KAZAN, Russia >> The grainy airport video is dark, short and chilling. Within five seconds, a dot of light that Russian authorities say is a Boeing 737 appears in the sky over the tarmac and plunges to the ground in a near-vertical crash. The result is a blinding fireball.
The video shown today by Russian television stations — http://www.youtube.com/watch?vvgGHrMJuxRs — of Sunday night’s horrifying crash at Kazan airport that killed all 50 people onboard raises a host of questions, including why the plane’s second attempt to land at night in good weather went so horribly wrong.
Russian investigators combed through the incinerated wreckage today after fire crews spent hours extinguishing the blaze. Experts from the NTSB, Boeing and the FAA were heading to the scene to help.
The Boeing 737 belonging to Tatarstan Airlines was making its second attempt at a landing in Kazan, 520 miles east of Moscow, according to Alexander Poltinin, head of the local branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee.
The traffic controller at the Kazan airport who contacted the plane before the crash said the crew told him they weren’t ready to land as it was approaching but didn’t specify the problem.
Marat Zaripov, deputy head of the local branch of the Investigative Committee, initially told reporters that his team would look into all theories, including a terrorist attack. But the Investigative Committee said in a statement later today that it was now considering three possible causes: a technical fault, a pilot error or adverse weather conditions.
Poltinin said it could take weeks to identify the remains.
Investigators have found both of the plane’s black boxes — which record the plane’s performance and the crew’s conversations — but said they were damaged.
The brief video taken by an airport security camera showed the plane going down at high speed at a nearly vertical angle and then hitting the ground and exploding. It was confirmed as authentic to The Associated Press by the emergency press service at Kazan airport and other Russian officials.
Magomed Tolboyev, a highly decorated Russian test pilot, said on Rossiya television that it wasn’t immediately clear why the crew was unable to land on their first try in good weather.
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Eric Weiss said today that a team of eight U.S. aviation safety experts were heading to Russia to assist: three NTSB crash investigators, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration investigator and four experts from the plane manufacturer.
John Cox, an aviation safety consultant who flew 737s for 15 years for US Airways, said one of the first issues investigators will look at based on the nearly vertical angle of descent in the video will be whether the plane experienced an aerodynamic stall, which usually occurs when a plane slows to the point where its wings lose lift.
“Anytime you have an airplane that gets this vertical, the immediate suspicion is that it stalled,” Cox said in an interview. “The airplane hit very hard … it’s in a lot of small pieces.”
John Gadzinski, a 737 pilot for a major U.S. airline and an aviation safety consultant, agreed, after watching the video, that the plane was almost certainly stalled, which means the pilots had lost control of the airplane.
Such situations are extremely difficult to recover from at the low altitudes planes are usually flying at near airports, which are generally around 2,000 to 3,000 feet, he said.
“No pilot puts an airplane into a 90 degree dive,” on purpose, Gadzinkski said. “Once the nose of the airplane drops below a certain degree, it’s like a big bowling ball — it just takes a lot of effort to get that nose up.”
If a stall occurs at cruising altitude — up around 30,000 feet — there is more time to increase power, pick up speed and regain control, he said.
Such “loss of control” accidents, as they are termed in the aviation industry, are responsible for more deaths than any other type of air crash because they are rarely survivable, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-supported global aviation safety nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration released its first major overhaul of pilot training regulations in decades with a particular focus on training pilots how to recover from stalls.
Cox, a former accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, said it’s unlikely the accident was the result of any design flaw in the 737, a short- to medium-haul jet. The plane was first introduced by Boeing in 1968, although there have been major changes in subsequent generations.
“It’s a great machine,” he said.
Friends of the air crash victims gathered on a central square in Kazan on Monday evening to commemorate the victims.
“I can only express my condolences and wish strength and endurance to the relatives of those who died,” said Elmira Kalimullina, one of the friends.
Investigators have started looking through the company’s records, which showed the plane was built 23 years ago and had been used by seven other carriers prior to being picked up by Tatarstan Airlines in 2008.
In 2001, it was damaged in a landing accident in Brazil that injured no one.
The company insisted that the aircraft was in good condition for the flight.
The carrier has had a good safety record but appears to have run into financial problems recently. Its personnel went on strike in September over back wages, and the Kazan airport authority has gone to arbitration to claim what it said was Tatarstan Airlines’ debt for servicing its planes.
Industry experts have blamed some recent Russian crashes on a cost-cutting mentality that neglects safety in the chase for profits. Insufficient pilot training and lax government controls over the industry also have been cited as factors affecting Russian flight safety.
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said today the government should tighten its oversight of carriers and subsidize the upgrading of their fleets to improve safety.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow; Transportation reporter Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.