Streetwise Professor

November 18, 2013

The Kazan Crash: Ordinary Russian Aviation Dysfunction, or Terrorism?

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 10:04 pm

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.

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  1. Good points prof. I became concerned when they ruled out terrorism within a few minutes of the crash, like the crash of the aircraft carrying a regional sports team a few years ago when they ruled out alcohol as a factor within an hour or two and it turned out the pilot was intoxicated…..

    Comment by Andrew — November 19, 2013 @ 2:40 am

  2. Professor, watching the footage I can conjecture two things:
    a) someone put a gun at the pilot’s head and demanded to nose-dive;
    b) the plain was not advancing at a sufficiently high speed and was not generating enough lift to stay afloat so it nose-dived. This means that the pilot had miscalculated the plane deceleration for landing purposes.

    Given that this has happened close to the airport, I am inclined to think that b) is the explanation.

    But I am just contemplating. How really knows what took down there…

    Comment by MJ — November 19, 2013 @ 6:50 am

  3. Possible MJ, but given the safety systems in a Boeing well give the pilot plenty of warning should he be approaching stall speed I’d be surprised if it was a stall.

    Comment by Andrew — November 19, 2013 @ 6:58 am

  4. Yes, Boeng will do that, Andrew. But do we know that it didn’t?

    Comment by MJ — November 19, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  5. @ Professor More on the Russian economy:

    Comment by MJ — November 19, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  6. Didn’t 737s use to have problems with rudder control? This was a pretty old plane after all.

    Comment by LL — November 19, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

  7. Knowing Russia, and that it is an internal flight on a domestic airline, I’d say the most likely explanations are poor maintenance, poor training, or poor fuel quality. Boeing don’t have a great safety record in Russia IIRC, possibly due to the more stringent maintenance requirements.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 19, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  8. This, acccording to the Aviation Safety Network (I find the bit about when the pilots first took control after TOGA was initiated to be interesting given the krux of the above blog):

    “A Boeing 737-53A passenger plane, operated by Tatarstan Airlines, was destroyed in an accident at Kazan Airport (KZN), Russia. All 44 passengers and six crew members were killed.

    Flight U9-363 departed from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (DME) at 18:20 local time on a scheduled service to Kazan (KZN).

    During the approach to Kazan’s runway 11/29 the airplane was ‘not in a position to land’, according to an initial statement by the Interstate Aviation Committee. TOGA (Take Off/Go Around) mode was selected and the autopilot switched off. The engines spooled up to takeoff power and the crew raised the flaps from 30° to 15°. The airplane began to climb and the pitch angle increased to 25°. Consequently, the indicated airspeed began to decrease. When the airspeed reached 125 knots, the crew reacted by pushing to control column forward. Up until that moment, from the execution of the go around, the crew had not used the flight controls.

    From a height of 700 m the airplane entered a nose down attitude, reaching a -75° pitch.
    The airplane impacted the ground at a speed of 450 km/h.

    Time from the start of the go-around to the impact with the groud was 45 seconds.”

    Comment by Anthony Martin — November 19, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

  9. Except Russia denies all those things, Tim. Apparently, pilot just couldn’t handle second landing attempt so he put plane into nose dive. This according to those excellent Russian investigators who work at lightening speed. And never mind 2004 downed planes followed by Beslan, current calls to Jihad in Tatarstan, FSB killing of militants there and escalating crisis. Of course it was just pilot error. Because all pilots put their planes into a nose dive at full speed when attempting second landing.

    I don’t really understand why everyone is so afraid to consider terrorism. It’s as if terrorism is some exotic conspiracy completely foreign to Russia.

    Comment by L2 — November 19, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

  10. @MJ-a pistol to the head-or a head shot-would make more sense than the official story. If it was stalling/losing lift on an attempted climb-out, you’d expect it to land tail first, or belly-flop, not go in nose first at high velocity.

    I have been in TOGAs in 737s at least 4 times (Thanks, SWA!) Believe me, I was envisioning the ways we could crash, and going in at a vertical was not one of them. I still cannot imagine why a pilot would firewall the control column in that situation.

    Also, none of this explains the apparent fire in the wing/engine area.

    @Tim-as I said in the post, those were my initial thoughts. But I have a hard time reconciling those theories with the vertical impact.

    As @L2 says, we shouldn’t be tip-toeing around the possibility of terrorism. There is Islamic ferment in Tatarstan, and there have been some terrorist episodes there (burning Orthodox churches, and the assassination of two moderate Muslim clerics). The jihadis have threatened terrorist acts in the lead up to Sochi. High level people on the plane. Yes, all circumstantial, but enough to make terrorism a plausible explanation. And when Russian authorities are concerned, their denials are implausible, especially given the haste with which they were delivered. That actually makes me all the more suspicious.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 19, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

  11. @Anthony-thanks. But that just begs the question of why experienced pilots would push the control column forward in that situation.

    This information was presumably derived from the flight instrument black box. Interestingly, the box that records the cockpit was allegedly destroyed. That raises more suspicions, especially if you consider MJ’s hypothesis. We’ll never know what was going on in the cockpit.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 19, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

  12. For what its worth a woman purported to be a passenger on this same plane on the morning flight from Kazan to Moscow said that the plane began vibrating as they approached Moscow. She looked at the man next to her and he was white as a ghost (which he would have been if on the return flight).

