China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 crashed into a hillside close to Wuzhou city, Guangxi province, on March 21, killing all 132 people on board. There are many unanswered questions about the cause.

Wang Lizhen is an aircraft manufacturing engineer who has worked in the Chinese aviation industry for more than 20 years. He has conducted in-depth research on the Boeing 787—the type of plane involved in the crash.

In an interview with Chinese-language media Da Ji Yuan, based on the analysis of the accident and public information, Wang suggested three possibilities for the accident.

  1. A crack in the airplane’s body structure

The airline expert noted reports saying there had been a problem with repairs to the “pickle fork” of the aircraft, which contributed to the crash. The pickle fork is a critical component that attaches the plane’s fuselage, or body, to the wing and helps manage the strong forces acting on the aircraft in flight.

Liu Xiaodong, the airline’s brand management director, denied this rumor at a press conference.

He said that the aircraft was relatively new, only about seven years old. Thus it had not met the ‘pickle fork’ inspection threshold, which applies to jets after a more extended period of operation.

Wang Lizhen agreed with this opinion but from a different angle. He said that if any fracture of the airframe structure caused the aircraft to become uncontrollable, then there would not have been a short period of leveling off and climbing during the aircraft’s fatal descent. And the fact that the jet was able to climb again indicates that it was controllable at the time. From that, it can be inferred that the aircraft’s airframe structure should have been intact.

  1. Manual operation before the crash

State-run China News Network reported on March 27 that a farmer found a part that came off the wings of the doomed plane on his farmland, about 10 kilometers from the crash site. The investigation team also found small pieces of the aircraft in several towns and villages in Teng County.

Wang Lizhen said, according to eyewitness accounts, a loud noise was heard first, followed by the sound of the plane crashing, indicating that the plane had disintegrated in the air before it crashed. That would explain why the plane’s main body was no longer visible at the crash site, and the aircraft’s wreckage was scattered over a range of more than ten kilometers.

The airline expert analyzed that the aircraft exploded and disintegrated, possibly due to excessive speed and damage to the airtight structure of the aircraft cabin, resulting in pressurization rupture and aircraft disintegration.

Wang Lizhen said, during the whole process, the captain and two co-pilots did not send any distress signals. Meanwhile, the aircraft suddenly dived down during the cruise phase, which is something that the autopilot system cannot do. For that to happen, it would be necessary to turn off the autopilot system, and then it’s possible to control the plane to dive down manually. But he noted that before the truth comes out, anything is possible.

  1. The aircraft operator
    Wang Lizhen believes that the human factor in the accident is more likely. If a captain committed suicide on purpose, there might be a reasonable explanation.
    He said that the plane had a captain and two co-pilots on board. The aircraft operated in automatic mode during the cruising phase, which hardly required the pilot to handle anything. All passengers on board were free to move around, and the pilot was in a relaxed state. When one pilot noticed that the other two were negligent, he could suddenly steer the plane into a sharp dive. If the other two pilots had not fastened their seat belts in advance, they would have suddenly fallen in the cabin without any chance to send a distress signal. The aircraft’s attitude was relatively stable when it descended to a certain height. Perhaps one pilot can try to lift the plane to relieve the danger. But it did not succeed and eventually led to disaster.

In addition, the plane crashed at a very high speed. Therefore, it is possible that the pilot deliberately manipulated the engine to maximize the thrust on purpose. Of course, he said, the above is only a hypothetical inference. However, judging from many suspicious points about the accident, perhaps the human factor is very likely.

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