Russian military aircraft crashes en route to Syria - entire Alexandrov Ensemble choir presumed dead (UPDATES)
Sun, 25 Dec 2016 04:35 UTC
Ninety-one people were on board the aircraft, including 83 passengers and eight crew members, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The plane took off from Sochi Adler Airport on a "planned flight" and failed to check in with the control tower at 5:40am Moscow time, the ministry said, adding that all rescue services in the region have been deployed to search for the missing plane.
"According to preliminary data, a Russian Defense Ministry Tu-154 disappeared from radar screens after departing from Sochi," a source in the country's Emergencies Ministry told RIA Novosti earlier.
Nine journalists along with musicians from the army choir of the Russian Armed Forces, the Alexandrov Ensemble, were aboard the plane, the ministry confirmed. The musicians were due to take part in a New Year's concert at the Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria.
"Alexandrov Ensemble singers made up the majority of the missing passengers of the Tu-154," a defense source told RIA, adding that 90 members of the choir were supposed to be flown to Syria on two Russian military planes.
"According to preliminary data, the missing Tu-154 arrived in Sochi from Chkalovsky airfield near Moscow for refueling. It is likely that it crashed in the mountainous area of the Krasnodar region," another source told RIA.
Meanwhile, another source familiar with the matter told Interfax that the plane went off radar when the Tu-154 was maneuvering in Russian airspace over the Black Sea, shortly after take off.
"The plane disappeared from radar approximately 20 minutes after takeoff," another source told RIA, adding that the plane departed at 5:20am local time and failed to check in with the tower at 5:40am.
The Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviation) told RIA Novosti that the flight was "not civilian".
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu is coordinating the search efforts via videoconferencing. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been alerted of the incident and is getting live updates on the search and rescue effort.
Sources on the ground told RIA that technical failure and/or human error are being considered as potential causes of the accident. Meanwhile, TASS reports that weather conditions in Sochi are "favorable" to aviation. No civilian flights have been cancelled.
Comment: Update (07:22 GMT) According to RT, rescue helicopters have discovered debris in the Black Sea from a Russian military transport plane which went off radar en route to Syria. The debris flew apart along the coast, across a 1.5 kilometer area, and is at depths of 50 to 100 meters, a source told RIA Novosti.
Documents belonging to the Channel One journalists have been found at the scene, TASS news agency reports, citing a security service source. A source told Interfax news agency that rescue workers have discovered several bodies at the scene. "Emergency workers are finding bodies, there are a few of them," the source said.
Military investigators of the Russian Investigative Committee have opened a criminal case into the crash of the Tu-154 plane of the Defense Ministry en route to Syria's Latakia, official spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko told TASS.
Update (17:06 GMT): Among those presumed dead: conductor, composer and head of the choir Valery Khailov, 65 members of the choir, three reporters each from Channel One Russia, NTV and Zvezda, and prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker Elizaveta Glinka ("Doctor Liza"). Glinka was awarded the Order of Friendship in 2012. This year, she received a state award for her humanitarian work.
So far, several bodies have been found, but no survivors. Footage of the rescue operation:
Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences and named December 26 a national day of mourning. Around the world, leaders are expressing their sympathies, even including officials in Ukraine.
The Alexandrov Ensemble army choir, formed in 1928, is vastly popular, and will have to be reformed almost from the bottom up. It's considered one of the greatest male choirs in the world. It's known for performing traditional Soviet and folk songs, and modern hits as well (everything from Queen to Lady Gaga). They certainly had a sense of humor! Some selections below:
Vadim Ananiev, one of the choir's three lead vocalists who were not on the flight, told RT:
"I was in shock. Couldn't believe it. I still don't believe it...Ananiev's wife recently had a child, so he was granted leave to be with his family.
"Words fail me to express how I feel right now. I cannot fully comprehend what happened. My wife is crying, my children don't understand what happened. Think we'll probably go to a church to pray..."
Russia, and the world, has suffered a massive cultural loss. As a tribute, here is the choir performing the Russian national anthem, recorded back in 2004:
Update: Without many details, the Russian authorities are speculating that perhaps mechanical failure or pilot error is at fault. But some experts are also considering a bomb on board. (Since the crash occurred in Russian airspace, and was a military flight, they are discounting the terror hypothesis.) The Saker comments on the possibilities so far:
- Mechanical failure: unlikely. The Tu-154 is a three engine aircraft and an extremely strong beast. It's safety record is comparable to most aircraft of its time, even though it was often used in extreme conditions other aircraft types did not have to operate in. The Tu-154 had already taken enough altitude to attempt a return to base or even a water landing. The weather that day was good. Besides, the crew did not communicate any problem. Thus the disaster had to be instantaneous.
- Fuel problem: unlikely. Fuel problems are always a prime suspect when a crash occurs, but even if the engines had suddenly experienced problems or even a full shutdown, the pilots would have had the time to report this. Also, like any other aircraft, the Tu-154 can glide and maneuver without power.
