09 January, 2020

Why did the Ukraine International Airline's 737-800 crash in Iran?

Photo AP
There were no survivors from a Ukraine Airlines Boeing 737-800NG which crashed on Wednesday 8th January near Tehran International Airport.  

Flight PS752 took off from Tehran just after 6am local time,  it had climbed away from the airport to around 8000 feet but then flight data seems to have come to a sudden halt three minutes into the flight. Five minutes after that the aircraft came down and a scene of complete devastation greeted rescue workers and first responders at the crash site.

The flight to Kyiv was carrying 176 people on board at the time of the crash, according to Ukrainian officials, 82 of those were Iranians, 63 came from Canada, 11 people including 9 crew were Ukrainian nationals. 10 were from Sweden, 4 from Afghanistan, 3 from the UK and 3 Germans.

Yet even before the human remains of those people had been collected, speculation as to the cause of the disaster began to swirl at record speeds and in all directions with little signs of slowing down.  At first, it was believed and widely reported that the jet had been bought down by a missile fired by Iran during an attack on US-based in Iraq. These persisted for some time despite the fact that the events took place hours apart and not in the same area from where the rocket attacks were launched from. Some aviation commentators jumped on that bandwagon,  highlighting some images of parts of the fuselage showed "obvious projectile holes" indicating it was a definite "shootdown event". Yet, the very same images when enlarged seem to change those holes into rocks. Even if some holes, these can be caused by a number of things, such as an uncontained engine failure, only a forensic like examination will tell for sure. 

Iranian officials stipulated that it was a technical fault with the aircraft that caused the tragedy, an engine problem most probable.  However, these were hotly disputed by Ukrainian Airlines, saying the aircraft was one of its best,  just three years old and had its most recent maintenance check on Monday of this week. "The flight was operated on a Boeing 737-800 NG aircraft (registration UR-PSR). The aircraft was built in 2016 and delivered directly to the airline from the manufacturer. The last scheduled maintenance of the aircraft took place on 06 January 2020." read a statement by the carrier.  Ihor Sosnovsky, UIA Vice President Operations doesn't believe crew error was responsible for the disaster either, saying "Given the crew's experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance."

Photo AFP

However, the airline regularly conducts crew training at Tehran airport and on the flight deck, there were three crewmembers - one more than usual and one was a training pilot. Captain Volodymyr Gaponenko who had 11600 hours on Boeing 737 aircraft with 5500 of those as a captain. The first officer was Serhii Khomenko who had 7600 hours on 737's and the third person on the flight deck was instructor pilot Oleksiy Naumkin, who had amassed 12000 on the 737 with 6600 of those as a captain. "Tehran airport is anything but a simple one. Therefore, for several years UIA has been using this airport to conduct training on Boeing 737 aircraft aimed at evaluating pilots' proficiency and ability to act in emergency cases." Sosnovsky said. It does seem a strange thing to highlight at a time like this, but perhaps it is an attempt by the airline to be open and transparent.

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has warned against "speculation or unchecked theories regarding the catastrophe" until the official reports had been produced. An investigation team from Ukraine has been sent to Iran to assist with the investigation of the crash, it is unclear at this stage, how much involvement those investigators will be allowed to have by the Iranians.   

FlightGlobal's David Learmount stressed on the suddenness of a dramatic event as the reason why no distress radio message seems to have been issued by the flight crew of the 737-800NG "Whatever it was, it was very dramatic and very sudden because the crew were not able to make an emergency call. They had plenty of height which would have given them the time to make a call. They were at around 8,000 or 9,000 feet and all of a sudden they were not talking to anyone.".  Although, many pilots undergo emergency training that follows a similar process to the old three A's approach to emergencies. Which is - Ascertain what is going wrong, Action to recover control and Announce the issues being experienced.  "You try to work out what very dramatic thing can go wrong with an airliner and you can't really come up with anything. If it was a missile strike, that's dramatic. If it was a bomb on board, that's dramatic." David Learmount said. 
Photo AP

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau described the loss of life as a "heartbreaking tragedy" and confirmed his government would “continue to work closely with its international partners to ensure that this crash is thoroughly investigated and Canadians’ questions are answered.”

the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said that under International Civil Aviation Organization - Annex 13 agreement,  "the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board of the Civil Aviation Organization of the Islamic Republic of Iran is leading the investigation into the accident. In keeping with this agreement, by virtue of fatalities to Canadian citizens, the TSB has appointed an expert who will receive and review factual information released by the State of Occurrence, and monitor the progress of the investigation."  It also said it would 'provide any technical assistance requested by Iranian and Ukrainian accident investigation bodies.'. 

Iranian state television has said that the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorders, commonly known as the black boxes had been retrieved from the crash voice and data recorders had been found. At this stage, it is unclear which country these will be sent to for examination and data extraction, however given the heightened politcal situation, they almost certainly won't be sent to the US.

There are a number of quotes and comments circulating in the media and on social media that an Iranian official has said Iran is 'refusing to hand over the Black Box to Boeing'.According to  The Aviation Safety Network "As Iran is responsible for the investigation since the accident happened in that country and therefore for the process to decode and analyze the voice and data recorder information. Black boxes are never 'handed over' to a manufacturer."

News agency Reuters has said that five security sources - three Americans, one European and one Canadian - have told them that the initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies indicated the aircraft suffered a technical malfunction, there was evidence one of the jet’s engines had overheated and the jet had not been brought down by a missile.

It may be months, if not years before we know the full truth behind the tragedy, if indeed we ever do, thanks in part to the secretive regime in power in Iran. We may not find out if the one hour delay to the flight for 'mechanical reasons' played a part in the crash or just a normal run of the mill occurrence.  Equally, it may never come to light if the crew were conducting a training exercise at the time of the tragedy and unable to recover.  A secret shooting down of the jet either on purpose or a catastrophic error by Iran or the US may forever stay just that - a secret. There are compelling reasons and theories for all of those possibilities turning out to be true. However, I retain an open mind as to the true cause at this stage of the investigation, which is in its infancy, yet I almost certainly believe that we will find out in the fullness of time, that there was a multitude of single events that occurred in succession which has lead to this disaster. 

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