Russian investigators looking into Sunday’s crash landing that left at least 41 dead on Monday named three possible causes for the incident: pilot error, poor weather and technical issues.
In the hours immediately following the incident, several contradictory accounts got in the way of the facts.
By morning, however, several things appeared settled: the two-year-old plane headed from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to Murmansk was hit by lightning shortly after taking off at 6.02pm local time; It lost control of at least some of its communications and navigation systems; and it burst into flames on landing heavily, 28 minutes later, back at Sheremetyevo .
The rescue effort also appears to have been hampered by passengers looking to retrieve their hand baggage.
Speaking with Russian media, members of the crew confirmed the plane had been hit by lightning and lost radio communications prior to returning to Sheremetyevo.
“There was a bright flash and a bang,” pilot Denis Evdokimov is quoted as saying. “The fire began after landing, I understand, because of the landing.”
But while authorities continue to piece together the exact combination of factors that led to the deadly outcome, one thing seems sure enough: the controversial safety record of the Sukhoi Superjet S100 is once again under the spotlight.
Investigators have so far stopped short of grounding a jet once heralded as a saviour of the local airline-production industry.
Airline regulator Rosaviatsia said it was “premature” to make such conclusions. This position was backed by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov who said Vladimir Putin had no intention of intervening.
“It is not the prerogative of the president to stop a particular model being used,” he said. “That is the job of specialists and aviation regulators.”
Security camera footage shows the plane hitting the landing strip hard three times, before bursting into flames. The overwhelming majority of those seated in the back of the plane did not make it out alive.
Seventy-eight people in total were on board, including five crew members. Survivors have spoken of the frightening scenes.
Vladimir Evmenkov, mayor of Severodonetsk, a naval town in Russia’s far east, was travelling in the sixth row of the aircraft. Speaking to local media, he said that he sensed something was not right just as the plane approached clouds.
“I was sitting next to the window and saw thunder hit the right engine twice – two very loud bangs and two sparks,” he said. “The engine did not catch fire but it became clear that things were going wrong because we stopped gaining height, flew under the clouds, and circled around the airport... After a while came an announcement that the aircraft was ready to land.”
Mr Evmenkov says he remembers screams, but not panic, among passengers, and that people waited for their turn to escape: “Running for the exit would have meant trampling over people. Only when people start to move did we move forward.”
Mr Evmenkov said he owed his life to the two crew members who opened the front exit doors “and essentially saved our lives”.
Another member of the crew, Maxim Moiseyev, who was sitting at the back of the plane, died in the crash. According to unconfirmed reports on state media, Mr Moiseyev had attempted to open the back emergency exits, and assisted passengers to the escape slides at the front of the plane.
According to Mr Evdokimov, the pilot, the plane landed at normal speed, but the aircraft was heavy on account of the fuel load. The crew were guided by air-travel controllers via an “intermittent, weak” emergency radio channel, he added.
Modern jets, the SSJ100 included, are built to withstand lightning strikes. It is unclear why Sunday’s strike led to the apparent failure of electrical systems and navigational instruments. That is likely to be a main focus for the investigation.
The other obvious focus will be pilot error: why Mr Evdokimov and his crew chose to land with an overweight aircraft, without using up fuel, and how the landing turned out to be so uncontrolled.
On Monday evening, a social media channel with links to the Russian authorities published what it claimed to be a witness account from one of the air-traffic controllers on duty at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport. That account suggests that the landing was far more controlled than previously reported.
“Right up until the moment of landing, everything was normal,” the account reads. “We observed the plane [from the tower]. The landing was incomprehensible: touching down, jumping, then a second attempt to land, again touching, again jumping – but this time higher, and already after the third jump we started to shout – not into the radio of course – telling him to go around.”
An awful lot is riding on the Superjet. In design stage, the regional liner was heralded as the great hope for Russia’s airline manufacturing industry. Billed as a way to return domestic production to Soviet levels, the government ploughed billions of dollars into the project. Sukhoi executives confidently predicted that more than 1,000 of the jets would eventually be sold.
But its eight years of service have been beset with problems.
They began almost immediately, with a test flight crash into an Indonesian volcano in 2012, killing 45, which was controversially blamed on the pilot. Since then sanctions, a catalogue of major incidents, and well-publicised repair issues have undermined the model.
Burning Aeroflot plane lands at Moscow airport
Sales, too, have been slow. Only 172 planes have so far been built, the vast majority to Russian, state-linked customers. The projected international order book has not materialised. At the beginning of 2019, Brussels Airlines announced that it would be terminating its charter contract for Sukhoi jets earlier than planned, citing a spate of technical problems in its decision.
Following Sunday’s incident, the long-term future for the liner does not look promising. Regulators may insist there is no basis to ground the aircraft, but passenger unease about flying in the model could force a rethink. On Monday morning, a petition demanding authorities ban the plane appeared online.
Some Russian aviation experts have criticised the official stance.
Speaking on TV Rain, an online television channel, safety expert Alexander Romanov said that it was clear that “a lot of money” was riding on the project. At the same time, he said, the pilot community say the plane is still quite “raw” in its development.
“We can’t exclude that something is wrong with the plane itself,” he said.
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