Russia suspends some of its workhorse jets after accident

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Russian airlines were advised Sunday to ground some of their workhorse Tu-154 airplanes after one burst into flames while it readied for takeoff on a Siberian runway, killing three people.

More than 30 people were also injured on Saturday when one of the engines of the Tupolev jet exploded moments before the plane had been due to take off for Moscow from the oil-rich northern city of Surgut.

Dramatic television footage replayed on Russian television showed the plane bursting into a fireball and only one of its wings and the tail section left standing after the flames were put out a few hours later.

Russian state television reported that the Kolavia airline jet was manufactured in 1983 and had last undergone renovations 12 years ago. The airline reported on its website that it was oldest craft in its tiny fleet.

The latest Russian aviation disaster prompted a series of top-level government meetings over the weekend that concluded with a recommendation for some of the older models of the Tupolev 154 jet to be put out of service.

The Federal Transport Oversight Agency said in a statement that it had issued "an inspector's instruction recommending that airlines that use the Tu-154B stop flying this type of aircraft until the causes of the Surgut airport incident are established."

The Interstate Aviation Committee that probes such accidents also reported finding the black box recorders of the destroyed aircraft and launching a detailed inspection of both the craft and its engines.

The type of Tupolev that exploded on Saturday has been the workhorse of the Soviet and Russian aviation industries since going into production in 1975.

But both the older B model involved in the latest accident and the more modern M version of the plane have recently been hit by a string of accidents that have prompted calls for the entire 154 series to be grounded.

An M version -- which entered into mass production in 1984 -- killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 other Poles including government officials when it crashed near Russia's western city of Smolensk in April.

Another M jet with 169 people on board rolled off the runway at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on landing last month. The jet broke into three pieces and killed two people while injuring more than 80 others.

And yet another M model with 81 people on board made a "miracle" crash landing in the Siberian taiga in September after a complete mid-flight power failure.

More than 1,000 Tu-154 craft have been built since 1968 as the jet competed with Boeing for international airline dominance.

The pride of Soviet aviation carried more than half of all passengers flying the Aeroflot national flag carrier -- and many more passengers in Africa and Latin America -- until it started being phased out of service a decade ago.

The Federal Transport Oversight Agency said only 15 of the B craft were operated in Russia before the accident but there was no information as to how many of the craft were still being used by Russia's older trade partners.

Investigators into the accident also reported launching a criminal probe that focused on the type of fuel loaded onto the craft.

© 2011 AFP

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