Pilot Ignored Weather Warning

APRelatives of those killed in the Tu-154 jet mourning Thursday at a cordoned field where the plane went down near the Ukrainian village of Sukhaya Balka.
The pilot of the Pulkovo Airlines plane that slammed into the Ukrainian countryside, killing at least 170 on board, ignored a storm warning before taking off and subsequent warnings after the plane was in the air.

That revelation, which surfaced after air traffic controllers said they had notified commanding pilot Ivan Korogodin of the danger, is fueling speculation that bad weather -- and Korogodin's decision not to skirt it -- is the likeliest explanation for the crash.

Other theories, including a deadly lightning strike and terrorism, have been all but ruled out.

Pulkovo Flight 612 left Anapa, a Black Sea resort, shortly after 3 p.m., Tuesday, bound for St. Petersburg. A little more than a half-hour later the Tu-154 disappeared from radar screens. And a few minutes after that, it was seen plummeting into a grassy field. Forty-five children died in the crash.

Korogodin, 49, had logged 11,900 flying hours, including 6,000 hours on Tu-154's and 2,300 hours as crew commander. He was considered a very experienced pilot, Pulkovo Airlines spokesman Vasily Naletenko said Wednesday.

Korogodin had been licensed to fly by the International Civil Aviation Organization. He had no previous record of accidents during his career with Pulkovo Airlines, which began in 1991, Naletenko said.

It is unclear why Korogodin flew toward the storm.

"It is always the pilot's decision whether to continue with the flight or to change course," said Carolyn Evans, head of flight safety at the British Airline Pilots' Association. "Pilots are instructed to make flight safety an absolute priority, and the pilots themselves are always in the best position to make that decision."

Oleg Panteleyev, editor of the aviation web site Aviaport.ru, agreed that pilots bore full responsibility for all weather-related decisions they made while in the air.

Evans added that "the only reason a pilot would fly into a storm is if he didn't know it was there." That seems unlikely in the case of flight 612, given that it was a daytime flight and Korogodin was told of the upcoming storm.

A veteran test pilot indicated that Korogodin and fellow crew members may have lacked the skills needed in an emergency situation.

Some Russian airlines, the pilot said, are so focused on cutting costs that they either hire pilots who lack emergency skills or do not set aside money for adequate training.

"As a result," he said, "the crew gets by when they fly the same routes in roughly the same conditions. But they are at a loss once something goes wrong during the flight."

The veteran pilot continued: "Sometimes, the pilots know they may be not able to pull it off with the skills they have, but still decide to fly out of fear that they would be asked why they didn't fly and their ignorance would be exposed."

Ivan Sekretarev / AP
Family members of the 170 people killed in the crash looking at the scorched field Thursday.
Panteleyev speculated that Korogodin may have wanted to avoid paying taxes for landing and taking off twice. In the 1990s, legislation was adopted permitting airplanes to make emergency landings and pay only 25 percent of the standard landing tax. But that law has been abolished, giving airlines, and possibly pilots, an incentive to stay in the air.

"The number of planes making emergency landings has declined dramatically in recent years," Panteleyev said.

A Tu-154 pilot who flies for a major airline said Thursday that Russian pilots might be more inclined to take risks than their Western counterparts.

The pilot recalled that while he was in training, he and other pilots were shown an international air safety study revealing an informal link between a country's development and the risk that pilots from that country were willing to take. More developed countries, he said, have pilots who take fewer risks. "So the Europeans and Americans are less inclined to take risks than Russians and Chinese, for instance," he said.

Russian newspapers reported that the pilots might have lost consciousness due to g-force generated by the plane's downward tailspin; the plane is thought to have entered a tailspin at around an altitude of 12,000 meters. There was also speculation that the pilots may have been struck on the head in the midst of the turbulence.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters
A policeman hanging up a toy at a relative's request near the wreckage of the Tu-154 Thursday.
In the post-Soviet era, the prestige and salaries of pilots have plummeted. Graduates of flight schools usually have no more than 50 flying hours under their belts when they leave, yet routinely get hired as assistant pilots by commercial airlines.

Only Aeroflot has its own flight school, which offers extra training for its pilots.

Meanwhile, relatives of the victims were visiting the crash site, in a field near the village of Sukhaya Balka, 45 kilometers north of Donetsk.

At the site Thursday, grief-stricken relatives were escorted by police to a wooden cross. A sign on the cross read: "Donetsk Grave." Events in Kiev marking Ukrainian Independence Day were postponed Thursday.

A parade including 32 military orchestras and a large fireworks display were among events switched from Thursday to Saturday, Interfax reported.

Early Thursday, a Boeing-737 flying from Kiev to Salonika in Greece had to return to Ukraine an hour into the flight after the captain suspected problems with the cabin pressure systems, Interfax reported.

In Yakutsk late Wednesday, an Ilyushin plane operated by Domodedovo Airlines sped past the end of the runway and came to a halt, Interfax reported.

Staff Writer Simon Saradhzyan contributed to this report.