Investigators examining the fiery crash landing of a Russian passenger at a Moscow airport reportedly are increasingly focused on pilot error as the primary cause of the accident that killed 41, as well as whether the emergency response was too slow.
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The Aeroflot flight with 78 people aboard ran into trouble shortly after taking off on Sunday from Moscow bound for the northern city of Murmansk, reportedly after being struck by lightning. An attempted emergency landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport then ended catastrophically, with the plane engulfed in flame.
Two reports in well-respected Russian news outlets on Tuesday cited sources close to the investigation, which alleged the pilots had made a series of mistakes that led to the accident being so deadly
The newspaper Kommersant reported that investigators believe that the pilots’ first mistake was flying into the bad weather, where according to various accounts it was hit by the lightning, reportedly caused the aircraft to lose radio contact and leaving it with only manual control.
The pilots managed to signal to ground controllers and requested an emergency landing. At this point, Kommersant reported, investigators accuse the pilots of making a second error, deciding to hurriedly make the landing rather than to circle in the air while burning off fuel.
As the a result, the aircraft attempted the emergency landing with nearly-full fuel tanks and therefore also heavily weighted.The plane came in too fast and too hard, causing its landing gear to collapse and slam the fuselage into the runway, making it bounce into the air.
The pilots, Kommersant wrote, then reacted incorrectly, pointing the nose downward instead of immediately seeking to pull up. The plane bounced twice more, bursting its fuel tanks, throwing fuel over the engines which exploded into fire.
“What we saw was a botched landing," Steve Ganyard, a former deputy Assistant Secretary of State and ex-military pilot who is an aviation consultant for ABC News. "A landing that went awry and it hit so hard that it broke the airplane up and caused that horrific fire.”
A second Russian outlet, RBC, on Tuesday reported that investigators also allege the pilots may worsened the fire by failing to turn off the engines after the crash.
The pilots, Denis Yevdokimov and Maksim Kuznetsov have not spoken publicly since Sunday. In an unverified audio interview aired on Russian state television, Yevdokimov said the plane had lost communications and autopilot controls after the lightning strike. He said he had followed all procedures.
Tracking data on the site FlightRadar24 showed the plane had circled the airport twice before landing.
There were still many questions remaining, though, about the factors behind the crash. Experts noted there may have been reasons why the pilots had felt they could not wait before landing. Shem Malmquist, an airliner pilot and visiting professor at the Florida Institute of Technology disputed that landing with a full load of fuel was necessarily a mistake.
"Landing overweight is not a big deal-- we do it all the time," he said. "It's not the first choice. But it's not an unusual decision to make at all if you feel there's any urgency to getting on the ground."
Malmquist cautioned against laying responsibility for the accident on the pilots, while neglecting the factors that had determined their decisions. "It's very convenient to blame pilots. But in actual fact accidents are always more complex," he said.
Experts have also questioned Sheremetyevo airport’s response, with concerns that authorities had declared an emergency too slowly. The head of Sheremetyevo’s flight attendants union, Ilona Borisova, told Kommersant that although the firefighters had acted swiftly, the alert summoning them had already come in too late -- meaning they arrived only after the plane had landed and was already ablaze.
Russian officials have so far defended the response. But Russian transport minister Yevgeny Dietrich told journalists on Monday that the airport declared an emergency one minute after the plane’s landing, with the first fire trucks arriving within a minute. Six other trucks arrived four minutes later, he said.
Investigators have recovered the plane’s flight recorders, which may yet reveal details that alter investigators' understanding of the accident. It also remained unclear on Tuesday why the plane -- a Russian-built Sukhoi Superjet 100 -- was so damaged by the lightning strike. Such strikes are common and modern aircraft are usually unaffected by them.
The plane's model has come under scrutiny. The Superjet is a flagship project for Russia, the first new passenger plane developed by the country since the Soviet Union's collapse, and intended to compete with global manufacturers, like Boeing. But it has had a troubled history, with Russia struggling to sell it to European and U.S. airlines due to concerns about its reliability and a weak reputation for safety.
Sunday's crash has prompted an outcry by some in Russia against the planes. But the Transport minister, Dietrich said there were currently no reason to ground the Superjets.
Meanwhile, a few harrowing accounts from passengers have been slowly emerging. One man, Oleg Molchanov told the popular news site Meduza that he had been sitting in the twelfth row and that no one behind him got out.
“I went last -- there was already no one behind me,” Molchanov said. “I think the passengers there had no chance to save themselves. They were suffocated by carbon monoxide, everything was drenched in kerosene. The lamps were melting in front of my eyes,” he said.
Molchanov praised the flight attendants, saying they did “everything bordering on the impossible” to get people out.
One attendant, 22 year-old Maksim Moiseyev died in the fire and has been hailed as a hero in Russia media after he stayed aboard battling to get the rear door's open.
Molchanov told Meduza he was skeptical about the investigation, saying he expected the pilots would be blamed regardless. “I am not an expert and I can’t say what led to the emergency, but I think that in any case they will blame the pilots. If they’re guilty then it’s clear, and if they’re not guilty then they’ll still hang everything on them. No one is going to cancel the Superjet project,” he said.