The probe into the crash of a China Eastern Airlines jet in March is exploring whether it was deliberately caused as investigators have so far ruled out the possibility of a technical glitch, two people aware of the details of the investigations said.
The Boeing 737-800, flying from Kunming to Guangzhou, crashed on March 21 in the mountains of Guangxi, after a sudden plunge from cruising altitude, killing all 123 passengers and nine crew members aboard in mainland China’s deadliest aviation disaster in 28 years.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier Tuesday that flight data from one of the Boeing 737-800’s black boxes indicated that someone in the cockpit deliberately crashed the plane, citing people familiar with US officials’ preliminary assessment.
Boeing Co, the maker of the jet, and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declined to comment and referred questions to Chinese regulators.
The pilots did not respond to repeated calls from air traffic controllers and nearby planes during the rapid descent, authorities have said.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China said on April 11 in response to rumours on the internet of a deliberate crash that the speculation had “gravely misled the public” and “interfered with the accident investigation work.”
China Eastern could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The Wall Street Journal said the airline had said in a statement that no evidence had emerged that could determine whether or not there were any problems with the aircraft involved in the crash. The Chinese embassy declined to comment.
The 737-800 is a widely flown predecessor to Boeing’s 737 MAX but does not have the systems that have been linked to fatal 737-MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that led to that model’s lengthy grounding.
China Eastern grounded its entire fleet of 737-800 planes after the crash, but resumed flights in mid-April in a move widely seen at the time as ruling out any immediate new safety concern over Boeing’s previous and still most widely used model.
In a summary of an unpublished preliminary China Eastern Airlines jet crash report last month, Chinese regulators did not point to any technical recommendations on the 737-800, which has been in service since 1997 with a strong safety record, according to experts.
NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said in a May 10 interview that board investigators and Boeing had travelled to China to assist the Chinese investigation. She noted that the investigation to date had not found any safety issues that would require any urgent actions.
A final report into the causes of the China Eastern Airlines jet crash could take two years or more to compile, Chinese officials have said. Analysts say most crashes are caused by a cocktail of human and technical factors.
Deliberate crashes are exceptionally rare. Experts noted the latest hypothesis left open whether the action stemmed from one pilot acting alone or the result of a struggle or intrusion, but sources stressed nothing has been confirmed.
In March 2015, a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately flew an Airbus A320 into a French mountainside, killing all 150 on board.
French investigators found the 27-year-old was suffering from a suspected “psychotic depressive episode”, concealed from his employer. They later called for better mental health guidelines and stronger peer support groups for pilots.
- Reuters with additional editing by Sean OMeara