It’s Official: Vaping Air China Pilot Caused Emergency Descent

Filed Under: Air China


A couple of days ago I wrote about how an Air China flight bound from Hong Kong to Dalian rapidly descended by 25,000 feet after the cabin seemed to lose pressure, causing oxygen masks to deploy. This happened about 30 minutes after takeoff, though the pilots ended up continuing the journey to Dalian, and climbing back up to a higher altitude.

There are some updates to this story, and two points that are very, very problematic.

A vaping pilot is to blame for this incident

There were rumors that a smoking pilot may have been to blame for this, though at the time it wasn’t clear what the connection was between the smoking and the supposed depressurization. Now we know.

A senior official with the Civil Aviation Administration of China has told reporters today that the first officer on the flight was smoking an e-cigarette, and wanted to turn off the air recycling fans to prevent the vapor from spreading into the passenger cabin. Instead he accidentally turned off the air conditioning in the cabin, which created the sensation of depressurization.

Initial reports suggest that he did this all without telling the captain (though that doesn’t mean the captain should be off the hook — logically he should have told the first officer not to vape, though unfortunately this seems to be an acceptable part of cockpit culture in China).

Continuing the flight to Dalian was reckless

The smoking situation is bad enough, though the reality is that it’s far too common in China. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger issue is how the pilots responded to this — they chose to continue their flight for hours with oxygen masks deployed. Oxygen masks have a limited amount of oxygen, and once they’re deployed, they release oxygen until they run out.

The plane kept flying for over two more hours, so you can bet that for a majority of the flight there was no emergency oxygen supply. If there were another emergency, people would have been in serious trouble.

There were even reports that towards the end of the flight the crew once again made an announcement telling passengers to put on oxygen masks, though that was quickly dismissed as a false alarm. Imagine if it hadn’t been, though, and the passengers needed emergency oxygen, only to find that there wasn’t any.

As a reader commented on the previous post:

Once the passenger masks deploy, assuming the passengers pull down and put them on (as we’re all told to do before every flight), the chemical reaction that generates the oxygen starts. After about 15 minutes, there is no more passenger oxygen. Ascending above 10,000 feet after the masks deploy is super unsafe because you have no margin of error if you lose cabin pressure at high altitude (though the pilots would be fine; they have a separate oxygen system).

This happened in the US back in 2000 on an Alaska 737. The pilots forgot to pressurize the plane, and when they crossed 10,000 feet alarms went off. At 14,000 feet, the masks deployed. The pilots realized their error, pressurized the cabin, and continued the flight, with masks dangling. The pilots were both fired, and the main reason they were was not so much for failing to pressurize the cabin, but for continuing the flight with no emergency passenger oxygen. Totally against procedures, and potentially fatal if the plane lost pressurization later. I suspect something similar may have happened here.

Bottom line

Now that we have some official information from investigators, we have a better sense of what happened, and this is really screwed up. The vaping first officer is bad enough, though the reality is that smoking and vaping in the cockpit on Chinese airlines is extremely common. The fact that the first officer tried to cover it up in such a reckless way is troubling.

But the way I see it, the most concerning thing that happened here is that the pilots continued the flight for several more hours without any emergency oxygen supply, with oxygen masks deployed. That’s an area where the captain is just as much at fault as the first officer (if not more at fault, since he’s the final authority).

(Tip of the hat to @DanGare)

  1. This smoking in the cabin by Chinese pilots MUST STOP! It’s unpleasant for the passengers and completely contrary to best standards and practices.

  2. This is what happens when you have stringent laws and lax enforcement. You get communists in China and liberals in USA breaking the law.

  3. You do know that FAA regulations allow smoking in the cockpit too, right? Not so much a China thing.

  4. Actually this is what happens when you pursue capitalism without strong regulation. You have pro-market party members and corporations in he USA breaking the law. Who the hell do you think came up with the laws in the first place? Liberals! Debit, you are truly a dumb one. If lucky didn’t value your first amendment rights even hour they are not guaranteed on a private blog, you’d have been banned a long time ago for your sheer stupidity.

  5. What a ridiculous fuss you make over this trivia. So theatrical. Vaping is not dangerous, there is no flame or smoke. The only problem was in flicking the wrong switch. Fuss about nothing.