    Comment by pahoben — November 20, 2013 @ 7:27 am

  13. @pahoben. I’d read that. My reaction was that being white as a ghost is probably true of any non-drunk passenger on your typical Russian flight. Which is why there are so few non-drunk passengers. Mechanical failure does not jibe with what the Russians are saying now. They are going with the old standby: blame the dead pilots. Which actually adds to the credence of all alternative explanations, including mechanical failure and terrorism.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 20, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  14. I was on an Aeroflot flight one time with a short stop. All the first class seats for the flight were taken by Aeroflot executives that would be boarding at the short stop and so I sat in the first row behind first class with the curtain open. These guys started to board and they were pretty wasted. As they start to tak their seats three of them get into a fist fight two against one. The guy on his own takes a couple strikes and he is face down in the aisle and not moving. I though jeez they killed him he is not moving at all. A couple others pick him up and set him in his seat and by the time we land at destination he is able to disembark primarily under his own power.

    I was on an Aeroflt flight to India one time and this little Indian guy is onboard with A Russian party. I think it was like the first time he was drunk and he really did become unruly running up and down the aisle and shouting. Two stewards tried to calm him and he must have shoved one of them in the kitchen area. They took him down and both of them started kicking him. It was kind of like Airplane the way they were taking turns kicking him. When that guy sobered up he must have thought holy crap what a flight.

    Comment by pahoben — November 20, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  15. Long ago when a flight was canceled becuase of “weather” on a pleasant balmy day that was code for the plane is seriously screwed up and the pilot refuses to fly.

    I knew a corporate pilot that sent his business card to the flight deck of a large commercial flight. He was invited to go forward and the Aeroflot pilot asked him if he wanted to take the controls (this was before a pilot’s young son crashed a new Airbus). He took the controls and sat there for a while and started getting nervous because the flight was nearing Moscow. He turned his head and caught the eye of the pilot who asked with a pleasant smile if he wanted to land. He declined.

    Comment by pahoben — November 20, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

  16. I had a friend flying to the Ukraine with transfer to a different airlines in Moscow. He arrives Moscow and goes to the ticket counter and provides his ticket. The girl looks at his ticket and says we stopped flying this flight six weeks ago. He says but I bought this ticket only two weeks ago. She replies, oh yes we have plenty of tickets…

    Comment by pahoben — November 20, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  17. @pahoben. LOL. Sorta like the old joke: “whaddya mean, my account is overdrawn? I have plenty of checks left!”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 20, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

  18. @pahoben. Re your drunken passenger stories. Eta Rossiya.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 20, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

  19. My reaction was that being white as a ghost is probably true of any non-drunk passenger on your typical Russian flight.

    You get used to it, amazingly. I flew in an S7 plane painted bright green, like a flying cucumber, from Khabarovsk to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. We landed in a blizzard with no visibility, and on landing, when we got off the plane and looked back at what we’d just flown through, it raised a few eyebrows. And I was on another flight with Krasnoyarsk Air between Khabarovsk and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and the pilot was audibly slurring his words during the pre-flight briefing. I don’t recall caring that much, tbh. I’d probably be more scared if they were sober!

    Great anecdotes by pahoben, as usual.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 20, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

  20. One of my favorites is boarding a large commercial jet in Siberia and there was assigned seating. I was the second person to board and my seat was already taken.

    Aeroflot used to have a flight from Seattle to Anchorage to Eastern Siberia. Seattle passengers had to disembark in Anchorage and at least this time reboarded after Anchorage passengers. A guy in his 60’s from Seattle reboards the plane and someone is in his seat. He starts ranting and raving and I thought brother you better get off right now. If this upsets you that much your heart will not take the rest of your trip.

    The last flight of Alaskan Air into Sakhalin was a doozy. They had refinished the runway and the flight was taking off for return to Anchorage and sucked some rocks into an engine and lost the engine. They got the plane down okay but had to get a replacement engine in to Yuzhno. They got the engine there and got it installed but then Moscow wouldn’t clear the flight for take off. I don’t know the details but they ended up taking off in any event and hightailing it out of Russian airspace.

    I have a bunch of helicopter and ship stories that I haven’t thought of for years. They started bubbling up to the surface.

    Comment by pahoben — November 20, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

  21. I know an Australian girl who boarded the flight from Y-S to Moscow and found her assigned seat had been physically removed. They replaced it with an unsecured school chair. And a German mate of mine got on the plane from Moscow to Y-S to find a prisoner in chains occupying his seat. He was awfully apologetic, but was chained to the seat!

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 20, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

  22. If you approach a stall on take off, all one can do is push the nose forward. The engines are already at full throttle, so one doesn’t have any other options. One is supposed to pitch the nose /level/ though, at the most very slightly down. Obviously no pilot would pitch straight down on purpose, something went mighty wrong…

    Comment by ThomasL — November 20, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

  23. @pahoben. Sorry to cause repressed memories to surface.

    Speaking of repressed memories, this all reminds me of the old Cheech and Chong routine. “Those of you who can swim, sit on the left side of the aircraft. Those of you who can’t swim, thank you for flying Alitalia.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 20, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

  24. @Professor
    A C&C comeback show in Denver would be quite the event.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2013 @ 7:26 am

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