BEIJING — China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 was at 29,100 feet in clear afternoon skies over the hills of southern China, seemingly ready for a smooth landing in Guangzhou. The plane, a Boeing 737-800 NG, was only seven years old. One of China’s most experienced aviators was among the three pilots in the cockpit.
But then, at 2:20 p.m. on March 21, the aircraft plummeted.
Air traffic controllers made frantic calls that went unanswered. The pilots sent no Mayday messages. The plane fell more than 20,000 feet in less than a minute, to 7,400 feet. Then it gained 1,200 feet of altitude in about 15 seconds, before a final plunge into a hillside covered in bamboo groves and banana trees. The plane was almost exactly vertical and approaching the speed of sound as it tore into the soft earth, with pieces of the aircraft driving as deep as 60 feet into the mud. Two pieces of a wingtip landed seven miles away.
Investigators, including a seven-member team from the United States that arrived Saturday, are scrambling to understand what happened in the final minutes before the plane plunged headlong, killing all 132 people onboard.
Every air crash investigation poses unique challenges. But this one, China’s worst air disaster in more than a decade, is even more of a mystery because the plane was obliterated by the extraordinarily high speed of its impact, at essentially a 90-degree angle. At the end of the search last week, rescuers said they had recovered 49,117 pieces from the wreck.
China also maintains an unusually tight grip on information, censoring discussion and speculation online and allowing only limited coverage of the disaster. Chinese officials have closely guarded much of the information about the crash. Families of the victims have been monitored to prevent them from speaking with journalists or staging any protests. The names of the pilots have not been officially released, although a state-owned newspaper in Hong Kong published them anyway.
Much hinges on…
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