There was a tragic plane crash in Kazan, Tatarstan over the weekend. Fifty people were killed. No one on the plane survived.
The initial reports said that the plane attempted to land, but the pilot needed to come around again, and crashed on the second attempt. One theory was that the plane’s wing “grazed” the ground on the second landing attempt. The authorities almost immediately ruled out terrorism.
I initially credited these reports, writing off the tragic accident as likely caused by bad piloting or bad fuel. All too believable, given the atrocious Russian civil aviation safety record.
Stupid, stupid professor.
A video of the crash has been released (h/t @libertylynx).
That is no “wing grazing” caused by a lack of power on the second landing attempt. That is a vertical, uncontrolled power dive. No Boeing 737 has suffered a similar incident.
Note the flame on the right wing, possibly on or near the engine, which flares up right before impact. This, plus the fact that the initial stories are so contrary to the video evidence, plus the fact that the Russians rushed to rule out terrorism, makes me believe that it most likely was terrorism.
Tatarstan is a Muslim province. There have been signs of an incipient Muslim insurgency in the province. Notorious Chechen Islamist leader Doku Umarov has called for an uprising in the province. Islamic terrorists are looking to launch high visibility attacks in the lead up to Sochi. The head of the FSB in the region was on the plane, as was the son of the region’s president.
All of these conditions make terrorism plausible.
There’s also the history. Terrorist brought down two Russian airliners in 2004. Those attacks were most likely due to the detonation of explosives from inside the passenger cabin when the planes were at altitude. In the Kazan crash, the fire on the wing, and the fact that the fuselage appears to be intact, is inconsistent with a similar detonation here. The wing fire is more plausibly due to a man portable air defense system (MANPAD) hit.
There have been numerous MANPAD attacks against civilian airliners. Most MANPADs are heat seekers, meaning that a hit is most likely to occur near the engine. Given that airliners have multiple engines, the loss of one engine is not necessarily fatal, especially for four engine aircraft hit at altitude. Moreover, the thrust of large engines is often sufficient to deflect the blast, and an explosion aft of the engine is much less destructive than something getting sucked in the front end. Nonetheless, 70 percent of airliners targeted by MANPADs have crashed with significant loss of life. The vulnerability is greatest for hits at low altitude on takeoff or landing–like in Kazan.
Given all these facts, I would put a 70 percent probability at this being a terrorist attack by a MANPAD.
Not that we’ll ever know for sure. The Russians have every incentive to cover this up, and that is in fact the way that Russian authorities respond to every embarrassing. Indeed, the initial response suggests that the Sovok reflex to make stuff up is still operative, even in this era of ubiquitous video cameras that give the lie to official stories. But don’t count on a rigorous investigation intended to find, and more importantly disclose, the reality. Putin is totally invested in the image of the man who has eliminated Islamic terror in Russia, and the imperative of maintaining that image is all the more intense in the lead up to Sochi.
Ironically, Russia’s well-deserved reputation for civil aviation dysfunction will make people-like me, admittedly, at least initially-quite willing to believe such a story. But I am betting on terrorism, especially given the Russian haste to deny it.