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Investigators focus on alleged pilot errors in Moscow airplane fire

Source: Meduza
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Russian officials leading the investigation into a disastrous May 5 airplane fire that left 41 people dead are treating the actions of the pilots who were flying the Sukhoi Superjet 100 as a potentially central explanation for the airplane’s destruction, sources close to the investigation told Kommersant.

Officially, Russia’s Investigative Committee wrote that it is looking into multiple potential explanations for the fire aboard the jet. Among them are insufficiently qualified pilots, dispatchers, and technical inspectors; a malfunction in the Superjet itself; and unfavorable weather conditions.

According to Kommersant, the pilots have fallen under suspicion for the actions they took before and during their emergency landing. The newspaper cited experts from the Interstate Aviation Committee who said the pilots made several mistakes: they decided to fly through a storm front, chose not to use up excess fuel before making an emergency landing, and were unable to land the plane manually, which may point to gaps in their training.

Kommersant noted that the pilots attempted to press the airplane’s nose close to the ground instead of stabilizing the aircraft in a typical landing position. This led the plane to bounce off of the runway, which, the experts argued, aggravated the situation. Passengers sitting in the rear part of the plane suffered serious injuries while the plane was bouncing, they added, leaving them unable to escape the burning cabin.

The airplane reportedly made its emergency landing after accelerating by about 18.6 miles per hour. A source close to the investigation told Interfax that as the plane approached the runway, “the crew began accelerating for unknown reasons,” which caused the plane to land closer to the center of the runway.

RBC also wrote about errors allegedly committed by the Superjet’s pilots. Sources from Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsiya) and the Investigative Committee told the publication that the pilots also made mistakes after they landed. They explained that the captain of the crew, Denis Yevdokimov, and co-pilot Maxim Kuznetsov made several errors that tangentially affected the spread of the flames through the plane once it had already landed. After the landing, the pilots allegedly opened the cockpit’s side window and did not turn off the plane’s engines. According to a source in the Investigative Committee, an open window might have increased airflow in the cabin and increased the speed of the fire’s spread accordingly. The source noted that “the engines stayed on until they were extinguished.”

After the wreck at Sheremetyevo, Rosaviatsiya initiated an unplanned check at Aeroflot, a Russian airline, a source close to the agency told RBC. He said officials are studying documents related to the training of the airline’s pilots. The source emphasized that the pilots did not have the relevant skills to plan an airplane’s removal from a complex spatial situation. However, an Aeroflot source said its pilots are obligated to work through similar situations in training.

Kommersant noted that more conclusive assessments of the cause of Sunday’s disaster can be made once the Interstate Aviation Committee analyzes the plane’s black boxes. By the evening of Monday, May 6, all available information from both onboard and parametric monitoring devices had been prepared for decoding and analysis.

Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Hilah Kohen