A new flight accident near Irkutsk airfield has once again reminded us that bad weather conditions such as rain and snow that hit the city that evening are a permanent contributing factor to an emergency.
A majority of aviation experts believe that this weather considerably complicated the landing of the Antonov An-12BK of the Belarusian “Airline Grodno” flying from Chukotka after food delivery. The aircraft refueled in Yakutsk and headed for Irkutsk. It disappeared from radar on the final approach to landing near the village of Pivovarikha in the Irkutsk region at 14:45 Moscow time. According to the local meteorological services, heavy, dense, and wet snow was falling, and wind shear was expected. The crew requested a go-around maneuver at an altitude of 240m after which the plane went off the radar. The fatalities were five crew members and two attendants: Russian commander Alexander Yegorov, co-pilot Oleg Shchuchko from Ukraine, Belarussian navigator Andrey Sergeyev, flight engineer Yuri Kropolev from Russia, engineer Dmitri Garmonenko and aircraft engineer Maxim Karpuk from Belarus, as well as Ukrainian Alexander Chuprynenko. Both “black boxes” (flight recorders) were found at the place of the accident. Experts of the Interstate Aviation Committee have already begun to decipher them.
As the aviation accident investigators haven’t delivered their final conclusion, experts are sharing their opinions on the causes of the crash. In addition to worsened visibility due to bad weather, piloting error and technical malfunction are blamed for the accident. The plane, in service since 1968 was far too old. However, more than 150 obsolete An-12s, including their Chinese copies Shaanxi Y-8, are still used in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, China, Sao Tome, and Principe, Angola, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan etc. Aviation experts have long been saying that proper and regular maintenance are more important than the aircraft’s life span.
The new plane crash only added weight to the argument that the Irkutsk area is a kind of “Russian Bermuda Triangle” because of the large number of air accidents. For example, on January 3, 1994, a Tu-154 flying from Irkutsk to Moscow crashed 11 km from the airport a few minutes after the take-off, killing 124 people on board. In 1997, a Ruslan freighter, which started its flight to the Far East, crashed into residential buildings in the Irkutsk suburbs in less than half a minute. The tragedy took the lives of 72 people. On July 4, 2001, Vladivostok Avia’s Tu-154M abruptly got into a flat-attitude spin and crashed to the ground near the Burdakovka village as it was approaching Irkutsk Airport. There were no survivors among the 145 people on board. An Airbus A310-324 flying from Moscow to Irkutsk crashed into a garage complex after landing in July 2006, killing 125 of more than 200 passengers. Three years later, Irkutsk region governor Igor Yesipovsky and First Deputy Chairman of the regional government Mikhail Shtonda died in a helicopter crash at the same place. In December 2013, nine people were killed in an An-12 crash near Irkutsk.
“So, is there some kind of anomaly in the Irkutsk region? For example, the authors of a popular book ‘100 famous accidents’ even doubted that such a long series of tragedies with aircraft in the same place is only caused by pilots ` mistakes, equipment failure or and bad weather. There must be something mystical in all this. Wek.ru asked this question of Victor Savin, former head of East-Siberian Directorate of Civil Aviation (1987-1990), a well-experienced pilot, who logged 12,000 hours and learnt to fly a whole series of helicopters from Ka-15 to Mi-26 and the IL-76 TD cargo aircraft.
“The Irkutsk airport does have some peculiarities. First of all, the glide path is 4 degrees here and not the regular 2 degrees and 40 minutes. Therefore, pilots have to “break” the flight path at least twice during the glide path. After calling Irkutsk’s experts, I learned that the aircraft approached from the side of Pivovarikha, and not from the city. Otherwise, there would have been more damage because there was a strong wind shear, which threw the airliner down to 150 m in a second and a half or two seconds. We should also take into account that the runway itself is more than 3,000 m long and has a height difference between the beginning and the end of more than 20 m. It is a very dangerous airfield. That is why each landing there demands full attention from the crew. Conditions of landings are always different because there are a lot of smoky boiler-house chimneys in the area. The heat released during their operation leads to the formation of additional condensate nuclei in the atmosphere and worsens visibility. On top of that, the airport is near the city boundary.
“As head of the regional department of civil aviation, did you raise the question of moving the airfield to another place?”
“Of course, we even found a place and held a general meeting with residents of the selected area but nothing changed.”
“What happened back then?”
“I can't give a competent answer to this question, because I am not clear on the synoptic situation or data recorder materials. As far as I know, they decided to increase the supply of warm air to the stabilizer because of the pitch-over effect which is typical for An-12. The question is whether this anti-icing system was activated during the flight. So, it is clear that severe icing occurred.
There are also questions about the flight crew's cooperation and how it was assembled. However, until we have complete flight recorder data, I can't say anything for sure.
Valery Khairyuzov, our permanent aviation expert, a former pilot of the Irkutsk Flight Group, who logged 15,000 hours in 30 years in the Siberian sky, also has a version of what happened.
“When performing a flight mission every pilot struggles with two feelings: either to act by the book, written in pilots’ blood, or trust oneself, like “I am a well-experienced pilot.” This life-or-death decision is made between these two feelings. It will influence not just you personally but also the passengers. It is difficult to say what the commander of An-12 was thinking as he decided to land in Irkutsk and got the information about the storm warning. Maybe he should have landed in Bratsk or Ust-Kut, after refueling in Yakutsk? All I know is that An-12 has a weak point. It has the problem of rudder leading-edge heating. Probably, it was the cause of what is called “pitching” (going into a dive) among pilots. However, it is better to wait for the conclusions of the air accident investigation commission.
We should not read the tea leaves and agree with the hasty versions voiced by some experts in the media. According to them, the plane is old, and, therefore, the equipment is obsolete.
“The information published in some mass media that the crashed plane had not undergone anti-icing procedure on departure from Yakutsk shows the lack of competence of its authors because it has no effect in terms of what happened. This procedure is carried out only to ensure the departure of the aircraft. The crew turns on the de-icing system in flight,” said the representatives of the Ministry of Transport of Belarus.
Did the crew forget to turn it on? This is now the main question for the experts who are looking into the causes of the crash.