UPDATE – A day after the fatal accident with one of its Boeing 737-800s, China Eastern Airlines has grounded the type until further notice, causing significant disruptions in its flight schedule. It is unclear when the carrier will resume services with the -800. Those with the smaller 737-700 remained on the flight schedule. China Eastern grounds 737-800s after tragic crash.
The accident involved 737-800 with registration B-1791, a 6.8 years old aircraft that was delivered to China Eastern on June 22, 2015. It has departed as flight MU5735 at 1.11 pm local time (5.11 am UTC) from Kunming in the Southwest of China and was heading for Guangzhou on what usually is a one hour, forty minutes flight.
About fifteen minutes before arriving in Guangzhou at 6.20.43 am UTC, it started its descent from 29.100 feet. As the Dutch website Aviation Safety Network says, this was at the same point where MU5375 started its descent on the previous day. For reasons yet to be explained, B-1791 lost altitude very quickly. According to ADS-B data published by Flightradar24 the aircraft was at 15.325 feet at 06.21.19, so losing half its altitude in just 36 seconds. It further dropped to 7.425 feet until 06.21.55 am before recovering slightly to 8.600 feet until 06.22.05 am. Thirty seconds later and at just 3.325 feet, the aircraft was seen on closed television cameras crashing at almost 180 degrees nose down into the ground and with a vertical speed of -31.000 feet per minute.
None of the 123 passengers and nine crew on board has survived the impact in the mountains near Tengxian. The crash site was remote and rescue teams had difficulty reaching the area, which was engulfed in flames immediately after the crash.
Other carriers continue -800 operations
The grounding of the 737-800 fleet seems to be China Eastern’s own initiative. There has been no advisory from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and other operators of the type, including China Southern, kept operating the -800 on March 22. China Eastern said in a media statement on Monday that the aircraft had been owned by Yunnan Co. Ltd, one of its subsidiaries. According to the website Planespotters, the aircraft was on lease from Yamasa Aircraft Leasing. In its February traffic data, China Eastern said on March 16 that its 737 fleet (all variants) consisted of 102 self-owned aircraft, 73 under financial lease, and 114 under operating lease, bringing the total number to 289. Planespotters specifies this as 108 737-800s, 39 -700s, and three MAX 8s, which have not returned to active service yet.
The investigation of the crash will be under CAAC leadership, with the participation of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the FAA, Boeing, and GE Aviation as the supplier of the CFM 56-engines. The CAAC said later on March 22 that it has issued a notice to start a two-week, industry-wide safety inspection “to further strengthen bottom-line thinking, strengthen the investigation potential safety hazards in the civil aviation field, ensure the absolute safety of aviation operations, and ensure the absolute safety of people’s lives.”
While there seems to be no immediate relation to the crash of flight UM5735, the CAAC wants to review safety standards at airlines, air traffic control agencies, insurance companies, airports, and flight training institutions.
The CAAC said on March 23 that the Cockpit Voice Recorder had been retrieved from the crash site. Although severely damaged externally, the investigators think it should be possible to access the recording. The Flight Data Recorder was found on March 27.
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.