Smoking pilots reportedly caused an Air China flight from Hong Kong to Dalian to suddenly lose air pressure and suffer a mid-air plunge of 6,000 meters (19,600 feet) within 9 minutes on Tuesday night.
According to Chinese media reports, the pilots on flight CA106 were smoking mid-flight in the cockpit in violation of aviation regulations. They then mistook two switches as air circulation fans and turned them off, causing the cabin to lose pressure and triggering the deployment of oxygen masks.
When they discovered the mistake they made (presumably in horror), the pilots turned the switches back on.
Flight data shows the aircraft leveling off and climbing back up to cruising altitude before continuing on to Dalian and landing safely there, with no injuries reported for the 153 passengers and nine crew members on board after the three-and-a-half hour flight.
According to a passenger who spoke to a Beijing newspaper, the mood in the cabin was relatively calm and nobody was screaming.
“We had just taken off to cruising altitude, and the flight attendants were giving out drinks. I had just gotten my drinks when the oxygen masks were suddenly deployed,” he said. “The flight attendants appeared to be in shock themselves. They then pushed away the trolleys and got everyone to put on their masks.”
“It then started to get really warm in the cabin, and there was no more air circulation,” he added. “It was really terrifying. When we neared Shandong, there was another announcement saying there was a cabin malfunction and the oxygen masks were again deployed.”
The Civil Aviation Administration of China has since launched an investigation into the incident. Air China, in a Weibo post, also vowed “zero tolerance” and “severe punishment” if crew members are found guilty of any misconduct.
With a fleet of 400 planes flying to just over 200 destinations, the flag carrier has a pretty solid safety record in spite of the recent snafu.
In its only fatal accident to date, Air China Flight 129 crashed into a hill in April 2002 while trying to land in Busan, South Korea, killing 129 of the 166 people on board.