Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people crashes in Iran, killing all on board

By ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN, ERIN CUNNINGHAM AND SARAH DADOUCH | The Washington Post | Published: January 8, 2020


MOSCOW — A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people from Tehran suddenly plummeted into a field early Wednesday without a mayday from the cockpit, killing all aboard and leaving investigators hoping that recovered flight data can offer clues on the cause.

In the aftermath of the crash, Ukraine banned all flights from Iranian airspace. A similar move was already taken by several other countries amid rising tensions between Iran and U.S. forces in the region.

Meanwhile, the probe into the crash was underway with Iran pointing to a possible aircraft malfunction and Ukraine apparently leaving open other paths of inquiry.

At least one U.S.-based aviation expert said it appeared the plane was "not intact" before it hit the ground. And a former Federal Aviation Administration accident investigation chief, Jeff Guzzetti, said the crash carried "all the earmarks of an intentional act."

"I just know airplanes don't come apart like that," Guzzetti said.

The Ukraine International Airlines flight, bound for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, went down just before dawn after departing from Imam Khomeini International Airport, south of Tehran. The plane was approaching 8,000 feet when it abruptly lost contact with ground control, officials said. Its passengers and crew included Iranians, Canadians and Europeans.

About four hours earlier, Iranian forces launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles into Iraq, targeting an Iraqi air base with U.S. personnel in response to an American airstrike last week that killed the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

American passenger airliners and others have avoided flying over Iran because of the risk that they could be mistaken for military aircraft. Iranian authorities said "technical" problems were likely behind the crash of the Ukrainian Boeing 737-800.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran initially concurred, issuing a statement ruling out terrorism and suggesting likely engine failure. It later took down the statement without explanation, raising questions about whether different scenarios — including an "external" cause such as a missile — were being explored as potential reasons for the crash.

But Iranian officials pushed back again that theory. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, an Iranian armed forces spokesman, said "rumors" that a missile brought down the plane were "completely false."

He was quoted by Iran's Fars news agency as calling the missile speculation "psychological warfare" by the government's opponents.

The Ukrainian Embassy said that a commission was investigating the crash and that "any statements about the causes of the accident before the decision of the commission are not official."

A video circulated on Twitter that purported to be of the crash and showed the plane as a bright light, possibly on fire, descending against a dark sky, followed by a burst of flames.

Guzzetti, the retired head of the FAA's accident investigation division, said the details of the crash publicly available suggested the plane was brought down deliberately.

"To me it has all the earmarks of an intentional act. I don't know whether it was a bomb or a missile or an incendiary device," he said.

If the video of the flaming plane is accurate, "I can't conceive of a failure that could cause that much of a conflagration," he said.

An engine fire, for example, would take a substantial period "to consume the airplane," said Guzzetti, who was an air safety investigator and engineering specialist at the National Transportation Safety Board for 18 years before joining the FAA.

The abrupt cutoff of flight-tracking data emitting from the plane also indicated that it was "a sudden catastrophic event that created a power loss throughout the whole airplane," he said.

Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst for the website AirSafe.com and a former Boeing safety engineer who assisted in accident investigations, said it appeared — based only on video and photos from the crash site — that the plane was coming apart before it hit the ground.

"The wreckage pattern was very consistent with a plane that was not intact when it hit the ground," he said. "I didn't see a large central crater."

This means the crash could have been caused by an in-flight breakup, in-flight explosion, midair collision, structural failure, an external strike or a major system malfunction with the aircraft, Curtis said.

The head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, said that Iran would not send the recorders to the United States, and that the investigation would be led by Iran, Mehr news agency reported.

"It has not yet been decided where the [recorders] will go" for data extraction, Abedzadeh said.

The pilots "did not contact the control tower" before the crash, he said. "We were not informed of any technical problem from the flight crew."

Ukraine International Airlines purchased the plane new, making its first commercial flight June 2016, the carrier said. It had its last routine technical maintenance Monday.

The possibility of "a mistake made by the crew is minimal; we just don't assume that," Ihor Sosnovskyi, the airline's vice president for flight operations, told a briefing, according to the Interfax news agency. "Given their experience, it is very difficult to say that the crew may have done something wrong."

Many of the passengers were Iranian. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry listed 176 victims, including 82 Iranians; 63 Canadians; 11 Ukrainians, including nine crew members; 10 Swedes; four Afghans; three Germans and three Britons. Iranian officials said more than 140 passengers were Iranians, suggesting that some may have had dual citizenship.

The Sharif University of Technology in Tehran said 13 of its students and alumni perished in the crash, most of them mechanical engineers or science students.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on his Facebook page that he was "personally involved in supervision over all measures to be taken." A Ukrainian team planned to head to Iran to investigate the crash and identify the bodies of Ukrainians killed.

In a briefing Wednesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk called for avoiding speculation about the cause of the crash and said Ukraine will insist on maximum transparency in the investigation.

He said that the government suspended all Ukrainian flights over Iranian airspace until "the reasons of the tragedy are determined."

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: "Our government will continue to work closely with its international partners to ensure that this crash is thoroughly investigated, and that Canadians' questions are answered."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered "all possible assistance" to Ukraine. In an apparent message to Iran, he said the United States "calls for complete cooperation with any investigation into the cause of the crash."

Iran's Civil Aviation Organization said that both the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder were recovered, but that the latter was severely damaged.

"Although it is damaged, there is still a chance to retrieve the pilots' conversations from it," a spokesman for the organization, Hassan Rezaeifar, told state media.

The Boeing 737-800 is a single-aisle aircraft designed for short- and medium-range flights. Airlines around the world have flown them for more than two decades, with thousands of them in service.

Recent Boeing crashes have killed hundreds of people. In 2018, a crash in Papua New Guinea killed 47 people, a 2016 crash from Dubai killed 62, and a 2010 Ethiopian Ethiopian Airlines crash claimed 90 lives.

Regulators have more recently scrutinized possible safety risks on the planes. In early October, the FAA told airlines to inspect more than 1,900 Boeing jets after cracks were found in some of the aircraft's wings. Dozens of them were later grounded after cracks were found in a part of the plane that connects the wings to the fuselage.

The newer 737 Max was grounded worldwide last year after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight March 10, the second fatal crash of a 737 Max in less than five months. In October 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed off the coast of Indonesia, killing all aboard.

The grounding resulted in a crisis for Boeing that led to its firing of CEO Dennis Muilenburg two weeks ago.

"This is a tragic event and our heartfelt thoughts are with the crew, passengers and their families," a statement from Boeing said. "We are in contact with our airline customer and stand by them in this difficult time. We are ready to assist in any way needed."

Major international airlines — including the flagship carriers of France, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands — also either halted flights to Iraq and Iran or restricted aircraft from flying through both countries' airspace. Germany's Lufthansa said it would resume Tehran flights Thursday.

Other commercial airlines also rerouted flights, including Australian carrier Qantas, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

On Wednesday, Canada updated its travel advisory for Iran, warning against any nonessential travel to the country "due to the volatile security situation, the regional threat of terrorism and the risk of arbitrary detention." Ukraine International Airlines lists its Tehran-to-Toronto service as one of its most popular routes.

Cunningham reported from Istanbul. Dadouch reported from Beirut. The Washington Post's Paul Schemm in Dubai, Amanda Coletta in Toronto and Aaron Gregg, Michael Laris, Douglas MacMillan and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

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