Russia crash: Plane hit by lightning before deadly landing, says pilot
Russian investigators looking into Sunday’s crash landing that left at least 41 dead on Monday morning named three possible causes for the incident: pilot error, poor weather and technical issues.
In the hours immediately following the incident, several contradictory accounts got in the way of the facts of the incident.
However, several things seemed clear: the 2-year-old plane was hit by lightning shortly after taking off at 6.02 pm local time: it lost control of at least some of its communications and navigation systems, and it burst into flames on landing heavily at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
The rescue effort also appears to have been hampered by passengers looking to retrieve their hand baggage.
Speaking with Russian media, members of the crew confirmed the plane had been hit by lightning and lost radio communications prior to returning to Sheremetyevo airport.
“There was a bright flash and a bang,” pilot Denis Evdokimov is quoted as saying. “The fire began after landing, I understand, because of the landing.”
But while authorities continue to piece together the exact combination of factors that led to such a deadly outcome, one thing seems clear enough: The controversial safety record of the Sukhoi Superjet S100 is once again under the spotlight.
Investigators have so far stopped short of grounding a jet once heralded as a saviour of the local airline production industry.
Airline regulator Rosaviatsia said it was “premature” to make such conclusions. This position was backed by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov who said Vladimir Putin had no intention of intervening.
“It is not the the prerogative of the president to stop a particular model being used,” he said. “That is the job of specialists and aviation regulators.”
Security camera footage shows the plane hitting the landing strip hard three times, before breaking out into flames.
According to Mr Evdokimov, landing speed was normal, but the aircraft was heavy on account of the fuel load. The crew were guided by air travel controllers via an “intermittent, weak” emergency radio channel, he said.
Modern jets, the SSJ100 included, are built to withstand lightning strikes. It is unclear why Sunday’s strike led to the apparent failure of electrical systems and navigational instruments. That is likely to be a main focus for the investigation.
The regional liner was heralded as the great hope for Russia’s airline manufacturing industry. Billed as a way to return domestic production to Soviet levels, the government ploughed billions of dollars into the project. Sukhoi executives confidently predicted that more than 1,000 of the jets would eventually be sold.
But its eight years of service have been beset with problems.
They began almost immediately, with a test flight crash into an Indonesian volcano in 2012, which was controversially blamed on the pilot. Since then sanctions, a catalogue of major incidents, and well-publicised repair issues have undermined the plane’s business model.
Sales have been very slow. Only 172 planes have so far been built, the vast majority to Russian, state-linked customers. The plane’s projected international order book has not materialised. At the beginning of 2019, Brussels Airlines announced that it would be terminating its charter contract for Sukhoi jets earlier than planned, citing a spate of technical problems in their decision.
Following Sunday’s incident, the long-term future for the liner does not look promising. Regulators may insist there is no basis to ground the aircraft, but passenger unease about flying the aircraft model could force a rethink.
Some Russian aviation experts have criticised the official stance.
Speaking on TV Rain, an online television channel, safety expert Alexander Romanov said that it was clear that “a lot of money” was riding on the project. At the same time, the pilot community says the plane is still quite “raw” in its development.
“We can’t exclude that something is wrong with the plane itself,” he said.