China's worst air crash kills all 160 on flight

June 07, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- China, the world's most dangerous place to fly, suffered its worst reported air disaster yesterday, with 160 people killed in the crash of a domestic flight near Xian. It was the country's ninth air crash in the last 2 1/2 years.

In a separate incident, another Chinese airliner was hijacked to Taiwan -- the 12th such act of air piracy on the mainland since April of last year. This plane landed safely in Taipei.

The official Xinhua news agency reported that there were no survivors among the 146 passengers and 14 crew members aboard the plane that crashed yesterday, a Russian-made Tupolev-154 operated by China Northwest Airlines, one of the many regional carriers that have sprouted here with the Chinese air-travel boom.

The medium-range jet, comparable to a Boeing 727, went down at 8:20 a.m. about 10 minutes after it took off in a rainstorm from the tourist city of Xian in northern China bound for Canton.

The dead included two Americans, six Italians and one Swiss, according to the Foreign Ministry and Xinhua. Names were not available.

China's national TV news showed pictures of the aircraft's fuselage and widely scattered debris in a rain-soaked field.

Unofficial accounts from the scene indicated that the crash might have been caused by an explosion. But the state news agency said the cause of the disaster was still under investigation.

Rain still was coming down in Xian late yesterday afternoon, and rescue workers may have been slow in reaching the wreckage. By late in the day, some aviation officials in Xian professed to have received little information.

"I don't know much now, but I know it's quite a grave accident," a man who identified himself as a director of China Northwest Airlines' accidents office said by phone from Xian nine hours after the crash.

The Chinese airline is not linked to the U.S. airline with a similar name. Last July, a Northwest Airlines British Aerospace-146 crashed while taking off from Yinchuan 560 miles west of Beijing, killing 59 people.

The total death toll from China's nine air crashes over the last 2 1/2 years is 542.

Previously, the worst reported Chinese air disaster was the death of 141 people in the crash of a Boeing 737 into a hillside outside the southern tourist city of Guilin in November 1992.

China, its air-travel market growing by 30 percent a year, has the world's worst air-safety record.

It has been averaging one fatal accident per 100,000 domestic flights; the world average is one fatality per 1.5 million flights. Colombia, with the next worst record, is statistically twice as safe.

"Even if you're enough of a daredevil to fly in Colombia on a stormy night, don't fly in China," the U.S.-based International Airline Passenger Association warned in February.

China also has the world's worst air piracy record, with 12 hijackings of domestic flights to Taiwan in the last 14 months -- plus several foiled attempts.

Yesterday's hijacking came when a knife-wielding 35-year-old man commandered a flight to Canton from Fuzhou in coastal Fujian Province, across from Taiwan. Taiwan's official news agency said the man had heart problems and was fleeing China's poverty.

Before the plane, passengers and crew were to be sent back to China, the hijacker surrendered to Taiwanese officials, who already were holding 15 other mainland hijackers.

On Saturday, the state news agency carried a report acknowledging that Chinese domestic flights also have experienced dozens of near-misses this year.

The incidents include planes skidding off runways, landing at odd angles and brushing wing tips, and engines "stopping in midair."

The official report blamed the safety problems on top airline officials' "paralysis."

"Their safety management is slack, discipline is flabby, and there are obvious violations of regulations," the report said. "Professional levels are low, and there are many problems in equipment servicing."

Frank official comments on China's mounting air-safety hazards have been common here since late last year, when the national aviation chief was demoted. In turn, he charged that China's regional carriers had "blindly pursued" growth while ignoring safety.

Many of the air crashes in recent years have been the fault of "unqualified maintenance personnel . . . who have problems in understanding new aircraft designs and difficulties in maintaining standards," said Jiang Zhuping, the demoted official.

Other official reports have cited a nationwide shortage of qualified pilots and air-traffic controllers, a shortage that has led some pilots to fly as many as 200 hours a month -- in violation of China's regulations and international standards.

In 1988, the central government allowed the state-operated airline to split into six carriers, five regional and one international.

Now, there are 33 Chinese air companies, local governments and entities having jumped into the world's fastest-growing air-travel market. Total passenger seats have more than tripled since 1986.

The rapid, uncontrolled growth has driven China to open its aviation business for the first time to foreigners. It was announced late last month that foreign airlines can control as much as a quarter of the voting rights of a Chinese airline company. That follows several arrangements in which foreign airlines have begun training Chinese pilots.

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