been pared back from normal is hard to say.”
He cited Zhang Qing of CAAC as saying that China’s airline industry has been losing tens of billions of U.S. dollars as a result of the pandemic.
China Eastern has also issued statements denying it had cut costs by cutting flight maintenance and safety procedures, and has grounded all of its Boeing 737-800 aircraft pending investigation.
David Meale, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said he was “deeply saddened” by news of the crash.
“The entire U.S. Mission in China expresses our deepest condolences to those affected by this crash,” Meale said in a statement on the U.S. Mission’s Twitter account. “We are ready to assist in investigation efforts and wish to share our admiration and respect for the emergency responders at the crash site.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.