Chinese authorities overseeing the investigation into the crash of China Eastern Flight MU5735 revealed on Wednesday that they had finally located the “black box” – the data repository from the doomed flight that investigators hope will offer critical clues as to what went wrong. They also located the cockpit voice recorded, which was “seriously damaged”, raising the possibility that the audio record of the pilots’ final moments may be permanently lost. Both have been sent back to Beijing for further analysis.
The search-and-rescue mission resumed Wednesday morning after heavy rains forced an early halt on Tuesday. Still, no survivors have been located.
“Initial inspection shows the exterior of the recorder is severely damaged. The memory unit also sustained damage, but has remained intact,” said Zhu Tao, head of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
“The black box is now being sent to a civil aviation institute in Beijing for decoding. It will take some time to download and analyse the data. If the internal memory unit is damaged, it will take longer,” he said, adding that it would provide important information about the cause of the crash.
Unfortunately, the hunt for clues isn’t over: authorities are still looking for a second “black box” with additional flight data.
Zhu said the device had been spotted on the ground 20 meters southeast of the main crash site. He said the next step would be to look for the flight data recorder – the other black box – to piece together a full picture of what happened.
Black boxes are included on all passenger airliners; they’re designed to withstand high-impact crashes, so that data like plane performance, pilot input and cockpit audio
On a more morbid note, the Guangxi regional fire and rescue service also confirmed that they had found human remains amid the aircraft wreckage after searching an area of 46,000 square meters.
So far, investigators have found few clues as to what precipitated the crash, which occurred suddenly just as the plane was beginning its descent to its destination in Guangzhou. Instead of a smooth landing, it ended up plunging out of the sky and crashing into a mountainous area of Wuzhou in Guangxi.
Mao Yanfeng, director of the CAAC’s accident investigation unit, told reporters earlier in the day that the weather at the time of the crash was suitable for flying, and .
“The aircrew had maintained normal communication with air traffic control units since the aircraft took off from Kunming until the sudden drop in altitude, according to communication records,” Mao said.
Officials on Tuesday said the pilots had not responded to repeated calls from air traffic controllers when they became aware of the rapid drop in altitude.
Speaking at the same press conference earlier on Wednesday, China Eastern Airlines chairman Sun Shiying said the three pilots on board were all in good health, “had good performance and had maintained harmonious relationships with their families”.
The plane’s captain was hired in 2018 and had 6,709 flying hours, while the first officer had 31,769 hours of experience. A third pilot on board – an observer – had 556 flying hours.
Sun said the plane joined the fleet in June 2015, and met the conditions for flying during checks before take-off. Its maintenance had been in line with a strict plan and its technical condition was normal and stable, he added.
“The grounding of the Boeing 737-800 aircraft does not mean the model has hidden risks, but it is an emergency response after a major accident,” he said, adding that the airline’s operations would not be affected.
In other news, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg revealed on Wednesday that China’s civil aviation authority had invited the National Transportation Safety Board to directly participate in the investigation of the crash, with personnel from the organization welcome to join investigators on the ground.
“I am very encouraged that the Chinese civil aviation authorities invited NTSB to participate and be on the ground there,” Buttigieg told the press. “The [FAA] will stand ready to support NTSB any way that they can.”
China Eastern grounded its 737-800 fleet after the crash, and the airline is conducting “a large-scale safety inspection” to determine if there are any material weaknesses in its fleet.