- Sarah Bores
China Eastern Flight 5735 Crash Reignites the Country’s Concerns of Boeing Aircraft’s Safety
On March 21 2022, China Eastern Flight MU 5735 departed from the Capital of Yunnan Province for what was supposed to be an hour-and-a-half flight. Instead of landing safely in Guangzhou, China, a shocking crash mid-flight sent the plane smashing into a hillside near Wuzhou, Southern China and resulted in the deaths of all 132 people on board. With the cause of this devastating crash remaining unknown, authorities and investigators are still tirelessly searching for what could have caused this accident to occur.
The aircraft involved was a six year old Boeing 737-800 NG model, a part of the Next Generation (NG) era of aircrafts following the 737 Max, and is considered an extremely safe aircraft with just 0.07 fatal crashes per million flights as of 2019, one of the best safety records among all aircrafts. The most recent fatal crash involving a Boeing 737-800 occurred in Kozhikode, India in August of 2020 when an Air India Express flight slid off the runway. This crash ultimately resulted in the deaths of 21 people onboard, but an investigation found that the crash was caused by pilot error, not any mechanical malfunctions with the aircraft.
In the case of China Eastern Flight 5735, it has been determined that at about 2:20pm, the plane was 29,100 feet in the air before it began to abruptly descend. After dropping about 1,000 feet, contact was lost as the plane continued to nose dive, falling over 25,000 feet in just two minutes. A crash like this occurring mid-flight is “simply unprecedented,” according to Sheila Kahyaoglu, an aerospace and defense analyst at Jefferies. Additionally, this aircraft is prominent globally, making up the entire fleet of European airline Ryanair and currently being in service with American Airlines, FlyDubai, Ethiopian, and Qantas. Its widespread use and seemingly sound manufacturing is seen in its history of durability in extreme conditions, making determining the cause of the crash even more difficult.
Authorities are continuing to piece together the thousands of pieces of the plane that littered the mountainous crash site and are actively trying to recover information from the flight-data recorder and black boxes on board. These pieces of technology contain vital information that could provide insight to what ultimately caused the crash, such as cockpit voice recordings and the flight’s analytics. A majority of the debris from the plane was spread within a 30 yard radius of the crash and about 20 yards beneath the ground, however some even stretched up to six miles from the crash site. The flight-data recorder was located about 40 meters from the crash site on March 21, and investigators are continuing to examine any external factors that could have played a role including weather data, pilot health history, and plane maintenance.
Searchers also unearthed two flight recorders from the plane along with parts of the engine amongst the wreckage. Despite locating these devices, they are severely damaged, making the process of retrieving and decoding the information they contain increasingly difficult. The cockpit voice recorder was found buried five feet underground through the detection mechanics of an Emergency Location Transmitter, and the data has already begun to be downloaded and processed at a lab in Beijing. However, the storage chip was damaged, forcing the team to send the chip to the manufacturer in attempts to repair the chip and retrieve audio of the cockpit as the plane pummeled to the ground.
In response to the horrific events, Boeing issued a statement on China Eastern Airlines Flight MU 5735 expressing their deep condolences, stating “thoughts and prayers are with the passengers and crew, their families and all those affected by this accident.”
They went on to pledge their technical team’s assistance in the investigation and to examine the situation. Chinese President Xi Jinping also responded to the accident by swiftly ordering an investigation and rescue teams to the location. China’s immediate action also serves to protect the Chinese government from any backlash from victims' families concerning inadequate action in handling the crisis.
The crash of China Eastern Flight MU 5735 comes just three years after the Boeing 737 Max was grounded worldwide in one of the longest groundings in aviation history due to the two major crashes using the aircraft that resulted in the deaths of 346 people in total. While it is not likely that the fleet of Boeing 737-800s will be grounded since an issue with the model not been proven, it is important to note that China has more of these model planes than any other country and if they were to be grounded, it would dramatically impact means of domestic travel as well as Boeing’s reputation with China.
The devastating crashes of the Boeing 737 were ultimately caused by an error in a software program called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. This was designed to automatically push the nose of the plane down if it was set off by sensors, however, faulty data from sensors could cause the plane to nosedive. In addition to giving pilots just three seconds to try and override the automatic movement of the plane, Boeing failed to submit documentation of their revised system safety assessment to the FAA and consider the possibility that the system could be triggered repeatedly, a situation that occurred on both accident flights. This caused the nose of the plane to move multiple times in 0.6 or 2.5 degree increments depending on the speed giving the automatic system virtually unlimited authority if pilots did not intervene.
The chief technical pilot of the Boeing 737, Mark Forkner, has consequently been charged with two counts of fraud and four counts of wire fraud serving as the first prosecution following the two fatal Boeing crashes. China was the first country to ground the Boeing 737 Max in 2019 following the deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, resulting in the grounding of about a quarter of all 737 Max planes at the time, and inspiring authorities in Mongolia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Singapore as well as carriers in Latin America and South Korea, to do the same. Since the incident, China has held off on letting the 737 Max aircraft’s reinstatement. China’s hesitant approach to approving the 737 Max speaks to their concerns over the safety of the Boeing aircraft, an issue that has been magnified by the most recent fatal Boeing crash.
Ironically, Boeing had been close to restarting 737 Max passenger service in China and was hoping to resume 737 Max sales in China this quarter. Despite the crash on March 21 not involving a Max, it is a major setback to Boeing’s efforts to rebuild public confidence in the safety of its aircrafts, repair their reputation as a company, and try to recover from the financial losses of all the 737 groundings. This most recent crash increases the likelihood that Chinese government officials will be hesitant to approve the 737 Max’s return to commercial service in China, jeopardizing the Chicago-based manufacturer’s efforts to regain China’s trust. This ongoing investigation of another fatal accident involving a Boeing aircraft will prove damaging to both Boeing’s finances and the company’s reputation in regards to safety. According to JPMorgan analyst Seth Seifman, further delays of 737 Max sales in China would have significant impacts to Boeing’s cash flow and production plans, especially considering that just the initial day of the crash Boeing stock had already dropped by more than four percent.
In the weeks following this fatal accident, Chinese officials have continued their investigation, coordinating teams to collaborate in accessing any data that could provide additional information. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been working in tandem with China to determine the cause of the crash, assisting in efforts to access and download the cockpit voice recorder and analyze the black boxes that were discovered. The Chinese state media spoke of the urgency to uncover the cause of the crash, stating that information must be released in a timely manner and that going forward, a nationwide safety inspection must be launched in order to prevent future safety accidents. In response to the growing theories of possible human error by the pilot or manufacturing errors on the part of Boeing, the Chinese state media said that if negligence has occurred, personnel in charge, as well as relevant top officials, will be thoroughly investigated.