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Fatal Chinese plane crash was deliberate, reports suggest

The China Eastern crash probe is looking into crew actions.
The China Eastern crash probe is looking into crew actions.   -   Copyright  Reuters
By Lottie Limb  with Reuters

A fatal China Eastern Airlines plane crash may have been caused intentionally, according to US media reports.

Investigators have so far found no evidence of a technical fault with the Boeing 737-800 jet which crashed while flying between the southern Chinese cities of Kunming and Guangzhouin on 21 March, killing all 123 passengers and nine crew.

Both black boxes - which record planes’ flight data - were recovered from the wreckage on the mountains of southern Guangxi, but the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) previously said it could take up to a year to establish the cause of the incident.

However the Wall Street Journal says people close to US officials, also analysing the data, conclude “the plane did what it was told to do by someone in the cockpit.”

The sudden nosedive of the jet from cruising altitude puzzled experts from the start, as China’s deadliest aviation disaster for 28 years sent shockwaves around the country.

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 that investigators were looking at whether the crash was a "voluntary" act involving crew inputs to the controls, though that does not necessarily mean the dive was intentional.

The cockpit voice recorder was damaged during the crash and it is unclear whether investigators have been able to retrieve any information from it.

What do we know about the investigation into the China Eastern Airlines crash?

In a summary of an unpublished preliminary crash report last month, Chinese investigators did not point to any technical recommendations for the 737-800, which has been in service since 1997 with a strong safety record, according to experts.

Following the incident, US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Boeing staff travelled to China to support the Chinese investigation, which had not found any safety issues requiring urgent action.

The NTSB assisted Chinese investigators with the review of black boxes at its US laboratory in Washington at China's request, despite political tension between the countries.

In response to online rumours of a deliberate crash circulating in April, the CAAC said speculation has “gravely misled the public" and "interfered with the accident investigation work".

The regulator did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters on the latest story.

CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS
No evidence has yet been found of a technical malfunction.CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

How has China responded to the US reports?

Screenshots of the Wall Street Journal story appeared to have been censored both on China's Weibo social media platform and the Wechat messaging app on Wednesday.

The hashtag topics "China Eastern" and "China Eastern black boxes" are banned on Weibo, which cited a breach of laws, and users are unable to share posts on the incident in Wechat groups.

On Wednesday, a woman who had lost her husband in the crash - and asked to be identified only by her surname, Wen - said she had not seen the Wall Street Journal report but hoped the results of the investigation would be released soon.

Wen added that she and other members of victims' families had signed an agreement with China Eastern that included a clause on compensation, but declined to say how much was offered.

China Eastern did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

How common are deliberate plane crashes?

A final report into the causes of the crash could take two years or more to compile, Chinese officials have said.

Analysts blame most crashes on a cocktail of human and technical factors.

Deliberate crashes are exceptionally rare globally.

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.