Pilot Smoking Mid-Air Forces Air China Flight's Emergency Descent

China's aviation regulator said it was analysing the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder

Authorities have determined that an Air China flight's sudden, terrifying 21,000-foot descent was caused by a co-pilot smoking an electronic cigarette mid-flight, which triggered a series of events that led to the deployment of oxygen masks and, in turn, backlash against the pilot.

Air China flight CA106, en route from Hong Kong to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, descended from above 10,000 meters to below 4,000 meters n less than nine minutes Tuesday shortly after it reached cruising altitude, according to phone Global Positioning System data shared with CNN by a passenger on board.

Reuters notes that even though China's airlines have a pretty decent safety record, pilots are sometimes accused by passengers of smoking during flights.

In desperation, the pilot reportedly hit the wrong switches, which dropped oxygen levels in the plane, triggering altitude warnings. Pictures and videos posted on social media showed the masks hanging from the ceiling, but no noticeable panic among the passengers.

The Boeing 737 aircraft, which had departed Hong Kong 30 minutes previously, was carrying 153 passengers and nine crew members at the time.

Then it climbed again to continue to its destination.

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"Smoke diffused into the passenger cabin and relevant air conditioning components were wrongly shut off, without notifying the captain, which resulted in insufficient oxygen".

The crew realised the problem after the descent and restored the air conditioning, allowing cabin pressure to return to normal, he said.

The incident, confirmed by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) at a press conference, is now being investigated.

"[We] didn't know what was going on, nor did the flight attendants, it seemed", said Hoby Sun, a passenger on flight CA106.

Air China announced Friday it will fire the pilots of a flight that plunged 25,000 feet this week, after it was found human error caused the plane to plummet.

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