  6. Actually lucky the Oxygen masks do not work like that. Just because they are deployed does not mean they are producing O2. The masks are connected to a pin in the O2 generator which is a small canister attached to each row of masks. The O2 generator will NOT start the chemical reaction which creates the O2 until at least 1 mask is pulled, removing the pin from the generator. Once the chemical reaction starts it will not stop until the chemicals are depleted about 15 min.

    Now that being said. If the depression signal was sent and the mask doors opened along with rapid descent, the flight attendants would probably have had the pax put on the masks and run their depression procedures.

  7. @ Dread pilot Roberts — Sorry if I wasn’t clear. It’s my understanding that all passengers put on their oxygen masks the first time around when they were advised to and the plane descended, so it sounds to me like that should have depleted the supply?

  8. @Paolo — You obviously don’t understand how dangerous vapes can be. A basic model from a reputable store is probably fine. Many people end up buying ones that are cheap knockoffs made with crappy Lithium Ion batteries that are overloaded and burst into flames. One of the guys I work with had his explode in his pocket at work.

    They are far from safe, especially considering it was probably whatever bottom of the barrel junk he bought off of Alibaba.

  9. @ Ray,

    Such an impressive argument! You have advanced:

    1. A conclusory statement that capitalism is bad without strong regulation.
    2. That capitalists break the law in the USA, too,
    3. Another conclusory statement that Liberals “came up” with the laws in the first place, and
    4. Verbal abuse which, after attempting to follow your arguments and reasoning, would appear to be more properly relate to your own comment.

  10. The amount of tobacco smoking I’ve seen in Asia is absolutely horrifying, it’s like the tobacco epidemic in The West of 50 years ago. By the time this trend is all done it could leave over 200 million Asian people dead. You’ve written about the smoking (and now vaping) of onboard staff before, and I don’t see that getting any better as long as so many folks in Asia are in the grip of addiction like this.

  11. @James – the descent was carried out by the pilots in response to the “depressurisation”’warning triggered by the FO flicking the wrong switch. The SOP is to don flight crew oxygen supply and descend to 10,000ft. In this scenario there is no time to attempt to figure out what the problem is. The emergency oxygen supply only lasts 15 minutes so you have to have the aircraft at a safe altitude before trying to figure out the issue.

  12. @James:

    The plane “dropped” because the pilots initiated an emergency descent, which is the proper procedure when there is a loss of cabin pressure.

    Once they realized the loss of cabin pressure was due to their own mistake, they re-pressurized, then climbed back up to normal altitude.

    They failed to realize that the emergency passenger oxygen was depleted, so when they climbed back up to altitude, it could have been catastrophic if there was another depressurization.

  13. Presumably, once at 10,000ft they realised what had happened. Admitting that and diverting would have been costly to the airline so they decided to continue with the flight, putting everybody on board at risk.

  14. @Todd
    And there have been a thousand more cases o,f ‘exploding’ phones, tablets, computers, etc, including on planes. Assuming 300 pax x 3 devices each = 900 lithium batteries in the cabin. Plus some ecigs.
    I’d prefer that the pilots don’t smoke or vape; but it’s not exactly life-changing stuff and unworthy of the breathless outrage that has resulted.
    Not a single crash resulted from 80 years of smoking on planes ( until it was banned and a lunatic , smoking in a lavatory, threw his fag end into the paper towels. Air Canada, IIRC.

  15. Smokers, obese people and people with AIDS put too much cost on the society disproportionate to their own contributions to it (exceptions exist of course.) All because of bad choices they made/make. They should be ashamed. Enough!

    Another law and order official acting above the law: ttp://


  16. Hopefully Air China does the right thing here and fires both pilots and bans crews from smoking on aircraft. Anything short of that would definitely put them on my personal DNF list.

  17. @paolo. Obviously a smoker or you wouldn’t be so defensive. Smoking is dangerous. China produces a huge amount of counterfeit products relating to smoking paraphernalia which is proven to cause fires and injuries It’s been banned in the flight deck in China since 2006 but who is going to enforce it ?
    The majority don’t want to be put in a positive where there is any risk even if it’s small.

