Russian airliner crashes, killing 14 and injuring two

No passengers aboard

death toll rises to 83 in Lviv air-show accident

July 29, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The former Soviet Union suffered another deadly air crash yesterday as a Russian-built passenger jet plunged into a forest north of Moscow, killing 14 people and injuring two flight attendants.

The lightly loaded Il-86 airliner banked sharply to the left shortly after takeoff and crashed into a ditch in a birch forest a few hundred yards from the perimeter of Sheremetyevo-1 Airport. It was the third fatal crash of a Soviet-era plane in the past month.

The airliner narrowly missed a highway crowded with Muscovites returning from a weekend at their dachas and landed in a patch of woods popular with wild mushroom hunters, but no injuries to people on the ground were reported.

Television pictures of the site showed flattened trees, firetrucks, and the smoldering remains of the aircraft's wings and fuselage.

Although the Pulkovo Airlines Il-86 was built to accommodate 350 passengers, the downed plane carried only crew members and employees. It had just finished a commercial flight from the Black Sea resort of Sochi to Moscow and was headed back to St. Petersburg, where the regional carrier is based.

The Il-86, which first flew in the late 1970s, is one of the most common planes in Russia's skies. It is a slow, rugged aircraft designed to haul passengers across this nation's 11 time zones. But it is also a noisy fuel-guzzler that couldn't be flown economically outside an oil-rich country with cheap fuel prices.

Until yesterday, no Il-86 had been involved in a fatal accident. Russian aviation officials like to brag that it is one of the world's safest jets.

"This is a very tragic event," Anatoly Ivanov, a pilot and head of flight services for Pulkovo Airlines, told the Associated Press. "This was a reliable plane."

Ivanov said investigators will rely on data from the plane's flight recorders, all of which were recovered by late yesterday afternoon, to determine the cause of the crash.

The Moscow crash came one day after a Soviet-era fighter jet performing aerobatics at an air show in western Ukraine lost power, cartwheeled through a crowd and exploded.

Yevhen Marchuk, chief of Ukraine's Security and Defense Council, said at a news conference yesterday that the death toll from that crash had risen to 83. He said 116 people were injured, many of them children.

The two crashes come after a midair collision July 1 of a Bashkirian Airlines jet and a DHL Worldwide cargo jet that killed 71 people, including 52 children who were heading for a vacation in Spain.

Although the Bashkirian Airlines accident seems at least partly the fault of Swiss air traffic controllers, the crashes Saturday and yesterday may reflect the difficulty that cash-strapped organizations in former Soviet states are having with flying and maintaining obsolete jet fleets.

Echo Moskvy radio reported yesterday that the pilots of the 15-year-old Soviet fighter jet that crashed at the air show in Lviv had flown just 10 hours in the past year. That accident has been called the deadliest in air-show history.

Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma cut short his vacation to fly to Lviv. After an emergency meeting with his advisers yesterday, Kuchma fired the commander in chief of the Ukrainian military, Gen. Viktor Strelnikov.

The nation's defense minister, Vladimir Shkidchenko, announced the dismissal of Lt. Gen. Sergei Onischenko of the 14th Aviation Corps, which staged Saturday's air show to mark its 60th anniversary. Shkidchenko also announced his resignation, but it was not immediately clear whether Kuchma would accept it.

Kuchma had called for future military air shows to be canceled and set aside $1.9 million for the victims' families.

Yesterday, the city of Lviv started two days of official mourning. People sobbed outside churches where memorials were held. Hundreds of relatives waited outside the Lviv morgue to identify the remains of the victims, who were mowed down by the plane as they stood among aircraft on display.

"My only daughter, her husband and their two daughters are lying in there," Svetlana Atamaniuk said late Saturday night, pointing to the morgue.

Many of the bodies were mutilated, slowing identification.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent a telegram to Kuchma saying that the "Russian people mourn with you at this difficult time." Also, as a gesture of sympathy, Putin canceled Russia's Navy Day celebrations by the Black Sea fleet.

More than 10,000 people attended Saturday's air show in Lviv, not far from the Polish border. The accident occurred a few minutes into an aerobatic performance. The aging Su-27 fighter jet rolled down out of the sky and tried to pull up but continued to sink. Coming in at a shallow angle at tremendous speed, it clipped a tree, then the ground, tumbled and finally exploded in flames. People were cut by flying shards of metal and burned by geysers of blazing jet fuel.

Witnesses said they heard the plane's twin engines quit just as the pilots appeared to lose control. The pilots, experienced Ukrainian air force colonels, ejected safely from the aircraft.

The Ukrainian air force has committed a series of blunders in the past year. In October, a Ukrainian military base shot down a Russian plane, killing all 78 people on board. Most were immigrants to Israel.

In that incident, Ukrainian air force officials denied responsibility until Russian investigators blamed them for downing the plane.

Kuchma, though, did not mete out punishment for that crash. At one point, he appeared dismissive of the deadly incident, saying, "Bigger mistakes have been made."

On the night of July 4, the pilot of an Israeli passenger jet flying over the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk reported seeing what he thought was a missile explode off his wing. Ukrainian defense officials ridiculed the report, saying the explosion was probably caused by a meteorite.

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