By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Investigators looking into the crash of a China Eastern Airlines jet are examining the actions of the crew on the flight deck, with no evidence found of a technical malfunction, two people briefed on the matter said.
In mainland China’s deadliest aviation disaster for 28 years, the Boeing 737-800 crashed in the mountains of southern Guangxi on March 21, after a sudden plunge from cruising altitude, killing all 123 passengers and nine crew.
The pilots did not respond to repeated calls from air traffic controllers and nearby planes during the rapid descent, authorities have said.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal said flight data from one of the black boxes indicated that someone in the cockpit intentionally crashed the plane, citing people familiar with the preliminary assessment of U.S. officials.
One source told Reuters that investigators were looking at whether the crash was a “voluntary” act involving crew inputs to the controls, though that does not necessarily mean the dive was intentional.
The cockpit voice recorder was damaged during the crash and it is unclear whether investigators have been able to retrieve any information from it.
Boeing Co, the maker of the jet, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declined to comment and referred questions to Chinese regulators.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which is leading the investigation, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Screenshots of the Wall Street Journal story appeared to have been censored both on China’s Weibo social media platform and the Wechat messaging app on Wednesday.
The hashtag topics “China Eastern” and “China Eastern black boxes” are banned on Weibo, which cited a breach of laws, and users are unable to share posts on the incident in Wechat groups.
In an April 11 response to internet rumors of a deliberate crash, the CAAC said the speculation had “gravely misled the public” and “interfered with the accident investigation work”.
On Wednesday, a woman who had lost her husband in the crash, asked to be identified only by her surname, Wen, said she had not seen the Wall Street Journal report but hoped the results of the investigation would be released soon.
Wen added that she and other members of victims’ families had signed an agreement with China Eastern that included a clause on compensation, but declined to say how much was offered.
China Eastern did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Wall Street Journal said the airline had said in a statement that no evidence had emerged that could determine if there were any problems with the aircraft.
NO TECHNICAL RECOMMENDATIONS
The 737-800 is a widely flown predecessor to Boeing’s 737 MAX but lacks the systems linked to fatal 737-MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that brought a lengthy grounding of the MAX.
China Eastern grounded its entire fleet of 737-800 planes after the crash but resumed flights in mid-April, a decision widely seen at the time as ruling out any immediate new safety concerns over Boeing’s most widely used model.
In a summary of an unpublished preliminary crash report last month, Chinese investigators did not point to any technical recommendations for the 737-800, which has been in service since 1997 with a strong safety record, according to experts.
In a May 10 interview with Reuters, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said board investigators and Boeing had traveled to China to assist the Chinese investigation, which had not found any safety issues requiring urgent action.
Homendy said if the board had any safety concerns it would “issue urgent safety recommendations.”
The NTSB assisted Chinese investigators with the review of black boxes at its U.S. laboratory in Washington at China’s request, despite political tension between the countries.
CAAC said the NTSB confirmed that it did not release information about the China Eastern crash to media, the state-owned Global Times said.
Shares of Boeing closed up 6.5%.
A final report into the causes of the crash could take two years or more to compile, Chinese officials have said. Analysts blame most crashes on a cocktail of human and technical factors.
Deliberate crashes are exceptionally rare globally.
In March 2015, a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately flew an Airbus A320 into a French mountainside, killing all 150 on board.
French investigators found the 27-year-old was suffering from a suspected “psychotic depressive episode,” concealed from his employer. They later called for better mental health guidelines and stronger peer support groups for pilots.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, Tim Hepher in Paris and Abhijith Ganapavaram in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Stella Qiu and Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez)