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China Eastern Airlines jet carrying 132 people crashes in mountains

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A China Eastern Boeing 737 airplane crashed today in a remote mountainous region of southern China. The Civil Aviation Administration of China confirms the crash, saying there were 132 people on board. And rescue teams are now trying to reach that crash site. NPR's David Schaper has more.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 took off from the airport in Kunming on its way to Gwangju at about 3:15 in the afternoon local time, 5:15 a.m. Universal time. Ian Petchenik of the global flight tracking service Flightradar24 says within about 15 minutes, the plane reached its cruising altitude of about 29,000 feet, and it remained there with everything appearing normal for about 50 minutes.

IAN PETCHENIK: At 6:20, there was a first rapid descent from 29,100 down to 7,425 feet.

SCHAPER: Petchenik says the 737 briefly recovered, rising back up to 8,600 feet.

PETCHENIK: And then from there began another rapid descent. And the last data point we have is at 6:22, at 3,225 feet.

SCHAPER: And that is the altitude of the terrain in the mountainous region of southern China where the plane crashed. The impact of the crash sparked a forest fire so big it was visible from space on NASA satellite images. Anthony Brickhouse teaches aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He says plane crashes are statistically more likely on takeoffs and landings, not midflight like this one.

ANTHONY BRICKHOUSE: Investigators on the ground will be looking at the actual wreckage. Even if this aircraft, you know, came in at what we call a high-velocity, high-angle type of impact, there's still going to be clues at the crash site that can help with the investigation.

SCHAPER: Former Boeing safety engineer Todd Curtis with the website airsafe.com says what stands out is that the plane appears to have flown straight down into the ground at a high rate of speed.

TODD CURTIS: And there was also nothing in the information that's been released so far that shows any sort of trauma to the aircraft. It wasn't trailing smoke. It wasn't in pieces. It seemed to have been largely intact when it hit the ground.

SCHAPER: But Curtis says it's far too soon to pinpoint any potential cause.

CURTIS: Everything has to be looked at - the performance of the pilots, whether or not there was any sort of medical condition and whether or not they were fatigued, whether or not it was an accident or a deliberate action.

SCHAPER: The plane that crashed was a 737-800, a version of the popular Boeing jetliner called NG for next generation that preceded the troubled 737 Max. So this plane did not have the MCAS flight control system that was partially to blame in two Max crashes in recent years. In a statement, Boeing says, our thoughts are with the passengers and crew of China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735, adding that the company is in contact with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and ready to assist with the investigation led by Chinese authorities. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "INNOCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.