Pilot error or mechanical fault probably caused Sochi plane crash, Russian minister says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 3:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 10:07pm

Russia’s transport minister says a pilot error or a technical fault is likely to be the cause of Sunday’s plane crash over the Black Sea that killed 92 people.

All 84 passengers and eight crew members on the Russian military’s Tu-154 plane are believed to have died when it crashed two minutes after taking off from Sochi.

Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said in televised remarks on Monday that investigators are looking into a possible pilot error or a technical fault and that a terrorist attack was not among the main theories.

Backed by ships, helicopters and drones, Russian rescue teams continued to search for victims.

The plane had taken off two minutes at 5.25am in good weather. The passengers included dozens of singers in Russia’s world-famous Red Army Choir.

More than 3,000 rescue workers on 32 ships — including over 100 divers flown in from across Russia — were searching the crash site at sea and along the shore, the Defence Ministry said. Helicopters, drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris. Powerful spotlights were brought in so the operation could continue all night.

Emergency crews found fragments of the plane about 1.5km from shore. By Sunday evening, rescue teams had recovered 11 bodies and Sokolov said fragments of other bodies were also found.

Asked on Sunday if a terror attack was a possibility, Sokolov said investigators were looking into every possible reason for the crash. However, his later remarks have tamped down that fear.

The plane was taking the choir, formally known as the Alexandrov Ensemble, to perform at a New Year’s concert at Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia. Those on board also included nine Russian journalists and a Russian doctor famous for her work in war zones.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television to declare Monday a nationwide day of mourning.

“We will conduct a thorough investigation into the reasons and will do everything to support the victims’ families,” Putin said.

The Black Sea search area — which covered over 10 sq km — was made more difficult by underwater currents that carried debris and body fragments into the open sea. Sokolov said the plane’s flight recorders did not have radio beacons, so locating them on the seabed was going to be challenging.

The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively in Russia and worldwide. The plane that crashed Sunday was built in 1983, and underwent factory check-ups and maintenance in 2014 and this year, according to the Defence Ministry.

Magomed Tolboyev, a decorated Russian test pilot, said it was clear that all on board had died in the crash.

“There is no chance to survive in such situation,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Also on board was Yelizaveta Glinka, a Russian doctor who has won wide acclaim for her charity work, which has included missions to war zones in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Her foundation said Glinka was accompanying a medical shipment for a hospital in Syria.

“We never feel sure that we will come back alive,” she said when Putin presented her with an award earlier this month. “But we are sure that kindness, compassion and charity are stronger than any weapon.”