According to a Bloomberg News investigation, the China Eastern Airlines plane that crashed Monday was descending at close to the speed of sound in the moments before crashing into a hillside.
An impact of this intensity can destroy evidence and, in rare situations, damage a plane’s data and voice recorders, which are built to withstand the majority of crashes.
According to Bloomberg, the Boeing 737-800 was knifing through the air at more than 640 miles (966 kilometers) per hour and may have exceeded 700 mph at times.
“The preliminary data indicate it was near the speed of sound,” said John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronautics and aeronautics professor who reviewed Bloomberg’s calculation of the jet’s speed. “It was coming down steep.”
At sea level, sound travels at 761 mph, but when the air temperature drops, it slows to 663 mph at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters).
At an altitude of around 29,000 feet, Flight 5735 was flying from Kunming to Guangzhou with 132 passengers on board when it began a sudden descent.
The speed data is consistent with videos that appear to show the aircraft falling at a steep angle just before impact, indicating that it hit the ground with tremendous force.
“It was an exceedingly high-energy crash,” said Bob Mann, president of RW Mann & Co consultancy, who did not participate in the speed analysis. “It looks like it literally evaporated into a crater.