WASHINGTON – Investigators investigating a China Eastern Airlines jet crash are investigating whether it was a deliberate move to call a flight, with no evidence of a technical glitch yet, two people have said.
The Wall Street Journal reported early Tuesday that flight data from the black box of a Boeing 737-800 indicates that someone in the cockpit intentionally crashed the plane, citing people familiar with the initial assessment by U.S. officials.
Boeing Co., the jet maker, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declined to comment and referred questions to Chinese regulators.
The Boeing 737-800, en route from Kunming to Guangzhou, crashed on March 21 after crashing into a mountain in Guangzhou, killing 123 passengers and nine crew members.
It was the deadliest plane crash on mainland China in 28 years.
During the quick landing, the pilots did not respond to repeated calls from air traffic controllers and nearby aircraft, authorities said. A source told Reuters investigators were looking into whether the crash was a “voluntary” act.
Screenshots of the Wall Street Journal’s story on Wednesday morning appeared to have been censored on both the Chinese Twitter-like platform Weibo and the messaging app WeChat. The hashtag topics “China Eastern” and “China Eastern Black Box” have been banned on Weibo, citing relevant law violations, and users are unable to share the story in group chats on WeChat.
China’s Civil Aviation Administration said in response to rumors on the Internet of an intentional crash on April 11 that the speculation “seriously misled the public” and “interfered with the investigation of the crash.”
China Eastern did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The Wall Street Journal said the airline said in a statement that it had found no evidence that could determine if there were any problems with the crashed plane. The Chinese embassy declined to comment.
The 737-800 is a widely circulated predecessor to Boeing’s 737 MAX but lacks the systems associated with the fatal 737-MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that led to the MAX’s long grounding.
China Eastern grounded its entire fleet of 737-800 aircraft after the crash, but resumed flights in mid-April in a move that would have eliminated any immediate new safety concerns over Boeing’s previous and still widely used models.
In summary of an unpublished initial crash report last month, according to experts, Chinese regulators did not point to any technical recommendations of the 737-800, which has been in service since 1997 with a strong safety record.
NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendi said in a May 10 Reuters interview that the board had traveled to China to assist investigators and Boeing Chinese investigators. He noted that to date the investigation has not found any security issues that would require urgent action.
Homendi said the board would issue “emergency safety recommendations” if it had any security concerns.
NTSB assisted Chinese investigators in reviewing the black box at a U.S. lab in Washington.
Shares of Boeing closed up 6.5%.
It could take two years or more to compile a final report on the causes, Chinese officials say. Analysts say most accidents are caused by cocktails for human and technical reasons.
Deliberate crashes are extremely rare. Experts point out that whether the latest hypothesis is open is due to a pilot acting alone or the result of a struggle or intrusion, but sources have not been able to confirm anything.
In March 2015, a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately flew an Airbus A320 over a French mountain, killing 150 passengers.
French investigators have found that the 27-year-old suspect was suffering from a “psychotic depressive episode” hidden from his employer. They later called for better mental health guidelines and stronger peer support groups for pilots. (Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, Tim Heffer in Paris and Abhijit Ganapavaram in Bangalore; Additional reporting by Stella Q in Beijing; Editing by Leslie Adler, Margurita Choy and Richard Pulin)