Russian officials probing the crash of a Syria-bound military plane on Thursday said there was no explosion on board, but the equipment was not functioning correctly when it plunged into the Black Sea.
The Soviet-era Tu-154 plane went down shortly after takeoff from Sochi airport on Sunday morning, killing all 92 on board, including scores of performers from a feted Red Army Choir troupe.
“There was no explosion on board, I can say that for certain,” said Sergei Bainetov, head of flight safety for the Russian air force. “But an act of terror is not necessarily an explosion, so we are not discarding this version.”
Transport minister Maxim Sokolov said the probe had established the plane was not working normally but will not issue any conclusions before January, cautioning journalists not to jump on any theories.
“It is obvious that the equipment was functioning abnormally. Why that happened is up to experts to work out,” he said.
The military ensemble was due to give a concert to Russian soldiers at the Hmeimim base, Moscow’s main outpost for its bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Bainetov said the air force had ground the Tu-154, which is not used by commercial airlines, “until the first conclusions” are made about the crash.
The plane was flown by an experienced pilot, who had 4,000 hours of flight experience, including 1,500 hours on the Tu-154, and analysis of the second black box, which records conversations in the cockpit, suggests he noticed something was wrong.
“Everything was going rather normally, but one phrase from the commander... suggests that an abnormal situation began to develop,” he said. The entire flight was 70 seconds long, he added, but the “abnormal” situation lasted just 10.
Russian media reported, citing a dialogue in the cockpit, that the plane’s flaps failed to retract on time, leading to the crash, but Bainetov refused to confirm this.
Main search over
The first victim of the crash was buried at a Moscow region military cemetery on Wednesday, officials said, but most of the bodies were still underwater despite the “main phase” of the search being over.
“At this time, everything that has to do with the plane’s crash has been brought to surface” and pieces are “being laid out on the shore,” minister Sokolov said.
“We established that the plane almost entirely broke apart when it hit the water surface and the sea bottom, which, of course, complicated the search,” he said.
So far only 19 bodies and some 230 body parts have been discovered, Sokolov said.
The loss of the plane has shocked Russia at a time when the Kremlin was celebrating the recapture of Syria’s Aleppo by regime forces, the biggest success since it launched its bombing campaign to support Assad last year.
Residents in Sochi and Moscow laid flowers at makeshift memorials to remember the choir members and popular charity worker Yelizaveta Glinka who were on the doomed flight.