  18. @Debit:

    Your bigotry is unappealing and should embarrass you—but for the anonymity provided by your posted stupidity. Obese people and people with AIDS should be ashamed? Your pitiful exceptions exist caveat doesn’t exempt your own bigotry and stupidity in classifying an entire group of people so easily as being responsible for some great societal ill. I’d say that bigotry like yours has caused far more grievance and problem than those. And bigotry like yours is far deserving of the shame you’d prefer to ascribe to others. Shame on you.

    You’re a douchebag.

  19. someone brought this up in a Chinese forum–does FAA explicitly prohibits smoking in the cockpit?

  20. @FDR – I believe the FAA only prohibits passengers, not crew smoking. The airlines impose their own rules about crew smoking.

  21. The Point’s Guy article details how dangerous this whole incident was. They did not merely cause the sensation of depressurization, but rather DID cause depressurization when they turned off one of the air packs. All of this because they had filled the cabin with vapor and didn’t want the smell to get back to the passengers! In the haze of trying to hit the one switch (the recirculation switch is right near the on/off switch) they turned the air pack off and then once they realized they themselves had caused the depressurization they just continued like normal despite having run out of emergency oxygen. There’s no good argument here for why pilots or any staff should be allowed to smoke considering that the vape, in this case, caused enough of a confusion visually that the pilot turned off essential equipment in the haze.

  22. *”What a ridiculous fuss you make over this trivia. So theatrical. Vaping is not dangerous, there is no flame or smoke. The only problem was in flicking the wrong switch. Fuss about nothing.”*

    Many pregnant women are, very reasonably, concerned about the effects of second-hand vaping on their babies.

    But that’s only part of it. If a pilot or co-polit is concentrating on a fix for their addiction then they aren’t concentrating on safely flying the plane and that’s exactly what seems have happened here. If flight crew cannot go a full flight without smoking or vaping in my view they should not be allowed to fly.

  23. @Bill If you look at Debit’s comment history over the last few days, it’s quite obvious that he’s just trying to stir up obnoxious trouble (today a snipe at “liberals”, it was Trump earlier this week). I’ve seen precious few cases of the notorious Russian bots, but this is in fact exactly what they look like when they pop up.

  24. Ever been to Europe or the middle East? Smoking excessively is not just a Chinese thing.

  25. @Azamaraal
    Not on a plane and not by pilots on a daily basis.

    Some of you guys with the so what attitude I guess you just need to be on a plane with a nice sudden drop a few miles and then be told this happened because your pilot was trying to make smoke donuts. Thats the only way you’ll learn.

    Hey let’s smoke near the oxygen tanks in hospitals too. Because you know who cares they used to smoke in hospitals in the 1930s.

  26. Nothing but pathetic junkies. If you are too weak to control your base addictions, you belong on the ground, and certainly not in the cockpit.

  27. @Debit – you should be banned from this site, I feel sorry for the people in your life – if they ever need help, better not come to you, or you’ll shame them even further. Yikes.

  28. @Debit,
    Your comment says you are a right wing, conservative, illiterate, xenophobic pos..

  29. Good we need more discussion about this as a society but less personal attacks. Keep thinking about it. I will too. People should not get a lifetime of free pass for their bad choices.

  30. @Icarus
    No, I don’t smoke; can’t stand it. But I don’t care if pilots smoke or vape, so long as the door is closed ( as it should be) no one would even know.
    I prefer vaping pilots over drunk ones ( as in the 2 cases in England recently) or crazy ones ( eg, the US captain who burst out of the cockpit screaming “Al Qaeda, Iraq, We’re going down, we’ll never make it to Denver”, terrifying passengers and crew). A few misty puffs pales into insignificance by comparison.
    Of course these guys must be disciplined for the oxygen mask error.

  31. Official Punishment is here:
    Both pilots are fired by Air China.
    Air China suggests CAAC to revoke their licenses.

