The grainy airport video is dark, short and chilling. Within five seconds, a dot of light that Russian authorities say is a Boeing 737 appears in the sky over the tarmac and plunges to the ground in a near-vertical crash. The result is a blinding fireball.
The video shown Monday by Russian television stations – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgGHrMJuxRs – of Sunday night’s horrifying crash at Kazan airport that killed all 50 people onboard raises a host of questions, including why the plane’s second attempt to land at night in good weather went so horribly wrong.
Russian investigators combed through the incinerated wreckage on Monday after fire crews spent hours extinguishing the blaze. Experts from the NTSB, Boeing and the FAA were heading to the scene to help.
The Boeing 737 belonging to Tatarstan Airlines was making its second attempt at a landing in Kazan, 720 kilometers (520 miles) east of Moscow, according to Alexander Poltinin, head of the local branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee.
Poltinin said investigators were looking into possible pilot error or equipment failure and added that it could take weeks to identify the remains.
The traffic controller at the Kazan airport who contacted the plane before the crash said the crew told him they weren’t ready to land as it was approaching but didn’t specify the problem.
Investigators have found both of the plane’s black boxes – which record the plane’s performance and the crew’s conversations – but said they were damaged.
The brief video taken by an airport security camera showed the plane going down at high speed at a nearly vertical angle and then hitting the ground and exploding. It was confirmed as authentic to The Associated Press by the emergency press service at Kazan airport and other Russian officials.
Magomed Tolboyev, a highly decorated Russian test pilot, said on Rossiya television that it wasn’t immediately clear why the crew was unable to land on their first try in good weather.
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Eric Weiss said Monday that a team of eight U.S. aviation safety experts were heading to Russia to assist: three NTSB crash investigators, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration investigator and four experts from the plane manufacturer.
John Cox, an aviation safety consultant who flew 737s for 15 years for US Airways, said one of the first issues investigators will look at based on the nearly vertical angle of descent in the video will be whether the plane experienced an aerodynamic stall, which usually occurs when a plane slows to the point where its wings lose lift.
“Anytime you have an airplane that gets this vertical, the immediate suspicion is that it stalled,” Cox said in an interview. “The airplane hit very hard … it’s in a lot of small pieces.”
Cox, a former accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, said it’s unlikely the accident is the result of any design flaw in the 737, a short- to medium-haul jet. The plane was first introduced by Boeing in 1968, although there have been major changes in subsequent generations.
“It’s a great machine,” he said.
Friends of the air crash victims gathered on a central square in Kazan on Monday evening to commemorate the victims.
“I can only express my condolences and wish strength and endurance to the relatives of those who died,” said Elmira Kalimullina, one of the friends.
Investigators have started looking through the company’s records, which showed the plane was built 23 years ago and had been used by seven other carriers prior to being picked up by Tatarstan Airlines in 2008.
In 2001, it was damaged in a landing accident in Brazil that injured no one.
The company insisted that the aircraft was in good condition for the flight.
The carrier has had a good safety record but appears to have run into financial problems recently. Its personnel went on strike in September over back wages, and the Kazan airport authority has gone to arbitration to claim what it said was Tatarstan Airlines’ debt for servicing its planes.
Industry experts have blamed some recent Russian crashes on a cost-cutting mentality at some carriers that neglects safety in the chase for profits. Insufficient pilot training and lax government controls over the industry also have been cited as factors affecting Russian flight safety.
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Monday the government should tighten its oversight of carriers and subsidize the upgrading of their fleets to improve safety.
Russia’s last deadly airliner crash was in December, when a Russian-made Tupolev belonging to Red Wings airline careered off the runway at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, killing five of its eight crew members.
A 2011 crash in Yaroslavl that killed 44 people including a professional hockey team was blamed on pilot error.
(Isachenkov reported from Moscow; Transportation reporter Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)
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