Report: Data Suggests Intentional Nosedive in China Eastern Plane Crash

Flight data reportedly indicates that someone in the cockpit of a China Eastern Airlines flight intentionally crashed the Boeing 737-800 on March 21, killing all 132 people on board, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800

China Eastern Airlines has returned its fleet of 737-800 aircraft to the air. [File photo: Shutterstock]

Recovered flight data reportedly indicates that someone on the flight deck of a China Eastern Airlines flight intentionally crashed the Boeing 737-800 last March 21, killing all 132 people on board, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. The journal report cites “people familiar with U.S. officials’ preliminary assessment of what led to the accident.” 

During the 90-minute flight from Kunming to Guangzhou, China, the airliner went into a near vertical dive over a rural area, impacting a mountain so hard that it fragmented, leaving a crater 60 feet deep.

The jet plunged from 29,000 feet. The last recorded airspeed was 628 mph (545 knots). 

Information from the airplane’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder recovered in the crash, the journal reported, suggests inputs to the controls pushed the airplane into the dive, according to the paper’s sources. 

So little is known about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy that there have been numerous unanswered questions about its cause. 

A statement released last April by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) noted that there were no issues uncovered in a review of the aircraft’s maintenance records, and the weather at the time of the accident did not appear to be a factor. In previous reports, the CAAC noted the flight crew appeared to be well trained, and there were no issues there either.

In fact, immediately following the crash, concerns about the aircraft type prompted the airline to ground all 223 of its 737-800s as a precaution. The airliners were inspected and airworthiness for each aircraft verified. Those aircraft returned to flight in April.

The CAAC is leading the investigation, but because the accident involves an aircraft designed and built in the U.S., Boeing, CFM—the manufacturers of the engine—and the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) are assisting in the investigation.

Both so-called “black boxes”—the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder—are in Washington, D.C., being studied by the NTSB. 

The flight data recorder provides information about the aircraft speed, altitude, and engine operations. The cockpit voice recorder should have captured conversations on the flight deck, which could potentially reveal what caused the aircraft to enter the dive. 

Investigators have determined that the onset of the jet’s steep dive appears to have coincided with the time that they would normally begin a descent to the destination.

Editor's note: FLYING’s Meg Godlewski contributed to this report. 

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.

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