  32. Smoking cigarettes is just a small part of what happens and it’s stupid to assume that only Chinese pilots smoke. I have seen Danish pilots smoking both on the tarmac and in flight on old Cimber Air ATRs. More concerning is the poor English level of pilots or that windows are being covered with newspaper and that the weather radar is turned off to avoid radiation…common practice (my colleague’s father is a retired KLM pilot flying 77W for China Eastern. On flights to the US they bring foreign pilots just for ATC communication…

  33. Lucky, You just travel for the blogging aspect of your trip and the use of the points and miles. While you explore various places, you don’t know the local culture of any place that you have traveled to any great detail. You just know it by some hotels, may be a couple of travel spots to visit, and may be a few restaurants, besides the flights you took (with various combinations).

    Others have been offended before at your side comments which make you sound like a typical Western person. Particularly this comment “the reality is that it’s far too common in China.” I don’t think you really realize how many flights per day these carriers fly within China. There could be as many as 12-15 flights per day on China Eastern from Shanghai airport to Beijing, alone and this is just one airline and one destination. You have many airports and cities that perhaps you have never heard of and a number of competitor airlines. Just because may be a few times per year we hear about such an incident of smoking does not make it common.

    I have worked abroad for a number of years and have flown the Chinese airlines often and have never faced smoke in the aircraft. Many friends fly more than me – every week and haven’t had such a problem either.

  34. @Iamhere can you provide some stats to back up your implications about smoking being uncommon on Chinese airlines?
    How many (reported instances of smoking can you find) / (total flights over that time period): for Chinese airlines vs other the airlines of other countries?

    I can find one anecodotes/articles of smoking by pilots from other countries, based on a google search. The reports of smoking by Chinese pilots vastly outweigh that of smoking by non Chinese pilots. Based on these statistics it is reasonable to conclude that smoking in the cockpit is indeed more common in Chinese airlines than among others.

    Now unless you have some better statistics, you’ll have to admit Lucky is reasonable and logical in his statement.

  35. “Instead he accidentally turned off the air conditioning in the cabin, which created the sensation of depressurization” – So your headline is not correct. Vaping did not cause an emergency decent. Pilot error did. I agree with you that it was reckless for them to keep flying after the masks were deployed like that, but after multiple trips to China nothing really surprises me anymore.

  36. Actually I take back what I said. Your headline reads vaping air china pilot caused emergency decent, so that is correct because he was a pilot and he was vaping and he did cause the situation by hitting the wrong switch.

  37. I’ve traveled and been on well over 200 flights in the last 3 years in mainland China. I have observed several instances of tobacco smoke coming from the cockpit and pilots while it the forward cabin bathroom clearly heard pilots watching movies or TV shows. Sitting in first class I have observed in unmistakable smell of of tobacco smoke when the pilot opened the door to come out to the galley. I have also witnessed vaping by the security official on 2 occasions in the cockpit. Every Chinese airline has security officials wearing a white uniform shirt. Personally, in my experience I could care less if the crew of the plane is smoking. What I am more obset about is the incessant lies they tell to get planes off the ground only to divert them to other cities to keep thier govt subsidies for flights flown. They will take off into bad weather knowing in advance that they will have to divert and strand you for the night in another city. In smaller cities, if you don’t have a grasp on Mandarin you are treated as if you don’t exist. They will not even tell you what is happening. This can be a terrifying experience and happens more often than they would ever care to admit. The chinese airlines are plagued by delays. The lie about departure times and estimated times. Recently I went to ask the gate how long the flight would be delayed. She said the flight was on time. This would be great except we were eta departure in 5 minutes and the plane hadn’t even landed from its previous destination. I point this out to the agent loudly and made a few comments in mandarin. At the sight of other passagers laughing at my antics, She lost face and promtly started crying. I was merely comical not mean to the girl by any measure. I have dated a flight attendent for one of china’s big 4 and she would tell me stories that make me realize my flights in china are a roll of the dice. Yet I continue to fly regularly because I have to get around the country and there simply isn’t any other option in many locations. The subsidies keep the flights lower than train tickets many times. They are under severe pressure to not admit delays. This is extremely frustrating. Out of my 200 plus flights I have a less than 10% on time rate yet the websites show that the flights are 92% on time. If they are lying about this statistic so blatantly, what else are they concealing??? A vaping copilot? Who cares? His salary is so low I doubt he even cares about losing his job. Most pilots are appointed for training anyhow. He will get replaced not for being an idiot, but for getting caught . It will not serve change anything

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