BEIJING — A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, officials said, setting off a forest fire visible from space in the country’s worst air disaster in nearly a decade.
More than 15 hours after communication was lost with the plane, there was still no word about the fate of passengers and crew members, leaving families waiting to learn whether anyone survived.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China said the crash occurred near the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. It was travelling from Kunming, in Yunnan’s southwest province to Guangzhou on the east coast.
China Eastern flight 5735 was traveling 455 knots (523 mph, 842 kph) at around 29,000 feet when it entered a steep and fast dive around 2: 20 p.m. local time, according to data from flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com. The plane plunged to 7,400 feet before briefly regaining about 1,200 feel in altitude, then dove again. The plane stopped transmitting data 96 seconds after starting to fall.
Local villager were the first to reach the area of forested where the plane crashed. This set off a firestorm that could be seen in NASA satellite imagery. Guangxi, along with neighboring Guangdong Province were quick to dispatch hundreds of rescue personnel.
The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, the CAAC said, correcting earlier reports that 133 people had been on board. About an hour had passed before the plane began to descend into Guangzhou.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for an “all-out effort” by the rescue operation, as well as for an investigation into the crash and to ensure complete civil aviation safety.
Relatives arrived at the China Eastern office close to Kunming’s airport, where the plane took flight. State broadcaster CCTV reported. An Associated Press journalist witnessed security officers and police patrolling the area with flashlights. They ordered journalists to get out. A group of about twelve people huddled at tables reading documents and wore jackets that identified them as being from China’s aviation agency.
State media reported all 737-800s in China Eastern’s fleet were ordered grounded. Experts in aviation say it’s unusual for a whole fleet to be grounded unless the plane is defective. China has more 737-800s than any other country — nearly 1,200 — and if identical planes at other Chinese airlines are grounded, it “could have a significant impact on domestic travel,” said aviation consultant IBA.
Boeing 737-800s have been flying since 1998, and Boeing has sold more than 5,100 of them. They have been involved in 22 accidents that damaged the planes beyond repair and killed 612 people, according to data compiled by the Aviation Safety Network, an arm of the Flight Safety Foundation.
” There are many of these around the globe. It’s certainly had an excellent safety record,” the foundation’s president, Hassan Shahidi, said of the 737-800.
The plane was not a Boeing 737 Max, the planes that were grounded worldwide for nearly two years after deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019.
China’s air-safety record has improved since the 1990s as air travel has grown dramatically with the rise of a burgeoning middle class. Before Monday, the last fatal crash of a Chinese airliner occurred in August 2010, when an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground short of the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. All 44 people on board were killed. Investigators blamed pilot error. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board posted Monday that they had selected a senior investigator for the crash investigation. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the 737-800 in the 1990s, said it was ready to help in the investigation if asked.
Chicago-based Boeing Co. said it was in contact with the U.S. safety board “and our technical experts are prepared to assist with the investigation led by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.” Boeing shares fell 3.6% during trading in New York. According to the safety board, engine manufacturer CFM (a joint venture of General Electric and France’s Safran) would offer technical assistance on issues with engines. Crash investigations are typically led by the authorities in the country in which the accident occurred. However, they often include the aircraft’s manufacturer as well as the regulator or investigator from the home country.
Shahidi stated that he expected investigators to examine the aircraft’s maintenance records, as well as the records and training of pilots. They will also discuss air traffic control and related topics.
Headquartered in Shanghai, China Eastern is one of the country’s top three airlines, operating scores of domestic and international routes serving 248 destinations.
The aircraft was delivered to the airliner from Boeing in June 2015 and had been flying for more than six years. China Eastern Airlines uses the Boeing 737-800 as a workhorse of its fleet — the airline has more than 600 planes, and 109 are Boeing 737-800s.
Broadcaster CCTV said China Eastern set up nine teams to deal with aircraft disposal, accident investigation, family assistance and other pressing matters. Both China Eastern and the CAAC stated that they sent emergency personnel to the site of the crash.
China Eastern online made its website have a black-and-white homepage after the crash. The accident became an instant topic on China’s Weibo-like platform with over 1. 34 billion views and 690,000 discussions. While many posted condolences for the victims’ families, others raised concerns about the safety of the planes.
The twin-engine, single-aisle Boeing 737 in various versions has been flying for more than 50 years and is one of the world’s most popular planes for short and medium-haul flights.
The 737 Max, a later version, was grounded for about 20 months after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people. China’s aviation regulator approved the Max for return to service in December. However, Chinese airlines still haven’t resumed using the Max.
The deadliest crash involving a Boeing 737-800 came in January 2020, when Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard accidentally shot down a Ukraine International Airlines flight, killing all 176 people on board.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing, researcher Si Chen in Shanghai, videographer Dake Kang in Kunming, China, writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, video producer Penny Wang and writer Adam Schreck in Bangkok and airlines writer David Koenig in Dallas also contributed.