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UPDATED: December 7, 2009 NO. 49 DECEMBER 10, 2009
Crash Under Investigation
The cause of a fatal cargo plane accident in Shanghai is still unknown

PUTTING OFF FIRES: Chinese firemen clear debris from the Zimbabwean-registered cargo plane that crashed at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on November 28 (XINHUA)

The flight data recorder of the Zimba-bwean cargo plane that crashed on November 28 at Shanghai Pudong International Airport has been found near the crash scene, local aviation control authorities said.

But experts said the decoding of the data recorded in the "black box" would not necessarily help ascertain the cause of the accident.

China's Civil Aviation Administration has sent staff to the airport for further investigation.

The cargo plane, which caught fire and crashed, caused the death of three crew members. Four others were injured.

The plane, which used the call sign SMJ 324 and had a total of seven on board, was a McDonnell Douglas (MD)-11 cargo aircraft scheduled to fly from Shanghai to the Bishkek Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan. It belonged to Avient Aviation, a freight charter airline based in Zimbabwe.

The accident occurred at 8:12 a.m. when the plane veered off the No.1 runway as it was beginning its take-off, officials said.

Police, firefighters and armed police quickly rushed to the site. They cordoned off the area. The fire, which also caused a blaze in a nearby warehouse belonging to China Eastern Airlines, was put off at around 9:00 a.m.

The seven foreign crew members were rushed to the People's Hospital of Pudong New Area, where three died and the other four injured were in stable condition.

A 61-year-old man from the United States sustained serious fractures to his chest and injuries to his lungs.

The three other injured men were from Indonesia, Belgium and Zimbabwe. They suffered bone fractures and contusions, the hospital said.

In order to receive better treatment, the American, identified as the co-pilot, was transferred to a downtown hospital on November 29.

Shen Jun, Vice Mayor of Shanghai, accompanied by other officials from the Shanghai municipal and Pudong New Area governments, paid a visit to the survivors soon after they had been admitted to hospital.

The crash also destroyed some ground lighting facilities, said Jia Ruijun, General Manager of the Shanghai Pudong Airport Co.

Probing the crash

Witnesses said the plane became airborne for a couple of seconds before heading downward again, sending a large plume of black smoke over the airport.

"I think the tail first touched land, and the plane crashed at the end of the runway," said eyewitness Lu Aiguo, a worker at Huamao Cargo Agent Co.

Yan Banghong, Vice Director of the Shanghai Society of Aeronautics, said there were two main causes for a cargo plane touching land during take-off.

The first was the loading of cargo, said Yan. The engine of an MD-11 is fixed in part of its tail, which means the center of gravity is in the back part of the plane.

"If cargo is not arranged carefully during loading, the center of gravity is not balanced and touchdown is unavoidable," he said.

According to Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post, there have been previous accidents involving MD-11 cargo planes' tails touching down. In 2007, one touched down and sustained a small amount of damage at Dubai International Airport. The same year, another was involved in an accident at Milan Malpensa International Airport in Italy.

The second cause was operational faults such as lack of sufficient speed to complete take-off, Yan said. "Once discovering abnormal conditions, pilots must stop taking off at once. It appeared in the accident of November 28 maybe the pilots met problems when trying to stop the plane," he said.

Another reason was possibly the age of plane, Yan said. "In general, a plane with over 10 years flying is considered aged, and safety factors are obviously much lower than those of new planes," he said.

The Zimbabwean MD-11 that crashed started flying in 1991, according to Oriental Morning Post.

There have been many accidents during the 20-year history of MD-11 planes. In March this year, an MD-11 crashed and exploded while landing at Japan's largest international airport, killing its two American pilots. Another MD-11 of Korean Air crashed shortly after take-off in April 1999 at Shanghai's International Hongqiao Airport, killing nine people, according to Xinhua News Agency.

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