A Russian An-148 passenger plane crashed shortly after taking off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on Sunday afternoon, killing all 71 people on board.
State-run news agency TASS reported that rescue crews were unable to access the crash site roughly 80 kilometres southeast of the Russian capital near the village of Argunovo, due to the heavy snow. Emergency vehicles were dispatched to the nearby village of Stepanovskoye, but rescuers were forced to move to the wreckage on foot due to the heavy snowdrifts caused by the inclement weather that hit Moscow in recent days.
The plane was en route to the Urals city of Orsk, near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, when it vanished from air traffic controllers’ radar only two minutes after take-off.
Flight 703 was carrying 65 passengers – 60 of whom were from the Orenburg region – and six crew members at the time of the crash. Swedish-based flight tracker Flightradar24 reported that the plane was falling at a rate of 6,700 meters per minute at the moment of impact.
UK-daily the Guardian reported, citing Russia’s gazeta.ru website, that unnamed investigators as saying the pilot had reported a technical malfunction and asked for clearance for an emergency landing at the nearby Zhukovsky International Airport, though aviation officials have yet to confirm the report.
Though the number of crashes has dropped in recent years, Russia has one of the worst air safety records in the world with 24 major fatal crashes since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Poor maintenance, corruption, and a general disregard for air safety norms have plagued the Russian aircraft industry over the last quarter century.
Saratov Air was banned in 2015 from carrying out international operations after safety inspectors found a non-crew member in the cockpit during a flight. The incident echoed a similar, but far more tragic episode from March 1994, when the pilot of Russia’s national flag carrier Aeroflot allowed his son to take the controls of the plane and inadvertently turned off the automatic pilot, killing all 75 people on board.
The most recent large-scale crash of a Russian airliner occurred in December 2016, when a Tu-154 operated by the Russian Defence Ministry crashed on its way to Syria from the Black Sea resort city Sochi. All 92 people on board were killed, including most of the members of the Red Army Choir.
The aircraft involved in Sunday’s crash – a twin-engine Antonov-148 – was designed by its namesake aircraft manufacturing company in Ukraine and built at Russia’s Voronezh Aircraft Production Association plant prior to the suspension of cooperation between Antonov and the factory in the wake of Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine.
The An-148 was originally registered to St. Petersburg-based Rossiya Airlines in June 2010. TASS reported shortly after the crash that the plane was put into storage for two years because of a lack of spare parts and was later leased to Saratov Airlines in late 2017.
Moscow announced late on February 11 that the country’s Investigative Committee has launched an official inquiry, with officials saying weather conditions, human error, or technical failures were the most plausible causes for the crash.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelled a planned trip to his official residence in Sochi where he was to meet with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas on Monday morning. Putin will remain in Moscow to closely monitor the situation, according to his spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
EU, UK, and US officials all offered their condolences to the families of the victims.