Air China Will Fire Pilots Who Caused 25,000-Foot Drop by Smoking in Cockpit

Jul 13, 2018

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The captain and first officer of an Air China 737 that plunged 25,000 feet after one of them starting vaping in the cockpit will be fired, the carrier said Friday.

“After an investigation to verify the incident, the decision is to suspend the related crew from flying and terminate the contracts in accordance with the law,” Air China said in a statement. “The crew members who are responsible for the incident have been seriously dealt with.”

The airline has asked the Chinese aviation authority to revoke the pilots’ flying licenses as well.

Flight CA106 was about half an hour out of Hong Kong (HKG) on Tuesday, bound for Dalian, China (DLC), with 162 people aboard a Boeing 737-800 when the copilot allegedly sparked up an e-cigarette, causing the cockpit to fill with fumes. Knowing that the fan in the cockpit ceiling would circulate the odor into the cabin, the copilot tried to turn it off — and ended up turning off an essential component of the air-conditioning system for the entire plane instead. (Smoking by pilots on Chinese airlines is known to happen with a certain frequency, and we have experienced it ourselves.)

According to a captain at a US airline, what probably happened it that a pilot mistakenly switched off one of the air-conditioning “packs,” as they are called technically, while trying to switch off air recirculation in order not to let smoke filter into the cabin. The 737 has two air conditioner systems, one known as the “L pack” and the other as the “R pack.” The on/off switch for the R pack is located very close to the air recirculation switch on an overhead panel, on the ceiling between the pilots’ seats. One of the pilots likely turned off the R-pack while reaching for the switch turning off the recirculation fan.

The switch turning the recirculaton fan on and off is next to the one for the R-pack  (YouTube screencap with elaboration by The Points Guy)
The switch turning the recirculaton fan on and off is next to the one for the R-pack (YouTube screencap with elaboration by The Points Guy)

At the 30,000-plus ft altitude they were flying according to press reports, the single remaining air-conditioning pack would not have been able to maintain the air inside the cabin at the 6,000-foot altitude that makes it possible for people to breathe without oxygen masks. That’s because the a/c packs take air from the engines and pump into the cabin to maintain a comfortable air pressure. With the cabin air rapidly reaching unbreathable levels, oxygen masks deployed automatically and the pilots would have been warned to begin an emergency descent. It’s likely the pilots were still unaware of what had happened, and voluntarily went into a rapid descent as part of an emergency protocol in the belief that the cabin had truly depressurized. The plane dropped to about 10,000 feet.

At the lower altitude, the cockpit crew seem to have figured out the issue and decided to carry on with the flight instead of diverting, arriving at Dalian an hour behind schedule despite the fact that the plane’s emergency oxygen was depleted.

“It is worth noting, that had there been any mechanical problems that resulted in a loss of cabin pressure, or pack malfunction, there is zero reason why the pilots would have returned to 25,000 feet and continued to their destination; instead they would have immediately diverted,” the US captain, who asked not to be named because of his job, said in an email.

There were no reported injuries, and the plane was undamaged.

Air China said it was launching an investigation into how it could have prevented the incident. Smoking, including with e-cigarettes, is banned on Air China flights.

Featured image of an Air China Boeing 737-800 at Beijing airport by C. v. Grinsven/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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