Safety concerns have been raised about runway where Chinese passenger jet crashed, killing 42

By Alexa Olesen, AP
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Safety concerns raised about China crash runway

YICHUN, China — A nighttime flight into a remote Chinese city ended with a violent, shaking descent and then a crash near an airport that one major Chinese airline had previously judged unsafe for night landings. More than half the 96 people onboard survived, clambering over luggage as smoke filled the broken fuselage.

The crash Tuesday in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province killed 42 people and was the country’s worst commercial air disaster in nearly six years. Among the dead were a husband-and-wife team of flight attendants, a 12-year-old girl, and midlevel economic development officials on their way to a conference in Yichun, a small city tucked amid boreal forests 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the Russian border.

Investigators recovered two black boxes from the wreckage of the Henan Airlines Embraer 190 jet Wednesday and were waiting to question the pilot, Qi Quanjun, who survived but was badly injured, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Shortly before the crash, Qi told air traffic controllers he saw the runway lights and was preparing to land, Xinhua quoted an Yichun city official as saying.

But fog shrouded the airport tucked into a valley, with visibility less than 2,000 feet (600 meters). Survivors described seeing nothing but blackness outside the windows as the plane slammed into grass and fell apart about 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) from the runway at Yichun city’s Lindu Airport.

The accident underscores the breakneck expansion of China’s aviation industry in recent years and the struggles of regulators to keep up. Airports have proliferated as have small regional airlines, reaching into remote cities like Yichun, eager to develop tourism and other businesses to catch up with the country’s economic boom.

China Southern Airlines, one of the country’s three-largest carriers, decided last August to avoid night flights in and out of the newly built Lindu Airport, setting its daily flight from Harbin to the daytime. A technical notice cited concerns about the airport’s surrounding terrain, runway lighting and wind and weather conditions.

“Principally, there should be no night flights at Yichun airport,” said the notice from China Southern’s Heilongjiang branch that was posted online. An employee with the branch’s technical office verified the notice’s authenticity. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media, but said China Southern decided to cancel night flights at Sichuan “for safety concerns. We’re cautious.”

Xinhua quoted Li Jian, the vice director of the Civil Aviation Authority of China, as saying the airport met all safety requirements.

“It is no comparison to big airports but the safety standards are guaranteed,” Li said. He said the airport was built to handle nighttime flights.

Henan’s board of directors fired the airline’s general manager, Li Qiang, and appointed an acting manager to replace him, Xinhua said. Cao Bo, Li’s replacement, served as the chief pilot of Shenzhen Airlines, the parent company of Henan Airlines.

Henan, a small regional carrier, previously reported alleged problems with their Embraer 190 jets, including finding turbine cracks and erroneous information showing up in their flight control systems.

The official magazine of the Civil Aviation Administration of China reported in its official magazine last June that the airline, then called Kunpeng Airlines, discussed the problems with technicians from Brazil’s Embraer, U.S. engine-maker General Electric Corp. and officials from CAAC at a meeting. The report said CAAC officials urged the parties to find and fix the problems, but it was not clear if the issues were resolved.

Tracy Chen, a spokeswoman for Embraer in Beijing, said she could not confirm the report but noted the company was cooperating with authorities in the investigation.

Najmedin Meshkati, an aviation expert and engineering professor at the University of Southern California, said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash, though he was concerned that the airline had reported mechanical problems with their planes. Meshkati said he hadn’t heard any reports of similar problems among other airlines using the aircraft.

This is the latest in a series of landing accidents this year. In all cases, the planes crashed just short of the runway without having reported any prior problems.

President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others were killed on April 10 when their government aircraft crashed in thick fog near the Russian city of Smolensk. In May, an Afriqiyah Airways jet crashed just before touchdown near Tripoli, Libya, killing 103 people. And earlier this month, an Aires airline Boeing 737 hit the ground just short of the runway threshold on the Colombian resort island of San Andres.

A frequent cause of aviation disasters during the approach and landing phase is known as “controlled flight into terrain,” in which an otherwise airworthy plane is accidentally flown into the ground or water. This usually occurs because of the pilots’ spatial disorientation due to low visibility or other factors.

Henan Airlines Flight VD8387 took off from Heilongjiang’s capital of Harbin shortly before 9 p.m. (1300 GMT) Tuesday and crashed a little more than an hour later. One survivor told Xinhua that there were four of five strong jolts of turbulence just after the announcement that the plane was about to land, and then the plane crashed.

“Luggage in the overhead bin was raining down,” he was quoted as saying. “Everyone panicked. Those sitting in the back began rushing to the front of the cabin.”

He said he ran through the plane as it filled with smoke, holding his breath until he saw a burning hole on one side of the cabin, then crawled out and ran.

The crash and fire were so severe that little of the fuselage remained, though the charred tail was still largely intact. China Central Television said eight of the victims were found 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) from the plane’s wreckage in a muddy field. One body was torn apart, leading officials to erroneously count it as two and initially report the death toll as 43, Xinhua said.

The Yichun city Communist Party published an online list of victims. They ranged in age from 12, a girl, to 55.

Xinhua said 15 severely injured survivors were sent to bigger hospitals in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province. They included five children suffering respiratory tract burns.


Associated Press reporter Anita Chang and researchers Yu Bing, Xi Yue and Zhao Liang in Beijing, and AP Aviation Writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this story.

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