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Special Report: Xiamen Airlines Flight 8301
By: Chris Kilroy

China has proven to be a valuable and profitable market for Boeing. This ground collision, following the hijack of one of the planes, involved three aircraft purchased from Boeing - a Xiamen Airlines Boeing Advanced 737, a China Southwest Airlines Boeing 707, and a China Southern Airlines Boeing 757.

Chinese authorities rarely divulge information on air accidents involving the dozen or so air carriers operating out of that country. Even so, China has an exemplary record of air safety, and this tragedy, the most costly in the dark history of air piracy before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, can be attributed only in a small part to ground control procedures at Baiyin airport. The greater part of the guilt lies with the pirate himself. His desperate act cost 132 innocent people their lives.

Xiamen Airlines, one of the newer operators in China, operates regular services on a number of internal routes. A Boeing Advanced 737, one of a fleet of 737 jetliners owned by Xiamen, was making a routine domestic flight between Xiamen, in the province of Fujian, to Canton 230 miles (370km) to the southwest. At an unconfirmed time during the flight, a young man announced to the cabin crew members that he had explosives strapped to his body, and demanded that the pilot re-route to Taiwan, where he presumably was seeking political asylum.

The hijacker ordered all the flight crew except the pilot out of the cockpit. The pilot attempted to reason with the young man, informing him (correctly) that the 737 had insufficient fuel reserves for the flight to Taiwan. As a compromise, the captain offered to fly to Hong Kong, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The aircraft continued its heading toward Canton, and then began to circle, as the captain tried in vain to convince his hijacker of the futility of his demands.

These negotiations went on for some time, until low fuel warnings began to sound on the flight deck. This left the captain with no choice but to attempt a landing at Baiyin airport, serving Canton.

Moments before touching down, the hijacker appears to have attempted to wrest control of the aircraft, causing it to thump down hard onto the aircraft, and swerve left into a "holding area." Still travelling at considerable speed, the starboard wing of the 737 sliced into the forward fuselage of a parked China Southwest Airlines 707. The pilot, who was on the flight deck performing routine preflight checks, was only slightly injured.

Also standing in the path of the runaway jet was a China Southwest Airlines 757, awaiting take-off clearance for a scheduled flight to Shanghai. Colliding with the port wing and upper central fuselage of the 757, the Xiamen 737 turned upside down and finally came to a halt. Of the 104 passengers on board the Xiamen 737, 84 died in the tragedy, along with 47 people on the 757 and the driver of a vehicle.

The Chinese authorities, who are usually reluctant to criticise their own procedures, admitted that it had been a serious mistake to allow an aircraft to taxi while the hijacked aircraft was attempting to land.

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