Black boxes badly damaged in Russia plane crash; data retrieval in doubt


Aviation experts on Sunday began examining the black boxes from the FlyDubai flight that crashed amid high winds at an airport in southern Russia but said the cockpit voice and data recorders were badly damaged.

FlyDubai’s Boeing 737-800 from Dubai nosedived and exploded in a giant fireball before dawn Saturday after trying to land for a second time in strong winds in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. FlyDubai confirmed all 62 people on the plane were killed. Most of the passengers were Russian.

Several planes had trouble landing at the airport at the time of the crash.

Sergei Zaiko, deputy chairman of the Inter-State Aviation Committee, told Russia’s Channel One that experts on Sunday were looking at the data recorders, which were delivered to Moscow earlier in the day. But the committee that investigates plane crashes in much of the former Soviet Union said in a statement they had been badly damaged and it wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, data could be retrieved.

The black boxes were being viewed by experts from Russia, the United Arab Emirates and France, the aviation commission said. The American-made Boeing plane had French-made engines.

At Rostov-on-Don, hundreds of people flocked Sunday to the airport, the region’s largest, to lay flowers and leave candles and toys in memory of the dead. The city is 950 km (600 miles) south of Moscow near the Ukrainian border.

Closed-circuit TV footage showed the plane going down at a steep angle and exploding. The powerful explosion left a big crater in the runway.

The airport remained closed, but workers on Sunday afternoon were repairing the damage to the runway, and plans are to reopen on Monday morning, the airport said in a statement.

FlyDubai’s chief executive, Ghaith al-Ghaith, said on Sunday the plane had enough fuel to maintain its holding pattern, which reportedly went on for two hours. He expressed confidence in Russian authorities and said the carrier intends to resume flights to the airport once it reopens.

He reiterated that the Rostov-on-Don airport was open Saturday despite the high winds and was “good enough to operate” at the time of the crash, and that it was up to Russian authorities to make that determination.

Some of the crash victims were from rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine where fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,100 people in nearly two years. The war has turned the region’s main airport of Donetsk into a wasteland, and many locals have been using the airport in Rostov-on-Don, across the border.

Self-proclaimed rebel authorities in Donetsk said Sunday that two residents had been killed in the crash, while the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily reported that a family of three from the rebel-controlled town of Sverdlovsk in Ukraine was among the victims.

Investigators said all 55 passengers and seven crew — including nine different nationalities, with 45 from Russia — had died instantly. They launched a criminal probe into whether pilot error, a technical fault or poor weather was to blame.

But the plane’s two black boxes were “badly damaged,” Russia’s intergovernmental aviation committee said in a statement, warning that analyzing them would take time.

Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said emergency service workers had completed their “search and rescue” operation at the site, where tangled debris was spread across a wide area.

Investigators were spending the day combing the scene for clues of what caused the crash, Sokolov said, with experts from state-owned budget airline FlyDubai — a sister firm of Emirates Airlines — and the United Arab Emirates authorities aiding the probe.

Some 40 people, including air traffic controllers, officials from the regional meteorological center, and FlyDubai representatives, had been questioned as part of the probe, investigators said.

Authorities also said they were starting the grisly task of identifying the collected human remains using DNA samples from relatives.

Residents in Rostov-on-Don — a city of some 1 million — laid flowers and cuddly toys at the airport entrance as they tried to digest the tragedy.

“I am from Rostov myself and although I don’t personally know those killed, a lot of names are well known, it’s a small city,” local resident Boris told AFP.

The arrivals and departures boards in the terminal were red with canceled flights as the airport remained closed, but Deputy Regional Gov. Alexander Grebenshchikov said it would open again at 0600 GMT Monday.

The passengers on board flight FZ981 included 44 Russian nationals, eight Ukrainians, two Indians and one Uzbek, the airline said. They comprised 33 women, 18 men and four children.

The company said the Cypriot pilot and Spanish co-pilot each had nearly 6,000 hours of flying experience.

The five other crew members were from Spain, Russia, the Seychelles, Colombia and Kyrgyzstan.

Investigators said in an initial statement Saturday that the plane had “skimmed the ground and broke into several pieces” with fragments of the Boeing 737 reportedly scattered up to 1.5 km (1 mile) from the crash site.

Unconfirmed security footage on Russian state television appeared to show the jet plummeting nose first into the ground at high speed before exploding.

A strong wind warning was in place and it was raining hard at the time of the crash.

Based at Dubai airport, low-cost airline FlyDubai has a strong safety record, although one of its planes was hit by a bullet as it landed in Baghdad airport in January 2015, prompting multiple companies to suspend flights to the Iraqi capital. No one was hurt in that incident.

Russian airports have a patchy safety history with the fatal private jet crash in 2014 that killed Christophe de Margerie, the French boss of oil giant Total, on takeoff in Moscow one of a string of incidents.

FlyDubai Chairman Gaith al-Gaith insisted at a press conference Sunday that the airport “was good enough to operate and good enough to land as per the authorities.”

Russia’s aviation agency has said there was no doubt about the safety of the runway or facilities at Rostov-on-Don and brushed off any blame directed at the air traffic controllers.

The last major aviation tragedy involving Russia was in October last year, when a passenger jet on its way from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort to St. Petersburg was brought down by a bomb in the Sinai Peninsula.

All 224 people on board, the vast majority of them Russian, were killed, with the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the attack.