Plane crash near Moscow: ''If a plane faces a drone, it’s like a missile, there is no difference''

Experts don’t exclude that a collision with an unmanned vehicle could have been one of the causes of An-148’s crash, it’s a serious threat to civil aviation

Plane crash near Moscow: ''If a plane faces a drone, it’s like a missile, there is no difference'' Photo: Rescue and Firefighting Services of Moscow Oblast State Treasury Establishment of Moscow Oblast

A passenger plane flying from Domodedovo to Orsk crashed near Moscow on Sunday. All people on board – 71 people – died. The search lasted on the scene all night. The victims' relatives, who are mainly residents of Orenburg Oblast, started to be delivered to Moscow on 12 February. Realnoe Vremya collected information about the carrier and its aircraft and studied possible versions of the plane catastrophe together with experts.

Tradegy in Ramensky

The plane of Saratov Airlines that was operating a flight Domodedovo – Orsk was in the air at 14.21 Moscow time but was in the sky for just 4 minutes. Then it suddenly went off the radars, the first messages about the aircraft's crash started to appear one hour later. An-148 fell in Ramensky district near Moscow's Stepanovskoye village.

65 passengers and 6 crew members were on board. They all died. It became known later that they were mainly residents of Orenburg Oblast, three of them were foreigners. Later there was information one citizen of Kazan was among the casualties – it is 32-year-old Ekaterina Nasyrova, sales director of TN-Kazan PLC. There were three kids among the victims of the air catastrophe: 17, 12 and 5 years. The victims' relatives gathered at the airport of Orsk. Many people didn't believe they lost their close people till the end and hoped for a miracle. But the Ministry of Emergency Situations confirmed nobody survived. The passengers' families are receiving psychological help, DNA samples are collected to do genetic analysis and identify the remains. The head of the Ministry of Labour said the victims' relatives would get 2 million rubles of compensation, the regional authorities of Moscow Oblast and Orenburg Oblast promise another million each.

The field on which An-148 fell was cordoned soon on the perimeter of 2 km. More than 600 people participated in the search. Photo: mchs.gov.ru

The witnesses of the crash, who are residents of Stepanovskoye village, say the plane started to burn in the air. People heard a loud burst before this. ''The burst was good, the glasses shattered. And immediately there was a huge cupola, like a mushroom,'' the locals describe the crash.

''I was going to fly to Orsk on this plane today for my birthday. The car dealership failed at the last moment, and I postponed the flight one week later. I lost 10,000 rubles to exchange the tickets but got a life,'' wrote resident of Sochi Maksim Kolomeitsev on his page who is congratulated on his second birthday now.

The field on which An-148 fell was cordoned soon on the perimeter of 2 km. More than 600 people participated in the search. The blizzard complicated the search: ''Everything is closed on the scene, it is snowing heavily, the headquarters moved to Domodedovo. The search goes on,'' colleagues from the mass media who worked on the scene late told Realnoe Vremya.

''It is Saratov Airlines, everything is bad there''

The crashed plane belonged to Saratov Airlines. Investigative bodies started to inspect the carrier's documents. The Russian Air Transport Agency and the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision are carrying out unscheduled checks of the airline and Domodedovo airport. It is said An-148's certificate of airworthiness was to expire on 1 June 2018.

''This airport shudders during take-off, tickets are expensive, and we got such faulty vehicles for it,'' passengers who often choose these flights complain.

''It is Saratov Airlines, everything is bad there. There are many scandals with this airline. I've flown several times but got away. There is a pile of complaints, in general. Once the director general's daughter flew to sea in the pilot's cabin, which is prohibited. In, general, yes, their planes are in a bad state. They purchased Embraers, but they weren't new. Mainly An-148 are used. My classmate crashed in this flight,'' Ksenia Nazarova, a girl from Orsk who is living and working in Moscow now, told our newspaper.

Saratov Airlines belong to businessman Arkady Yevstafyev, the owner of Agroros bank. Photo: om-saratov.ru

Saratov Airlines belong to businessman Arkady Yevstafyev, the owner of Agroros bank with offices in different cities of Saratov Oblast. The entrepreneur has a doubtful reputation. He worked in KGB, was Anatoly Chubais's adviser and press secretary in the 90s. He became famous when he was leaving the House of the Government with a photocopier's box full of money – the money raised by oligarchs and bankers for Boris Yeltsin's electoral campaign.

Passengers who were afraid of flying on such old plane had many complaints about the carrier. However, the head of the Russian Air Transport Agency said Yevstafyev's planes didn't cause complaints of his agency in terms of safety. In any case, Saratov Airlines will face serious checks with inspection of documentation. A criminal case on the crash opened.

From North Korea to President Poroshenko

The wreckages of the plane were spread within a one-kilometre radius. Some of them were thought to belong to parts of another vehicle – during the first hours of the incident, there was offered a version that An-148 had crashed into a post helicopter. In addition, a bag with correspondence of Russian Post was found on the scene. Later the version with the helicopter was denied. But a possible collision with a drone or unmanned vehicle is still considered.

The version with the plane's icing is supposed as another reason. ''Saratov An wasn't covered with the anti-icing fluid. They didn't know whether to de-ice it or nor for 15 minutes, the first pilot made a decision to fly without de-icing,'' several newspapers cited the words of the source at Domodedovo.

One of the black boxes of the plane was found in a satisfactory state, its data is analysed now. A fault in one of the engines that arose immediately after take-off is the preliminary cause of the crash.

