(Updated on January 9, 2019)
Iran’s government has blamed an engine fire for the January 8 crash of a Ukraine International Airlines flight that killed 176 people, but Russian aviation experts interviewed by Current Time urged the need to consider other factors as well.
“We have to understand that, in the given case, an engine fire is not the cause, but a consequence,” commented Vadim Lukashevich, a former designer for Russia’s Sukhoi fighter jet. “Something happened on board that led to the engine fire.”
The crash, which occurred minutes after the Boeing 737-800 took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, killed all 176 passengers and crew on board the Kyiv-bound flight. Most of the passengers were from Iran and Canada.
The crash took place some hours after Iran had fired ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in neighboring Iraq in retaliation for a January 3 U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad.
One amateur video of the Ukrainian flight’s final minutes, widely distributed online, shows a bright dot of light slowly spiraling toward the ground at the crash site before a large explosion erupts on the skyline. The footage, if “authentic,” shows “that the plane was falling at a 25-degree angle and was already burning,” Lukashevich noted. “That is, it was already out of control” before it hit the ground.
To Lukashevich, who expressed strong doubts about Iran's "objectivity," that indicates that a missile strike or a terrorist attack cannot be excluded. Given its earlier missile strikes, Tehran should have closed Iranian airspace to civilian traffic, he added.
“[T]here’s still no way we can exclude a single hypothesis [about the crash], however unlikely it is,” he stressed.
An Aeroflot pilot with extensive experience flying out of Tehran also questions the theory of an engine fire.
While fuel quality can cause a fire, a crash would occur only if both engines in a plane stop working, noted aviation expert Andrei Litvinov. Yet planes with two malfunctioning engines do not plunge to earth in the way shown in the online amateur video of the plane crash, he said.
A heat-seeking missile, however, would cause such a plunge, Litvinov commented. He described the plane’s sudden descent, as shown in the amateur video, as “very similar to a terrorist act, under some external impact,” but repeatedly cautioned against drawing conclusions based on the video alone.
“[F]rom one video, of course, you can’t tell. But if a plane abruptly dives down, that’s not just an engine fire, but something else.”
An anonymous U.S. government official told CNN on January 8 that a U.S. intelligence review of images from the crash had so far not revealed the “heat signature” that a missile would leave behind.
Nonetheless, the plane’s reported loss of communications with ground control at 2,400 meters and a lack of crew reports about any engine fire make still another Russian aviation expert -- Viktor Zabolotsky, a decorated Soviet test-pilot -- uncomfortable about Iran’s initial technical explanation for the crash.
Photos that show what appear to be openings in the Boeing’s wings and fuselage add to his misgivings. The openings would not be caused by the plane breaking apart, he said.
He urged caution, however, in drawing conclusions.
“It’s possible that there was some kind of explosion, but what kind of explosion -- internal or external -- you have to look here at the nature of these openings,” Zabolotsky said.
Lukashevich believes that photos of the debris, which show mostly “very small” pieces, could suggest that the plane exploded when it hit the ground, rather than in the air.
“But this shows only how the plane crashed,” he said. “What led to this is a question for the investigation, to the extent that it is objective.”
At a press conference from Kyiv, Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk stated that the Ukrainian government will not discuss possible causes of the crash until official investigators complete their work.
The website of the Ukrainian embassy in Tehran earlier had blamed engine failure, rather than a missile or terrorist attack, for the plane’s destruction, but later replaced that statement with one that echoed the prime minister.
At a Kyiv briefing, UIA representatives described the Boeing 737-800, issued in 2016, as “one of their best planes,” with “a wonderful, safe crew.” The plane had last had a technical inspection on January 6.
Iran and Ukraine will coordinate their investigations into the crash, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko tweeted.
Representatives from the State Aviation Service of Ukraine, Ukraine’s National Bureau of Air Accidents Investigation, and Ukrainian International Airlines will travel to Tehran, Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Vladyslav Kryklii announced.
Ukraine’s State Aviation Service has started a safety inspection of all UIA planes. As have other countries, Kyiv has banned Ukraine-registered planes from using Iranian airspace.
Under international law, Iran, as the site of the catastrophe, will carry primary responsibility for the investigation into the crash. Aside from Ukraine, the country of the plane’s manufacturer, the U.S., should also take part, under the International Civil Aviation Organization’s regulations, but nothing suggests that that will occur. Tehran’s civil aviation organization will not hand over the plane’s black box to Boeing, news agencies have reported.
Tehran’s civil aviation organization will not hand over the plane’s black box to Boeing, but will decipher with Ukraine its recordings of cockpit audio and flight data, news agencies have reported.
Lukashevich, however, expressed strong doubts about Iran’s “objectivity” in carrying out the investigation. He charged that Iranian aviation officials behaved “criminally” by not closing the country’s airspace to civilian aircraft when missile strikes were possible.
Zabolotsky echoed that criticism. “They should have stopped all civilian flights, but no one paid attention to that,” he said.
Any investigation into the causes of the crash can offer little comfort to some.
An elderly man in Kyiv’s Boryspil airport told Current Time on the morning of January 8 that he had traveled 100 kilometers to the airport for information about the UIA flight, on which his son, Ihor Matkov, was working as a senior flight attendant.
The man, Valeriy Matkov, said that he had only learned of the crash when his daughter called from the U.S. with news of the catastrophe.
In total, 11 Ukrainians – nine crew members and two passengers – were killed in the crash.
In comments to reporters, Ukrainian Prime Minister Honcharuk described the disaster as “a tragedy not only for Ukraine, but for the world.”
-This story also includes reporting from Reuters and Ukrinform. Updated at 10:30 p.m. on January 8, 2019.