Sochi, Russia – The Christmas holiday was marred in tragedy as a Russian Defense Ministry Tu-154 aircraft transporting the world-renowned Alexandrov Ensemble Choir along with a group of journalists plummeted into the cold Black Sea without warning, killing all on board two minutes into its flight to Syria. They were traveling from the international airport of the coastal resort city of Sochi to play a New Year’s concert for Russian troops at a base in Syria. All of the aircraft’s 92 passengers perished.
Shortly after the crash was reported internationally, Russia’s Federal Security Service or FSB investigators made its initial statement that they “were looking into all possible causes of the crash, including terrorism,” which was quickly retracted and replaced with the official statement that “no signs or facts pointing to a possible act of terror have been received at this time.” Investigators from the FSB went on to provide four different scenarios that could have caused the crash, speculating that pilot error, some sort of technical issue, bad fuel, or a foreign object such as a bird flying into the engine could have brought the Soviet era three-engined Tupoluv Tu-154 aircraft down. The Russian Minister of Transportation, Maksim Sokolov echoed these sentiments by stating “As far as we know, an attack is not one of the main possibilities for the catastrophe,” Mr. Sokolov went on “We’re looking into either the technical condition [of the plane] or a pilot error.” However, some Russian experts remain skeptical.
One of the most feasible conditions that led to the crash of the Tu-154 was that a foreign object struck one of the three engines that brought the aircraft down. Russian investigators are assuming the object was that of a bird. Similar to the US Airways Flight 1549 crash of an Airbus A320 in 2009, where the aircraft struck a flock of Canadian geese just after take-off from New York’s LaGuardia International Airport. During that flight, pilot Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson river after both engines shut down. Russian transportation experts skeptical of this scenario were quick to point out that unlike the crash of the US Airways flight where Sullenberger was in constant communications with the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control; the Russian Tu-154 pilots never made any distress calls or reports back to the Sochi International Airport prior to crashing. The aircraft simply disappeared off the radar and after several attempts by air traffic controllers to communicate with the plane authorities then came to the grim conclusion that the flight had crashed.
Vitaly Andreyev, a former senior Russian air traffic controller in a statement to Russian news outlets claimed that an ‘external impact’ could most likely be the cause of the crash yet added that “possible malfunctions certainly wouldn’t have prevented the crew from reporting them.” In an interview with the Associated Press, a former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member and aviation safety expert paralleled Mr. Andreyev by stating “while pilot error or bad fuel would be high on my list, they wouldn’t have prevented the pilot from alerting traffic controllers to the situation.”
The wreckage of the Tu-154 has been reported to span over 10 miles of the frigid Black Sea. Prompting some Russian experts to speculate that this is indicative of an explosion on the aircraft and thus alludes to a possible terrorist plot. The Tupoluv Tu-154 assigned to the 8th Special Purpose Aviation Division departed from its home base of Chkalovsky military airbase in Shchyolkovo Russia, some 20 miles northeast of Moscow. The airbase has had some questionable security with Russian media claiming that the airbase is “quite porous compared to civilian airports.” Russian news agency RBC journalist reported that the soldiers only check the personnel manifests during pre-flight inspections and almost never inspect the personal effects of the passengers, which is leading some Russian transportation experts to posit that an explosive device could have made its way onto the aircraft prior to departing.
Another gap in security was the refueling stop that occurred at the Sochi airport where FSB investigators are interviewing persons who were involved in the refueling of the aircraft. Initial reporting indicates that all aboard were asked to disembark for safety during the refueling process and waited in a terminal within the airport itself. FSB investigators reported that both the pilot and co-pilot were present for the refueling and were purportedly monitoring the process. Russian Deputy Chairman or the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, Franz Klintsevich hasn’t ruled out that an explosive device could have been put on the Tu-154 during its refueling, stating, “The plane sat on refueling, taking off from Sochi, and what sort of activities were carried out – no one can say.”
The potential that this may have been a terrorist plot will not bode well for Russia as it’s still reeling from the assassination of its ambassador Andrey Karlov in Turkey by the disgruntled Turkish police officer, Melvut Mert Altintas, for what he perceived as crimes against the people of Aleppo earlier this month. As of today the aircraft’s ‘black boxes’ along with what FSB investigators are calling ‘key mechanical pieces’ of the Tu-154 have been recovered by divers from the 3,500 strong search party taking part in the recovery efforts along the debris field. As more of the dead are recovered from the crash site, it is the hope that these boxes cobbled with mechanical parts will provide clues to as what really happened to the ill-fated flight and will help Russia gain closure for this untimely tragedy.
Featured image courtesy of: Washington Post