A Russian Air Force 33-year-old Tupolev 154-B military transport airplane Sunday crashed into the Black Sea shortly after taking off from Adler airport on its way to Syria, killing all 92 occupants onboard, it was announced. The aircraft had begun its journey in Moscow and stopped to refuel at Adler, near the city of Sochi. The pilot made no emergency call and the weather was good, Adler sources indicated.
Among the victims were a renowned Cold War-era musical band known worldwide as the Red Army chorus, in reality called the Alexandrov Ensemble, that was going to perform for Russian servicemen at a Syrian airbase, and nine journalists from pro-Kremlin NTV, Channel One and Zvezda television networks. The causes of the crash are still unknown and terrorism, which was ruled out at first, was later readded onto the list of possible courses of investigation. Russian officials also said a pilot’s mistake or a technical malfunction were among the possible causes of the crash.
Debris from the plane was found at a depth of 160-230 feet about a mile offshore, the government Emergencies Ministry said. On Sunday, the temperature of the Black Sea was about 50 degrees, which makes hypothermia inevitable after about an hour in the water, it said.
“I completely rule out a terrorist attack,” Viktor Ozerov of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security told the Sputnik news agency. Later, however, Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov, who heads a commission investigating the crash, said it was premature to rule anything out. The Investigative Committee is looking at various theories. Naturally, it considers the entire spectrum and any possible reasons that might have led to the crash. It is too early to speak about a terrorist attack, he said, according to the official TASS news agency.
Also onboard was philanthropist Yelizaveta Glinka, better known as Dr. Lisa. Glinka, whose foundation Spravedlivaya Pomoshch, or Just Help, gained notoriety for humanitarian missions to war zones, clinics for cancer patients and charitable actions in favour of the homeless and the terminally ill.
“We never know whether we’ll come back home alive, because war is hell on earth,” Glinka said in early December in the Kremlin after receiving a state award from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among those expressing their condolences to Putin was Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Sunday, she was going to donate medical drugs to a hospital in the western Syrian city of Latakia, the Defense Ministry said.
The largest group of passengers were 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, Russian army’s official dance and choir company. They were planning to perform at the Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The list included the ensemble’s conductor, Valery Khalilov.
Active since 1928 and founded by the author of the Soviet national anthem, the Alexandrov Ensemble — informally known in the Soviet era as the Red Army Chorus — was immensely popular. It toured the world performing Russian folk songs, World War II anthems and patriotic music, and was dubbed “Russia’s singing weapon.”
The choir’s rendition of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky at the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics Russia hosted in Sochi was their most famours performance in post Soviet times. “The orchestra did not fly because [the choir] was supposed to use pre-recorded music,” Sergei Khlopnikov, a choir singer who did not board the plane because of his daughter’s illness, told the Interfax news agency.
The Latakia airbase was built shortly before Russia started air strikes on armed groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad in September 2015. The raids propped up Assad’s government and helped his forces regain key areas, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Putin declared Monday a day of mourning and appointed Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to head an investigation into the crash.
The three-engine Tupolev 154 is Russia’s most mass-produced passenger airliner. It can carry up to 180 passengers. Most of Russian airlines have replaced the noisy Tupolevs with newer aircraft, but some government agencies, including the Defense Ministry, have continued to use retrofitted planes.
A Tu-154 with Polish President Lech Kachinsky and 96 people aboard crashed in the Smolensk region in 2010. Russian officials concluded bad visibility in thick fog caused the crash.
In 2004, a group linked to Chechen separatists bombed a Tu-154, killing all 46 people aboard.
Hopes of the famous black box revealing the cause of th accident are very low. It is yet unknown ehether yhis particular airplane had such a system, which is said not to be standard issue equipment in East Europe.
In September 1997, a Tupolev Tu-154M - a more developed version of the 154B - of the German Luftwaffe collided with a US military transport aircraft in the air and crashed into the Atlantic west of Namibia. The 14 people in the Tupolev, which had no black box, died.
The Tu-154 is a three-jet jet aircraft for about 180 passengers, which had its heyday in the Soviet era. The aircraft was once the backbone of aviation in the USSR. In the regular scheduled passenger service the aircraft are hardly used anymore. Of the more than 1,000 units built, only 100 are still airworthy, mainly for state missions.
After a series of accidents, Russian authorities ordered a gradual decommissioning from regular passenger traffic in 2011. The most famous crash happened in April 2010, when a Polish Air Force carrying Poland's President Lech Kaczynski on approach to Smolensk. All 96 people on board were killed.
A modern successor model for the outdated Tupolev Tu-154 has already been developed : the MC-21. It will not belong before it flies for the first time, following its official presentation in June. Very similar in shape to the Airbus A320, it has Western companies heavily involved and engines come from US manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
More than 3,000 people — including over 100 divers flown in from across Russia — were working Sunday night from 32 ships and several helicopters to search the crash site, the Defense Ministry said. Drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris. Powerful spotlights were brought in so the search could go on around the clock. The ministry says rescue teams found fragments of the plane at a distance of about 1.5 kilometers (less than a mile) from shore at a depth of 50-70 meters.