Fake pilots, fake news – the first aftermath of Flight MU5735

As if China’s most deadly plane crash for years, was not a big enough blow to the aviation industry, fake news merchants and trolls have been quick to capitalize on the tragedy.

Photo provided to Jiemian News

Photo provided to Jiemian News

By ZHAO Meng


China’s most deadly plane crash in 12 years, has dealt a massive blow to the aviation industry, already under extreme pressure after two very difficult years because of the pandemic. All 123 passengers and nine crew were killed in the crash in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on March 21, 2022.

Flight MU5735, a Boeing 737-89P delivered to China Eastern in June 2015, is well-known in civil aviation circles for its orange “Yunnan Peacock” on the fuselage. The captain of the flight that day, affectionately known as “Lao Yang” by airline staff, was an older, very experienced pilot.

Too close to home

ZHANG Duo, who often flew with Lao Yang on the “Golden Peacock,” remembers one day when Lao Yang asked him to buy dinner after the flight. Zhang pretended to have no money, and Lao Yang called him a “cheapskate.” It is the memory of this “childish” conversation that makes Zhang feel worst. He has said more than once, “I want you to come back, Lao Yang, and I’ll treat you to everything you want.”

Xiao Dou, a cabin crew at another branch of China Eastern Airlines, is familiar with the Boeing 738. She was in Kunming for training on the day of the incident when everyone was called to a meeting. Eyes were wet, and some sobbed openly when the first news was confirmed. At home, when more information was confirmed, she cried all night.

“Those who train with me every day, we are all the same. We use the same words and wear the same uniforms. Any of us could be gone, any time, in just tens of seconds,” said Xiao Dou. Her siblings are all fliers. One is a pilot, and two are flight attendants. Her mother called her brother after the incident, and before she spoke, she began bawling on the phone.

On the evening of March 22, Xiao Meng saw footage of the craft. The camera swept over a pile of debris, but there were no close-ups. She could not help crying when she saw a stack of cards strung together - a unique decoration, familiar to all China Eastern flight attendants.

Pilots have often worked for many different airlines. They have huge networks of colleagues who may have only shared a coffee within some distant outpost. They have a powerful sense of professional community compared with other professions.

Wang Ye, who no longer works for China Eastern, was awoken from his afternoon nap and bombarded with questions on WeChat. Many were unaware that he had left the airline and feared for his safety. “As a pilot who left just a month ago, I never expected a disaster would happen so close to home,” he said.

The last time Wang looked at the company app, it was still a festive red for Chinese New Year. When looked again, all the pages had turned black and white.

Every time Wang took off and landed, he calls his parents, a habit he began on his first flight and continued until his last. During all his years as a pilot, every flight was a time of great uneasiness for his parents, never able to rest easy while he was in the air.

The heart of the internet

Shortly after the crash, a screenshot of the flight roster was leaked while casualties remained unclear. On social media, “pilots” and “flight attendants” of unknown origin began to post comments about the accident, tastelessly pursuing likes and followers. These “fake pilots” are well known in civil aviation circles. A photo of “the flight attendants” emerged, but anyone could see that they were not in China Eastern uniforms.

Armchair experts said the plane was “too old.” More self-appointed authorities questioned the captain’s competence. Wang said some of the questions and statements were clearly amateurish, if only to insiders, and sent out completely erroneous messages. Many aircraft in China have been in service for well over ten years. The captain and co-pilot of MU5735 were both well-known and highly regarded in the industry. The safety record of Chinese pilots is among the best in the world.

The mood in the industry is one of both anger and helplessness in the face of countless mischievous postings. “We know it’s false when we see it, but it’s spreading online and there is nothing we can do” said Wang. “Dozens of ‘captains’ appeared in inaccurate short videos, ‘explaining’ the tragedy,” he said.

Some platforms have now dealt with some offending social media accounts, but the damage has been done. The few facts that are already known about the crash are worrying enough without any need for embellishment. Shortly after the incident, real experts also began to analyze the cause of the accident.

Back to zero

One pilot shared the same airspace as the crashed aircraft and heard Guangzhou Airport repeatedly calling it. On an industry platform, analysis was much more restrained than that of the public. China’s civil aviation safety system is among the best globally, though the meticulous safety procedures are sometimes seen going too far in countries that have simplified regimes, China believes stringent safety is behind nearly 12 years without a single crash.

On 22 March, someone took a picture of the new safety display at an industry exchange platform and posted it online: “China’s civil aircraft have operated safely for 0 days, 18 hours and 16 minutes.”