Reuters notes that even though China's airlines have a pretty decent safety record, pilots are sometimes accused by passengers of smoking during flights. Instead, he turned off the supply of air from outside the plane, leading to an oxygen shortage that set off the emergency reaction.
This blunder caused oxygen levels in the cabin to fall, and triggered the release of oxygen masks from the cabin ceiling, which passengers soon photographed and started sharing to social media.
"[The co-pilot] mistakenly switched off the air-conditioning unit that was next to it, resulting in insufficient oxygen in the cabin and an altitude warning", said CAAC investigator Qiao Yibin.
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In a statement to the South China Morning Post, Air China initially said if an "investigation reveals the crew violated regulations, the company will deal with those responsible with zero tolerance".
Instead, the wingman accidentally triggered a drop in oxygen levels, prompting an altitude warning that caused the almost fatal plunge - from 32,800 to 13,100 feet in less than nine minutes, Civil Aviation Administration of China officials told the station.
Now, officials are reportedly investigating the incident "in greater detail", reviewing the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder for more information.
A clumsy co-pilot caused an Air China plane to plunge almost 20,000 feet midair when he pulled the wrong switch while trying to shut off an air recycling system - so he could vape in the cockpit.
China's Civil Aviation Administration said smoke seeped into the passenger cabin, which can carry up to 215 passengers, according to state media.