- Bird strike: unlikely. I am not even sure that there have ever been a triple engine failure due to a bird strike but even if there has been, they crew could have reported it which it did not. And, again, the case of US Airways flight 1549 has shown that even a catastrophic birdstrike does not prevent a fully loaded airliner from attempting to land.
- Pilot error: highly unlikely. The guys flying this aircraft where extremely experienced and while human error is always possible, it mostly results in situation were it can be reported. The Tu-154 was a very complex aircraft to operate and it had its weaknesses - but these were all very well known to the Russian crews and this crew was a very experienced one.
- Missile: unlikely. The Tu-154 has three engines including one mounted over the top of the rear of the fuselage and a MANPAD type missile warhead does not have the kind of blast radius capable of taking out all three of them. As for bigger missiles, the Black Sea coasts of Russia is very tightly controlled by the Russian military and security services (as is the entire Black Sea) and to get that close to the city of Sochi would be risky and difficult.
- Sabotage/bomb: most likely simply because all other causes are even less likely. True, this was a military aircraft with, supposedly, good security. Alas, I can confirm from personal experience that if you look Russian and speak Russian like a native and if you act the right way, military security in Russia is nowhere near as good as it should be. However, if you speak with an accent or look foreign, and that includes speaking with a Caucasian accent or looking like somebody from the Caucasus, you would have a much harder time beating the controls.
What seems certain is that whatever it was, it was instantaneous, and the plane seems to have been blown apart in midair while it was still gaining altitude. Fragments of the plane were found 1.5 km from shore; a body was found 6 km away; and more fragments were found 8 km away.
Update (Dec. 26): By last night, rescue teams had recovered 11 bodies, including fragments of other bodies. One source says that the majority of the bodies may still be in the fuselage, at a depth of about 60 meters. Four fragments of the plane, including one 4 meters long, have been discovered at a depth of 27 meters one mile from the coast. Two pieces of the cockpit have been recovered. The search team now comprises 45 ships, 12 aircraft, 10 helicopters, 3 drones, and 3500 people. So far none of the flight recorders have been recovered.
Interestingly, practically no one knew that the plane would refuel in Sochi. It had been scheduled to refuel in North Ossetia, but diverted due to poor weather there: "Only two border guards and one customs officer came onboard, and only one navigator shortly left the plane to control refueling." There were no unauthorized people near the plane while in Sochi.
According to the FSB, their main working hypotheses exclude sabotage and terrorism for the moment:
- foreign objects getting into the engine;
- poor quality fuel, resulting in loss of power and failure of the engines;
- piloting error; and
- technical failure of the aircraft.
Updates (Dec. 27): The Tu-154's main flight data recorder was found at the depth of 17 meters (56 feet), Russia's Defense Ministry said. The black box was located some 1,600 meters (one mile) from shore by a FALCON underwater drone. The black box will be delivered to the Central Research Institute of the Air Force of Defense Ministry in the city of Lyubertsy, a Moscow suburb, within the next few hours, the ministry reported.
The ministry added that five more fragments of the crashed plane have been located, including the fuselage and parts of the engine, at the depth of 30 meters (98ft). Some 45 ships, 15 underwater drones, 192 divers, 12 planes, and 5 helicopters are currently involved in the search, according to the ministry.
A source told TASS earlier that one of the key theories as to why the plane crashed "is that foreign objects penetrated the engine," adding that other possible causes, such as pilot error and technical failure, are also being investigated.
An apparent eyewitness in Sochi - who also happens to be a Coast Guard, who also happens to be an FSB employee - gives the following report:
An employee of Coast Guard FSB Border Troops became a witness to the tragedy. At the time of the incident he was on board a boat in the water near Sochi. He said that the plane was taking off from the Adler Airport, but instead of climbing out, began to descend rapidly, as if to make a landing on the sea surface.And here's a variation on that report:
At the same time the border guard said that the position of the Tu-154 in the air seemed strange even for a landing as the plane flew unnaturally nose-high, like a motorcycle doing a wheelie. A moment later, the plane, according to him, touched the sea surface with its tail end which broke off on impact, and quickly sank.
Experts commenting on the incident in Kommersant expressed the assumption that the crash was somehow linked to the actions of the crew. According to them, the plane began to lose speed and height due to pilot error, trying to climb out too vigorously. As a result, the Tu-154 could be at supercritical angles of attack that led to the loss of lift of the wings and the subsequent descent of the liner.
A key witness to the tragedy is an employee of the FSB (Federal Security Service) Border Guard, who was on a speedboat near the Black Sea coast at the moment of the disaster early on Dec. 25, reports the Kommersant business daily, citing a source in the law-enforcement agencies.The Russian Transport Minister said that "the plane disintegrated into several parts, so it is not possible to talk about any main part" to be searched for.
