April 13, 2024

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Watchdogs are investigating after a Boeing plane crashed on a flight to New Zealand

Watchdogs are investigating after a Boeing plane crashed on a flight to New Zealand

Airline regulators on Tuesday investigated why a Boeing-built LATAM plane bound for New Zealand suddenly lost altitude mid-flight, crashing violently and injuring dozens of terrified passengers.

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Passengers said the Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane plunged to the ground while en route from Sydney to Auckland on Monday evening, causing unfettered passengers to be thrown from their seats and some of them crashing into the cabin ceiling.

Chile-based LATAM Airlines said Tuesday it was working with authorities to determine the unspecified “technical event” that caused flight LA800 to experience “strong motion.”

This is the latest in a series of safety incidents that have befallen the American aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

“It was just a split second,” said Auckland-based chef Lucas Elwood, who was one of 263 passengers and nine cabin crew on board.

“People colliding with the roof led to the tiles being dislodged,” he told AFP on Tuesday.

He added: “The guy behind me was in the toilet when it happened, the poor guy. He told me he came in through the ceiling.”

On the ground, emergency crews were notified shortly before the plane landed and a contingent of more than a dozen ambulances and other medical vehicles rushed to the scene.

Paramedics said they treated about 50 patients. Health officials told AFP that four people remained in hospital as of Tuesday morning.

“Only one passenger and one crew member sustained injuries that require additional care but are not life-threatening,” LATAM said in a statement.

The airline added that the flight arrived on time.

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“Black swan event”

The Chilean Directorate General of Civil Air Navigation said New Zealand air safety investigators would lead the investigation into the accident with Chilean assistance.

Joe Hatley, an air accident safety investigator, told AFP that technical problems are rare in modern aircraft.

“This flight log will be key to understanding this event,” said Hatley, who also teaches at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It will tell investigators whether it was an air event or a technical problem with the plane.”

“This type of event highlights the absolute need for passengers to keep their seat belts fastened.”

Brian Gukat, who was on the plane, said he saw a passenger hit the roof of the plane before falling again and hitting his ribs on the armrest.

“He was on the plane deck on his back looking at me. It was like an Exorcist movie,” Jukat told Radio New Zealand's national broadcaster.

After the plane landed, the pilot came to the back of the cabin, Gokat said.

'I asked him what happened?' “I lost my devices for a short period and then suddenly they came back,” he told me.

Ashok Poduval, a commercial airline pilot for 15 years and current chief executive of Massey University's aviation school, said the incident appeared to be an extremely rare “black swan event”.

“An autopilot malfunction or unexpected turbulence in clear air are some of the possibilities that could cause turbulence of this type,” he said, adding that only an investigation could confirm this.

“They will examine digital flight data recorders, cockpit voice recorders, and interview pilots before they come to any conclusion.”

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Data from airline tracking company FlightAware showed that the plane began losing altitude about two hours into the three-hour flight. But it wasn't clear if that was part of his relegation to Oakland.

Safety issues

US manufacturer Boeing has suffered a series of safety problems in recent years, including the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes of two 737 MAX planes in 2018 and 2019 that killed more than 350 people.

“We are working to gather more information about the flight and will provide any support our customer needs,” Boeing said in a statement sent to AFP.

The company later added: “Boeing is prepared to support investigation-related activities as requested.”

The manufacturer is still reeling from a near-catastrophic accident in January when a fuselage panel on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 exploded mid-flight in the United States.

Last week, a Boeing 777 bound for Japan was forced to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff from San Francisco when a wheel fell off and crashed into the airport parking lot, damaging several cars.

US regulators earlier this month gave Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan to address quality control issues, with the head of the Federal Aviation Administration saying the company must “commit to real, deep improvements.”

Since the beginning of the year, Boeing's stock price has fallen by 25 percent.

“Boeing has had some controlled issues in production, but overall most of the planes are good and reliable,” said Tim Collins, an aviation consultant at Upstream Aviation.

He said that Boeing constitutes about 50 percent of the global aircraft fleet.

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“While some people might think twice about Boeing's reputation, the same would happen if an Airbus crashed tomorrow.”