Russian Ships, Drones Comb Tu-154 Crash Site

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UPDATE: Russia’s defense ministry says it has recovered a second flight data recorder from the Tupolev Tu-154 that crashed into the Black Sea on Dec. 25, killing all 92 passengers and crews.

The announcement on Dec. 28 comes one day after the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder was delivered to a Russian air force laboratory in Lyubertsy, Moscow, for cleaning and decryption. Some reports suggest faulty wing flaps are to blame for the deadly mishap based on initial evidence from the flight recorder, but Moscow has made no official determination.

Meanwhile, underwater towing vehicles belonging to the navy have recovered major components of the stricken aircraft, including an engine, landing gear and fuselage skin.

As reported earlier, Russia is mourning the deaths of 92 passengers and aircrew on board the ill-fated military transport, which crashed shortly after takeoff from Sochi Airport. The Tu-154B-2 belonging to the air force had stopped off in Sochi en route to Russia’s coastal airbase in Latakia, Syria, but went down less than one mile (1.5 km) from shore moments after lifting off.

The aircraft was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew, including nine journalists and 64 members of a Russian Red Army military choir, the famed Alexandrov Ensemble, who were due to perform for Russian troops and airmen deployed to the war-torn nation. The passenger manifest included eight soldiers, two federal civil servants and renowned charity worker and human rights activist, Yelizaveta Glinka. All on board are presumed dead, the Russian defense ministry says.

There have been no official statements about the cause of the disaster, but reports by Russian state media suggest that mechanical failure and not terrorism is to blame. A commission headed by Russia’s transport minister, Maxim Sokolov, has been set up to determine the exact cause.

“A thorough investigation will be conducted to determine the cause of the plane crash and every effort will be made to provide support to the families of the victims,” Russian President Vladimir Putin says, adding that Dec. 26 will be a day of national mourning. The families of the victims will be paid 5.8 million rubles (US$95,200) as compensation.

This is the deadliest crash involving a Tu-154 since Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others died while trying to land in poor weather at a military aerodrome near Smolensk in western Russia on April 10, 2010. In 2002, an Iran Air Tours Tupolev Tu-154 crashed, killing 118 passengers and crew.

The defense ministry says the Soviet-era three-engine narrowbody airliner was delivered in 1983 and underwent routine maintenance as recently as September. The aircraft, registration RA-85572, had logged 6,689 flight hours and was last refurbished on Dec. 29, 2014. It was being flown by Roman Alexandrovich Volkov, an experienced military pilot with more than 3,500 hours of flight time over his career.

Wreckage from the aircraft was located on a reef approximately 230 ft. (70 m) below water. The first 10 bodies and 86 aircraft fragments arrived in Moscow on Dec. 26, transported via an Ilyushin Il-76 military airlifter, for identification and  analysis as part of the investigation. More bodies and parts have since arrived.

More than 40 ships as well as helicopters, submarines and remotely operated aircraft and deep-sea vessels have joined the search for bodies and debris. The government has established a 4 mi.² (10.5 km²) search zone and the recovery operations are continuing day and night with the assistance of surface and underwater searchlights as well as side-scanning sonar systems from anti-submarine warships. More 130 divers have joined the search, the defense ministry says.

Other search-and-recovery assets include rescue ships of Moscow's Black Sea Fleet and manned submarines belonging to the Russia Geographical Society. The Northern Fleet, which operates in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, has lent its "Tiger" and "Falcon" unmanned underwater vehicles. Air patrols are being conducted by Kamov Ka-27 naval helicopters and "Orlan-10" and “Garnet-4" surveillance drones.

Flight Safety Foundation records 69 safety incidents involving Tu-154s since 1973, with 40 of those resulting in the cumulative deaths of more than 2,600 people. More than 1,000 of the popular transport were built through 1997, mostly for commercial use. The tri-jet-configuration transporter, which compares to the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and Boeing 727, continues to be used by the Russian government for military and civil air transport.

The crash comes amid Russia's armed intervention in Syria and Ukraine. It also comes just days after Moscow's ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was assassinated at a public event in Ankara in an apparent revenge attack for Moscow’s actions in Aleppo.

Recent military operations have highlighted both the prowess and fragility of post-Soviet Russian airpower. Several fighters and helicopters have crashed, most recently a Sukhoi Su-33 and Mikoyan MiG-29K that had been attempting to land on Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier operating in the Mediterranean Sea.

Days prior to the Tu-154 crash, Putin declared that Russia’s military is now “stronger than any aggressor,” while also calling for more investment in strategic nuclear arms. The crash will likely spur calls in Russia to update the military's Cold War-era transport fleets.

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