BEIJING, March 21 (Reuters) – A Boeing 737-800 passenger plane operated by China Eastern Airlines with 132 people on board crashed into mountains in southern China on a domestic flight on Monday after a sudden descent from cruising altitude.
Nine crew members and 123 passengers were on board flight No. 5735, which had been travelling from Kunming to Guangzhou, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said.
The airline said it deeply mourned the passengers and crew. Chinese media showed brief highway video footage from a vehicle’s dashcam apparently showing a jet diving to the ground behind trees at an angle of about 35 degrees off vertical. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage
The plane was en route from the southwestern city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong, when it crashed.
China Eastern said the cause of the crash, in which the plane descended at 31,000 feet a minute according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, was under investigation.
The airline said it had provided a hotline for relatives of those on board and sent a working group to the site. There were no foreigners on the flight, Chinese state television reported, citing China Eastern.
Media cited a rescue official as saying the plane had disintegrated and caused a fire destroying bamboo trees. The People’s Daily quoted a provincial firefighting department official as saying there was no sign of life among the debris.
State media showed a piece of the plane on a scarred, earthen hillside. There was no sign of a fire or personal belongings.
The aircraft, with 123 passengers and nine crew on board, lost contact over the city of Wuzhou, China’s Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the airline said.
The flight left Kunming at 1:11 p.m. (0511 GMT), FlightRadar24 data showed, and had been due to land in Guangzhou at 3:05 p.m. (0705 GMT).
The plane, which Flightradar24 said was six years old, had been cruising at 29,100 feet at 0620 GMT. Just over two minutes and 15 seconds later, data showed it had descended to 9,075 feet.
Twenty seconds later, its last tracked altitude was 3,225 feet.
Crashes during the cruise phase of flights are relatively rare even though this phase accounts for the majority of flight time. Boeing said last year only 13% of fatal commercial accidents globally between 2011 and 2020 occurred during the cruise phase, whereas 28% occurred on final approach and 26% on landing.
“Usually the plane is on auto-pilot during cruise stage. So it is very hard to fathom what happened,” said Li Xiaojin, a Chinese aviation expert.
Online weather data showed partly cloudy conditions with good visibility in Wuzhou at the time of the crash.
President Xi Jinping called for investigators to determine the cause of the crash as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
A Boeing spokesperson said: “We are aware of the initial media reports and are working to gather more information.”
Shares of Boeing Co (BA.N) were down 5% at 1455 GMT.
Shares in China Eastern Airlines in Hong Kong closed down 6.5% after news of the crash emerged, while its U.S.-listed shares slumped 17% in premarket trading.
China Eastern grounded its fleet of 737-800 planes after the crash, state media reported. China Eastern has 109 of the aircraft in its fleet, according to FlightRadar24.
Aviation data provider OAG said this month that state-owned China Eastern Airlines was the world’s sixth-largest carrier by scheduled weekly seat capacity.
The 737-800 has a good safety record and is the predecessor to the 737 MAX model that has been grounded in China for more than three years after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
China’s airline safety record has been among the best in the world for a decade.
“The CAAC has very rigid safety regulations and we will just need to wait for more details,” said Shukor Yusof, head of Malaysia-based aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.
Investigators will search for the plane’s black boxes – the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder – to shed light on the crash.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was ready to assist with China’s investigation if asked.
China’s aviation safety record, while good, is less transparent than in countries like the United States and Australia where regulators release detailed reports on non-fatal incidents, said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at industry publication Flightglobal.
“There have been concerns that there is some underreporting of safety lapses on the mainland,” he said.
According to Aviation Safety Network, China’s last fatal jet accident was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board were killed when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport.
In 1994 a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Xian to Guangzhou crashed, killing all 160 on board in China’s worst-ever air disaster, according to Aviation Safety Network.