More than 130 people on the doomed Boeing 737 flight in China endured a terrifying final three minutes as the plane dropped altitude sharply - before plunging vertically from the sky.
Flight data of the China Eastern Airlines passenger jet has revealed the final minutes of the ill-fated airliner. In two minutes and 15 seconds, the plane dropped from an altitude of 29,100ft to 9075ft, according to Flight tracking website FlightRadar24. The last reported altitude for the plane was 3225ft.
Witness video shows the plane in a near-vertical dive towards a mountainside seconds before it crashed.
During this time, an aviation expert claims the pilots would have been powerless to rescue the plane, as the huge drop in altitude would have rendered the passengers and crew unconscious.
Flight commentator Sally Gethin said that while the gravitation force from the 6000m plunge would have knocked the pilots out, flight data may have shown the "10 to 20-second spell where one or more of the pilots regained consciousness and tried to save the plane," she told The Sun.
The plane was carrying 132 air crew and passengers and there are no reported survivors.
FlightRadar24 showed no more data for flight MU5735 after 2.22pm local time.
The director of aviation consultancy firm Cirium said the Boeing 737 jet was one of the safest planes ever made and struggled to explain how the incident happened.
"The 737 NG has been in operation for 25 years and has an excellent safety record," he told Bloomberg.
"I'm not going to speculate on what happened but if the Flightradar24 logs are accurate, something seems to have happened abruptly and the plane nose dived from cruising altitude."
The Civil Aviation Administration of China said in a statement that the crash occurred near the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. The flight was travelling from Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan to the industrial centre of Guangzhou along the east coast, it added.
Local villagers were first to arrive at the forested area where the plane went down and sparked a blaze big enough to be seen on Nasa satellite images. Hundreds of rescue workers were swiftly dispatched from Guangxi and the neighbouring Guangdong province.
The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, the CAAC said, correcting earlier reports that 133 people had been on board.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for an "all-out effort" by the rescue operation, as well as for an investigation into the crash and to ensure complete civil aviation safety.
State media reported all 737-800s in China Eastern's fleet were ordered grounded. Aviation experts said it is unusual to ground an entire fleet of planes unless there is evidence of a problem with the model.
Boeing 737-800s have been flying since 1998, and Boeing has sold more than 5100 of them. They have been involved in 22 accidents that destroyed the planes and killed 612 people, according to data compiled by the Aviation Safety Network, an arm of the Flight Safety Foundation.
"There are thousands of them around the world. It's certainly had an excellent safety record," the foundation's president, Hassan Shahidi, said of the 737-800.
China's air-safety record has improved since the 1990s as air travel has grown dramatically with the rise of a burgeoning middle class.
Before Monday, the last fatal crash of a Chinese airliner occurred in August 2010, when an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground short of the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. All 44 people on board were killed. Investigators blamed pilot error.
Aviation experts said they expect that China will ask the US National Transportation Safety Board for help, although a safety board spokesman said Monday that had not happened yet.
The US Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the 737-800 in the 1990s, said it was ready to help in the investigation if asked.
Crash investigations are usually led by officials in the country where the crash occurred, but they typically include the aeroplane's manufacturer and the investigator or regulator in the manufacturer's home country.
Shahidi said he expects investigators to comb through the maintenance history of the plane and its engines, the training and records of the pilots, air traffic control discussions and other topics.
Chicago-based Boeing Co. said it was aware of reports of the crash and was trying to gather more information. Boeing shares fell more than 4 per cent in afternoon trading in New York.
Headquartered in Shanghai, China Eastern is one of the country's top three airlines, operating scores of domestic and international routes serving 248 destinations.
The aircraft was delivered to the airliner from Boeing in June 2015 and had been flying for more than six years. China Eastern Airlines uses the Boeing 737-800 as a workhorse of its fleet — the airline has more than 600 planes, and 109 are Boeing 737-800s.
Chinese broadcaster CCTV said China Eastern set up nine teams to deal with aircraft disposal, accident investigation, family assistance and other pressing matters.
The CAAC and China Eastern both said they had sent officials to the crash site in accordance with emergency measures.
China Eastern online made its website have a black-and-white homepage after the crash.
The accident quickly became a leading topic on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform, with 1.34 billion views and 690,000 discussions. Many posts expressed condolences to the families of victims, while others questioned the planes' safety.
The twin-engine, single-aisle Boeing 737 in various versions has been flying for more than 50 years and is one of the world's most popular planes for short and medium-haul flights.
The 737 Max, a later version, was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after two crashes in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people. China's aviation regulator cleared the Max to return to service late last year, making the country the last major market to do so.
The deadliest crash involving a Boeing 737-800 came in January 2020, when Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard accidentally shot down a Ukraine International Airlines flight, killing all 176 people on board.
Serious questions asked about Boeing
The crash comes amid falling trust in Boeing after two crashes involving the planes in recent years.
The iconic company, created in 1916, introduced the commercial jet that made flying affordable for most people and for many years was the most popular supplier of aircraft to airlines around the world.
At any minute there are around 10,000 Boeing planes in service in more than 150 countries around the globe.
But that trust was shaken when two planes fell out of the sky killing hundreds, within months of each other — Lion Air Flight 610 which crashed in Indonesia in 2018, killing 189 people, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 which claimed 157 lives when it crashed in Ethiopia.
What was extremely shocking was they were both brand new planes, the 737 Max.
Jon Ostrower, Editor in Chief of aviation publication The Air Current said: "Two crashes of brand new aeroplanes within five months of each other, that doesn't happen in modern aviation."
• Air New Zealand no longer uses Boeing 737s for its domestic routes, opting in 2015 for an Airbus A320 fleet. Qantas uses some 737-800s for transtasman flights.