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Rescuers search the plane crash site in Wuzhou, China, on March 22.XINHUA/Reuters

Investigators searching the crash site of China Eastern Airlines Flight MU5735 have discovered one of the plane’s black boxes – most likely the cockpit voice recorder, officials said Wednesday.

The Boeing 737-800 jet crashed into a mountain in China’s southern Guangxi province Monday, killing all 132 people aboard – the country’s worst aviation disaster in almost three decades.

At the crash site, a heavily forested mountaintop near the city of Wuzhou, some 2,000 emergency workers and soldiers have spent the past 48 hours searching some 46,000 square metres for debris and remains. Investigators hope the black boxes – which are actually bright orange, to make them easier to find – will provide some answers as to why Flight MU5735 suddenly plunged out of the sky an hour after takeoff.

Chinese broadcaster CCTV showed workers placing an orange cylinder covered in mud in a labelled Ziploc bag.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday night, Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) spokesman Zhu Tao said it was “highly likely” the recovered device was the cockpit voice recorder.

Despite an official describing the box earlier as severely damaged, Mr. Zhu said the data storage units inside appeared to be “relatively complete.” The device will be sent to Beijing for examination, he added.

At an earlier briefing Wednesday, Mao Yanfeng, the head of aircraft investigation at the CAAC, said weather along the plane’s flight path Monday did not pose any danger. Air traffic controllers maintained communication with the plane after takeoff and before its rapid descent. The jet had met airworthiness standards before the flight, and the three pilots – one more than normally required on a 737 – were in good health.

China Eastern Airlines Boeing jet crashes with 132 aboard, no signs of survivors

With no survivors found after China Eastern Airlines crash, investigators searching for answers

None of the crew has yet been named. The captain was hired in January, 2018, and had 6,709 hours of flying experience, while the first and second officers had 31,769 and 556 hours, respectively, China Eastern said. Their performance records were good, and there were no signs of problems in their personal lives.

Flight MU5735 departed Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, at 1:10 p.m. local time Monday. The plane was due to land in Guangzhou, north of Hong Kong, at about 3 p.m. At about 2:17 p.m., the jet had reached its cruising altitude of 29,000 feet, travelling at a speed of 457 knots (846 kilometres per hour), and was preparing to begin its descent. Rather than reducing altitude slowly, however, it suddenly plunged to 3,225 feet before losing contact with air traffic control at 2:21 p.m.

Officials said Tuesday that air traffic control in Guangzhou attempted to contact the crew immediately after seeing the sudden drop but did not get any response.

“The plane fell vertically from the sky,” a witness surnamed Li told the state-run Beijing Youth Daily. Security and dashboard camera footage published by Chinese media appeared to show the plane flying into the mountain at high speed with its nose down at an extreme angle.

So far, the accident has mystified aviation experts. Even if the plane’s engines had failed, it should not have come down in the manner it did. That the pilots did not attempt to sound any alarm before the crash also raises questions.

The black boxes may provide some answers. One records sound from the cockpit, including anything the pilots say, while the other logs information on flight parameters such as altitude, airspeed, heading and engine thrust.

But while the flight recorders are designed to withstand extreme impacts, “they’re data drives at the end of the day,” said Neil Hansford, an Australian aviation expert and the chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions.

“At that sort of impact, going straight down, whether they’re able to be analyzed is highly questionable,” he told The Globe and Mail Tuesday. “It may be holding out too much hope to think we’re going to get all the answers.”

Mr. Mao said the searchers will now focus on finding the other black box. Work was hampered Wednesday by heavy rain, which exacerbated the already difficult conditions; the crash site is in a remote area accessible only by a single dirt road, and investigators have had to beat through heavy jungle in search of potential evidence.

Within hours of the crash, it was apparent there was little chance of finding survivors, even as families continued to hold out hope. On Wednesday, officials acknowledged for the first time that “human tissue fragments” had been detected at the crash site. They said earlier that the relatives of all those on board had been notified of the disaster.

The CAAC said Tuesday that it was launching a two-week inspection of the aviation sector in response to the crash, involving checks at all regional air traffic control centres, airline companies and flight training institutes to ensure “absolute” safety.

Prior to Monday’s disaster, China had not seen a major plane crash in more than 11 years. According to a database maintained by the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, the last major accident involving a passenger jet was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people aboard Henan Airlines Flight 8387 were killed when it crashed while landing at Yichun airport in low visibility.

China’s worst-ever aviation disaster was in 1994, when a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Xian to Guangzhou disintegrated in mid-air soon after takeoff, killing all 160 people on board.

With reports from Alexandra Li and Reuters.

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