'Pilot error' probed as Russia mourns air crash

22nd June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russians left flowers and toys Wednesday at the site of a plane crash that killed 45 people as questions mounted over why the pilot tried to land in poor weather at a low-tech provincial airport.

Members of the public laid flowers, candles and handwritten cards at the site of the tragedy on a highway, Russian television showed, as the northern Karelia region lowered its flags for three days of official mourning.

The latest victim was a 10-year-old boy, Anton Terekhin, who survived the crash but died in hospital from his injuries.

"Anton Terekhin died last night. He had grave injuries," spokeswoman for regional health ministry, Elena Kokovurova, told AFP.

The boy's sister, Anastasia Terekhina, was also among the eight survivors and was taken to Moscow for medical treatment on Tuesday. Health Minister Tantyana Golikova said two other survivors were in a grave condition.

The children were travelling with their mother, Oksana Terekhina, whose name was on the list of the dead released by the emergency ministry on Wednesday.

The RusAir Tupolev 134 plane was flying from Moscow's Domodedovo airport to Petrozavodsk, the largest city in Karelia, and crashed onto a highway short of the runway, bursting into flames.

Investigators have warned against drawing premature conclusions but even top officials have publicly said it was an error for the pilot to attempt landing at Petrozavodsk's small airport in heavy fog and rain.

The pilot had "until the last moment looked for the runway visually but did not see it," Russian news agencies quoted Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying on the sidelines of a Paris airshow.

The federal aviation authority said in an initial report that the plane did not break up or catch fire until it collided with trees.

"Until the plane first collided with trees, there is no sign that it broke up in the air, burst into flames or exploded," it said.

The accident took place "at twilight, in complex weather conditions," the aviation agency said.

After the plane hit the treeline, it began breaking up and broke power cables, cutting off the airport, "which consequently went over to emergency generators," the agency said.

The media has speculated as to whether the plane crashed because it was unable to see the landing lights after cutting the power lines.

The aviation agency said the pilots were experienced, with chief pilot Alexander Fyodorov having completed 8,500 hours of flying, more than 3,000 of them on the same model of plane that crashed.

The plane's black boxes have been located and the Moscow-based inter-state air commission, which probes all air crashes in the former USSR, has begun its investigation, stressing that any conclusions were premature.

Experts quoted in Russian media said it was unsafe to attempt a landing in bad weather because of the primitive equipment used by air traffic controllers at the small Petrozavodsk airport.

The airfield, designed for military aircraft, is only considered safe in good weather when the pilot can actually see the plane's position, Kommersant wrote, citing a pilot familiar with the airport.

Vadim Bazykin, a decorated pilot who worked at Petrozavodsk for 10 years, told Komsomolskaya Pravda daily that "the airfield needs to be reequipped to make flights safer. We put all the reliance on the pilots."

The crash was the latest in a series of accidents involving Russia's ageing fleet of planes, with the Soviet-era Tupolev jets having a particularly poor safety record.

The force of the impact and exploding fuel scattered fragments of the plane and charred bodies over hundreds of metres, while the plane narrowly missed a nearby village.

A Swedish national, a Dutch citizen and two Ukrainians were among the dead, as well as a family of four with dual Russian and US citizenship, the emergencies ministry said on its website.

The Russians who died included a well-known football referee, Vladimir Pettai, and five senior nuclear energy experts.

© 2011 AFP

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