WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - US investigators believe someone on board deliberately crashed a China Eastern flight in March, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday (May 17), in what was China’s deadliest air disaster in decades.
Investigators probing the crash of a China Eastern Airlines jet are examining whether it was due to intentional action taken on the flight deck, with no evidence so far of a technical malfunction, two people briefed on the matter said.
China Eastern flight MU5375 was travelling from Kunming to Guangzhou on March 21 when it inexplicably plunged from an altitude of 29,000 feet into a mountainside, killing all 132 people on board.
It was mainland China’s deadliest aviation disaster in 28 years.
The pilots did not respond to repeated calls from air traffic controllers and nearby planes during the rapid descent, authorities have said.
One source told Reuters investigators were looking at whether the crash was a “voluntary” act.
So-called black box flight data recorders recovered from the site were sent to the United States for analysis.
That data shows that someone – possibly a pilot or someone who had forced their way into the cockpit – input orders to send the Boeing 737-800 into a nosedive, according to the Journal, which cited people familiar with the probe.
“The plane did what it was told to do by someone in the cockpit,” the Journal quoted “a person who is familiar with American officials’ preliminary assessment” as saying.
US officials believe their conclusion is backed up by the fact that Chinese investigators have so far not indicated any problems with the aircraft or flight controls that could have caused the crash and would need to be addressed in future flights, the newspaper said.
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 Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which is leading the investigation, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Screenshots of the Wall Street Journal story appeared to be censored both on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo and messaging app Wechat on Wednesday morning.
The hashtag topics “China Eastern” and “China Eastern black boxes” are banned on Weibo, which cited a breach of relevant laws, and users are unable to share the story in group chats on Wechat.
The CAAC 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.”
A woman who asked to be identified only by her surname, Wen, who lost her husband in the crash, told Reuters on Wednesday that she had not seen the Wall Street Journal report but hoped the results of the investigation would be released soon.
Wen said she and other victims’ family members had signed an agreement with China Eastern that included a point about compensation, but she declined to say how much had been offered.
China Eastern did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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 accident aircraft.
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 a lengthy grounding of the Max.
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 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 Reuters 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.
Ms Homendy said if the board has any safety concerns it will “issue urgent safety recommendations.”
The NTSB assisted Chinese investigators with the review of black boxes at its US lab in Washington at China’s request, despite political tensions between the countries.
CAAC said the NTSB confirmed that it did not release information about the China Eastern crash to media, the state-owned Global Times reported.
Shares of Boeing closed up 6.5 per cent.
A final report into the causes 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.
The cockpit voice recorder was damaged during the crash and it is unclear whether investigators have been able to retrieve any information from it.
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.