Tuesday 18 December 2018

Moscow plane crash: What caused a plane to drop out of the sky?

Russian investigators try to piece together what brought down Saratov Flight 703

The flight data recorder has already been recovered from the crash site (AP)
The flight data recorder has already been recovered from the crash site (AP)

Oliver Carroll

Russian investigators have begun to piece a picture of Saratov Airlines Flight 703, which crashed on Sunday afternoon with 71 on board.

In a statement released on Monday, the State Investigation Committee said it had determined important details. The plane was intact as it fell, it said; there was no evidence of a fire; and any explosion happened only after the plane began losing altitude. 

This contradicted early claims made by local witnesses to The Independent, who suggested the plane fell apart while still in the air. 

Emergency teams faced the most difficult of working conditions as they raked over the crash zone, 30 miles southeast of Moscow. Fragments of metal and body parts were buried deep in knee-high snow, and strewn over 30 hectares of fields and woodlands. The rescue workers have thrown everything at the task: snowmobiles, monster trucks, tractors, and special snow-melting equipment. But it is unlikely they will complete the job for many days.

Russian Emergency Situations Ministry members work at the crash site of the short-haul AN-148 airplane operated by Saratov Airlines in Moscow Region, Russia February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
Russian Emergency Situations Ministry members work at the crash site of the short-haul AN-148 airplane operated by Saratov Airlines in Moscow Region, Russia February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Monday evening, both black boxes had been recovered. Their contents are being analysed alongside fuel samples, maintenance records, and other readings. 

Information already in the public domain raises more questions than answers. According to radar data provided by FlightRadar24, the plane initially gained altitude as normal. Around 1000 m above ground, and with a speed of approximately 370 mph, something happened. The plane began to fall. Then it steadied itself, then the fall hastened. Flight 703 disappeared from radar screens just a few minutes after take off. 

Local media say engine failure, instrument failure, pilot error, and ice are considered the most likely cause of the crash. In all cases, they refer to unnamed sources “close to the investigation.” 

In a statement released on Monday, the State Investigation Committee said it had determined important details. The plane was intact as it fell, it said; there was no evidence of a fire; and any explosion happened only after the plane began losing altitude. 

This contradicted early claims made by local witnesses to The Independent, who suggested the plane fell apart while still in the air. 

Emergency teams faced the most difficult of working conditions as they raked over the crash zone, 30 miles southeast of Moscow. Fragments of metal and body parts were buried deep in knee-high snow, and strewn over 30 hectares of fields and woodlands. The rescue workers have thrown everything at the task: snowmobiles, monster trucks, tractors, and special snow-melting equipment. But it is unlikely they will complete the job for many days.

By Monday evening, both black boxes had been recovered. Their contents are being analysed alongside fuel samples, maintenance records, and other readings. 

Information already in the public domain raises more questions than answers. According to radar data provided by FlightRadar24, the plane initially gained altitude as normal. Around 1000 m above ground, and with a speed of approximately 370 mph, something happened. The plane began to fall. Then it steadied itself, then the fall hastened. Flight 703 disappeared from radar screens just a few minutes after take off. 

Local media say engine failure, instrument failure, pilot error, and ice are considered the most likely cause of the crash. In all cases, they refer to unnamed sources “close to the investigation.” 

Several reports suggested the pilot had decided against de-icing the plane before take-off. In conditions of light snow, such an operation is not obligatory, but it may have contributed to aerodynamic problems. Non-icing is believed to have caused another crash in 2012, when a UTair ATR-72 fell 10 miles after take-off from the Siberian city of Tyumen. Then, only 12 of the 43 on board survived. 

Some of the first versions of the crash have already been rejected. We now know for sure that the pilots neither reported technical problems nor requested an emergency landing — this is clear from air traffic recordings released on the Mash telegram channel on Sunday night.

Independent News Service

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