Getting to grips with . . .

China Eastern Airlines plane crash: how did disaster occur at 29,000 feet?

Piecing together a full picture of events ‘could take years’

The first 64 minutes of China Eastern flight MU5735 last Monday passed without incident, said Andreas Spaeth in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Zurich). The Boeing 737-89P passenger jet was cruising at 29,000ft; conditions for the internal flight from Kunming to Guangzhou were good.

Then, all of a sudden, for “no apparent reason”, it went into a near-vertical nosedive. But after falling for 72 seconds, “something mysterious happened”: the plane pulled up at an altitude of 7,425ft, climbing to 8,600ft for another ten seconds – before finally plummeting to earth on a mountainside near the city of Wuzhou. All 132 people on board died – but the brief climb suggests the pilots, at least, were conscious for the descent.

Investigators found the cockpit voice recorder and then, several days later, the second black box – the flight data recorder, said Holly Chik in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). Nevertheless, piecing together a full picture of events “could take years”.

The type of Boeing 737 involved has an excellent safety record, said James Palmer in Foreign Policy (Washington) – as, over the past decade, does Chinese aviation. True, the country’s main carrier, China Airlines, had a reputation in the 1990s for “undertrained pilots and poorly maintained aircraft”: accidents were common; it was among the deadliest airlines in the world. But that was before China underwent a massive programme of airport expansion.

Flying has now replaced rail as the main mode of internal travel for its middle class: passenger numbers grew from 72 million in 2000 to 418 million in 2020, when for the first time China’s passenger numbers overtook those of the US. That growth was accompanied by a successful safety programme: the accident rate fell by 80%, even as the plane fleet almost tripled.

This crash isn’t just a blow to China’s safety record, said Niraj Chokshi in The New York Times – it’s a disaster for Boeing, too. “An icon of the aviation age, Boeing is the largest manufacturing exporter in the US”, and at a time when US and European demand is flattening, China has become vital to its sales drive.

But, of late, the company has been rocked by safety scares relating to its 737 Max, the model of plane involved in the two major crashes (Indonesia, 2018; Ethiopia, 2019) in which a total of 346 people died, a disaster which led to “billions of dollars in fines, settlements and lost orders”. As it happens, experts doubt the China crash was linked to any fundamental design flaw; but Boeing just can’t afford any kind of setback in what is now perhaps its most important market.

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