China Claims Black Box Found, But Asks Public to Wait Years for Plane Crash Explanation

A worker wearing a protective suit prepares to assist people outside a hotel displaying a
AP Photo/Olivia Zhang

Chinese crash site investigators said on Wednesday that one of the “black box” flight recorders from China Eastern Flight MU5735 has been found and is “relatively intact.”

The search for a second black box continues, allegedly hampered by heavy rain in the area. Chinese state media continues to provide few serious details about the crash, beyond confirming on Tuesday that none of the 132 passengers or crew survived it.

Flight MU5735, a Boeing 737-800 NG aircraft with good individual and class safety records, bizarrely plunged from its 29,000-foot altitude to crash in the mountainous Guangxi area on Monday, shortly before it should have commenced a routine descent into the regional air hub of Guangzhou to conclude its two-hour flight. 

A handful of local eyewitness accounts and smartphone videos posted on social media suggest the plane was intact when it began its crash-dive. Independent flight tracking systems showed the plane diving at roughly 31,000 feet per minute. A curious anomaly in the data showed the plane halting its dive at 7,425 feet, regaining about 1,200 feet of altitude, and then diving again until it crashed into a mountain.

The New York Times on Wednesday quoted data from Boeing that show cruising and initial descent are normally the safest phases of air travel, accounting for only 13 and 3 percent of fatal crashes, respectively.

A video posted by China’s state Xinhua news service on Wednesday showed investigators retrieving the black box (which is actually painted orange) from a muddy hillside and sealing it inside a plastic evidence bag.

Aviation safety director Zhu Tao of the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) told reporters on Wednesday that the recovered black box will be taken to Beijing for “decoding and analysis” so investigators can “provide even more comprehensive data support to reconstruct the entire incident.” 

Zhu provided no estimate for how long this process might take, but analyzing black boxes usually takes a matter of days, depending on how badly damaged they are. Other Chinese officials have suggested the investigation could take “years,” and minimal information will be released to the public until it is completed, a position that has not been well-received by the Chinese public.

China’s state-run Global Times told the public to brace itself for a long wait before any more information about the crash is disclosed:

In the era of social media, air crashes have become one of the most communicative events. There are many questions about such a crash that people want urgent answers to. But it is also important to see that the accident investigation will last a long time, which is the general rule of any aircraft accident. From past experience, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, killing all 228 passengers and crew on board, yet the formal investigation report was released three years later. The final report of the disappearance of Flight MH370 in 2014 was also released more than four years after the accident, which still has not been solved.

This is because investigations of air crashes require the collection of relevant materials from the site, comprehensive analysis in the laboratory, simulated reconstruction of the accident, and large quantities of discussions and review, before a final conclusion could be reached. Rescue factors for such air crashes are complicated, with a high fatality rate and complex aircraft components, and high professionalism is required. They all make it difficult for each link to advance quickly. CAAC personnel also said in the same press conference that the aircraft damage is serious, and the investigation is very difficult. With the information currently available, it is not possible to have a clear judgment on the cause of the accident.

A senior CAAC accident investigator said at another news conference that the threat of landslides caused by heavy rain was hampering the search for the second black box, cockpit voice recorders, and other debris. Weather conditions were not considered dangerous at the time of the crash on Monday.

Another CAAC official stated Flight MU5735 met all standards for airworthiness before takeoff, the crew were all in good health, and the plane had three pilots on board – one more than ordinarily required. The third pilot was described as an observer seeking to increase their 556 hours of flight time.

“From what we know, the performance of the three pilots had been good and their family life relatively harmonious,” said a China Eastern official, listing 6,709 hours of flight experience for the captain and 31,769 for the first officer. None of these statements from government or airline officials named the crew members.

Reuters quoted a Chinese state media source that said China Eastern is now requiring “two senior captains and a senior co-pilot on a three-person crew on some aircraft types” after the MU5735 crash. The airline has also temporarily grounded all of its 737-800 planes.


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