Very An-148 plane – a two-engine reactive narrow-bodied passenger plane – was created for regional flights and designed to substitute Tu-134. Photo: Yendaltsev Yury/russianplanes.net

Аn-148-100V that crashed was made eight years ago. It operated its first regular flight on 26 June 2010. It had being used by Saratov Airlines since last year's February. Before that, it had been stored for two years because of an absence of spare parts.

Very An-148 plane – a two-engine reactive narrow-bodied passenger plane – was created for regional flights and designed to substitute Tu-134. It was created by Antonov Design Bureau. The plane has being used since 2009. An-148 is made in Antonov serial production plant in Ukraine and with a licence in Voronezh Joint-Stock Aircraft Company in Russia. Russian airlines Rossiya, Saratov Airlines and Angara use it. Air Forces of Russia, North Korean, Cuban airlines and even Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko also use it. A total of 43 such planes were made last year.

It's the second air catastrophe among this type of aircraft. Another Аn-148-100Е crashed during a test flight in Belgorod Oblast on 5 March 2011. It was manufactured for Myanmar, six crew members died, of which two represented this country.

Icing, collapse or engine failure?

Realnoe Vremya asked experts to comment on possible causes of An-148's fall. Director General of Kazan Aircraft Enterprise JSC Magomed Zakarzhayev thinks that 4 minutes in the air doesn't mean it happened immediately after take-off. The plane covered quite a long distance for this time. This is why he considers the version of icing unlike:

''If it's linked with icing, it's the first minute right after take-off. In this case, the plane didn't fall immediately during take-off when it had a low speed. Do you remember Yak-40 fell with Artyom Borovik? In its case, it went up and then down and exploded. It fell on its wing because icing reduced lifting power and increased frontal resistance, while the pilot held the speed because he didn't know icing would affect so much. For this reason, it happens during take-off. And 4 minutes is a lot. Something different is the cause here,'' Magomed Zakarzhayev thinks.

Though the version with a helicopter was excluded, the expert thinks An-148 could have had another collision. For instance, with a drone or unmanned vehicle. It's been a real problem and serious threat to civil aviation in recent time.

Magomed Zakarzhayev: Of course, they are a serious threat to aviation. The plane probably gained 400 km/h. If it faces a 20 kg drone, it's like a missile, there is no difference. It's not armoured, a usual passenger plane.'' Photo: Aleksandr Tretyakov

''One of the wreckages was brightly painted. This is why it was confused with a helicopter. If it were a helicopter, it would be wanted. But it could have been a collision with a drone or unmanned vehicle, there are so many of them now! One can buy them in any hardware store. Unfortunately, the legality of their flights hasn't been completely regulated. It's a serious gap in the legislature. It was promised to adopt by the end of the last year, but there aren't strict rules for them. Of course, they are a serious threat to aviation. The plane probably gained 400 km/h. If it faces a 20 kg drone, it's like a missile, there is no difference. It's not armoured, a usual passenger plane,'' Zakarzhayev explains.

The director of the aircraft enterprise didn't accuse the blizzard. The plane spent some time in the sky anyway: ''If it flew for four minutes in the air, the weather doesn't matter.'' If the plane didn't face a thunderstorm and hailstorm, the weather conditions didn't need to affect the flight, he thinks. ''It's either a collapse or maybe really an explosion. Now we can only guess and wait for official comments,'' the expert concluded.

Chairman of the Board of Directors of Tulpar Group of Companies Azat Khakim is inclined to the version of a technical failure of An-148. But he doesn't exclude the version that the plane was covered with ice.

''There is information that it wasn't covered with an anti-icing fluid on earth. It probably froze. It fell almost immediately, it was taking off, gained some 2 km, that's to say, it was gaining height. This is why probably it was covered with ice or its engines failed. It's unlikely to be the pilot's mistake. It's not such a difficult stage to gain height here. Pilots usually make mistakes before landing,'' says Azat Khakim.

Realnoe Vremya's interlocutor doesn't exclude that an unmanned vehicle or drone could have caused the plane's crash: ''It's a threat, of course. If a drone is in the engine, the engine will immediately fail.'' But the expert doubts the plane's explosion in the air that the witnesses describe.

Azat Khakim: ''Probably it was covered with ice, or its engines failed. It's unlikely to be the pilot's mistake. It's not such a difficult stage to gain height here.'' Photo: Maksim Platonov

''When a plane falls down, the engine starts working in uncalculated modes, and there is such a sharp and unpleasant sound. Witnesses can interpret it differently. As the radius of the distribution of wreckages isn't wide – about 1,5 km – it means the aircraft didn't fall to pieces in the air. I think the explosion was already on earth because the plane was full of fuel,'' Azat Khakim added.

''According to him, the fleet of Saratov Airlines used to consist of Yak-42 planes: ''They are quite reliable if they are serviced on time. We flew on these planes from 1995 to 2013, there weren't big problems. Then they bought Embraer – a new good plane. But it's also important what's going on in the organisation itself – there could have been serious faults in technical maintenance, flights.''

Azat Khakim explained it's difficult to judge An-148's reliability because this type of aircraft didn't have big flight experience and they weren't made a lot:

''But the plane could have problems with its airworthiness certificate. As the series is small, the supply of spare parts was also small, and probably not everything was fine with technical maintenance. When the series is small, it's impossible to arrange a good full-fledged technical maintenance as well as the supply of spare parts,'' the expert explained and specified that a big part of the plane's components was made in Russia, but the engines were Ukrainian.

By Vasilya Shirshova