The witness told the investigators that after take-off the plane immediately began to descend toward the sea instead of gaining altitude and that it appeared that it intended to land on the water. The plane's position was strange, said the witness: It was descending at a low speed with an unnaturally turned-up nose.
Kommersant writes that the border guard compared the landing aircraft to a motorcycle speeding on its back wheel alone. In an instant, according to the FSB source, the Tu-154 touched the sea's surface with its tail, which broke off upon impact, crashed into the waves and quickly sank.
There have been unconfirmed reports that the aircraft crashed into the Black Sea at a speed of over 500km/h (310mph), TASS reported, citing a source in law enforcement. Before the aircraft crashed, the crew was allegedly trying to perform a maneuver to its right, but the plane's nose was turned up too far, the source said.The purported final words of the pilot were allegedly leaked to media. A source told Life News the pilot can be heard yelling "the flaps, damn it!" followed by "Commander, we're going down!". However, Transport Minister Sokolov had earlier said the recovered black box did not contain voice recordings, but technical parameters. Another source told TASS that preliminary analysis of the recorder data was complete and suggests that the crash was caused by "mistakes made by the pilot of the aircraft." One witness apparently filmed the take-off, flight, and crash.
Updates (Dec. 28): Divers have retrieved the second flight data recorder from the wreckage of the Russian Tu-154 in the Black Sea; they've also discovered 12 large plane fragments and 1,547 smaller ones, the Russian Defense Ministry stated Wednesday.
"The second Tu-154 flight recorder was found and raised from the bottom less than half an hour ago," the ministry said in a statement.Russian news agency TASS cites security services as saying that rescuers have recovered 13 bodies and 223 body parts so far.
It added that 12 large plane fragments and 1,547 small fragments have been found since the start of the search and rescue operation.
tail section containing two flight data recorders. The second recorder recovered was apparently the cockpit voice recorder.
Update (Dec. 29): According to a security services source, rescuers have recovered and passed to the military what they believe is film belonging to a third flight data recorder belonging to Russia's Tu-154 aircraft that crashed in the Black Sea.
Rescuers have recovered and passed to the military what they believe is film belonging to a third flight data recorder belonging to Russia's Tu-154 aircraft that crashed in the Black Sea, a security services source told RIA Novosti.The main recovery phase is now over, but the investigation will take some time. Investigators say they have ruled out an onboard explosion, but a terrorist attack is still not ruled out:
"A lot of film has been found, most likely from the third [black box]. The entire film is collected in a bucket and handed to the military," the source said Thursday.
The source said earlier that the third recorder has not yet been found. The first black box was sent to Moscow for decryption on Tuesday, while the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that a third black box has been lifted from the seabed.
"It is apparent that the equipment didn't work as intended. What caused this is for the experts to establish. A technical commission has been created to do this work. Preliminary results may be available in January 2017," Transport Minister Maksim Sokolov, who heads the state commission handling the crash, said during a media briefing in Moscow.Also, the final words in the cockpit before the crash has been released to the media:
Sokolov's comments somewhat contradicted those of General Lieutenant Sergey Bainetov, the chief of the Russian Defense Ministry's Flight Safety Service, who said that data from the first flight recorder recovered from the crash site hadn't pointed to any obvious technical failure.
Sokolov concurred that a more detailed technical analysis was necessary before coming to any conclusions.
The minister said that a preliminary report would not be made public until all of the transcripts recovered from the flight recorders have been analyzed. He also asked the media to refrain from speculation or reporting unconfirmed information regarding the investigation.
Rescuers have found 19 bodies and over 230 body parts at the crash site in the Black Sea off Sochi. Identification of those remains will require extensive DNA testing. Gene samples have been taken from the crash victims' relatives, and testing is already underway, Sokolov said.
Divers managed to lift 13 large fragments of the Tu-154 from the sea, as well as to collect almost 2,000 smaller ones. The plane was heavily damaged by the impact with the water, the minister said, adding that specialists believe that enough fragments have been recovered to determine the cause of the crash.
Bainetov commented on a media report which claimed that the last words heard in the cabin of the doomed plane were "the flaps, damn it!" The defense official wouldn't comment on the accuracy of the leaked information, but he did say that, even if the information was true, it would not necessarily mean that the flaps were the cause of the crash.
Bainetov said that the Tu-154's last flight was only 70 seconds long. It climbed to about 250 meters and flew at a speed of 360 to 370 km/h before plunging into water.
The recording of the cockpit exchanges between the flight deck crew comprising the captain, Major Roman Volkov, his co-pilot, a navigator and an engineer.
- ...Speed 300... (not clear)
- (not clear)
- Stands are off, commander
- (not clear)
- Oh ouch!
A sharp alarm signal
- The flaps, b***h, what the f***!
- We are... (not clear)
Alarm signal warning of dangerous proximity to the ground.
- Not clear
- We are falling, commander!
End of the recording.