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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Minister: Pilot Teaching Youths to Fly

Transportation Minister Vitaly Yefimov confirmed Tuesday two children were inside the cockpit of an Aeroflot Airbus receiving flying lessons minutes before it crashed in Siberia last month, killing 75.

In a statement released to the press, Yefimov said the Aeroflot flight was proceeding from Moscow to Hong Kong without evidence of mechanical failure just before the crash.

"The flight data recordings did not register any signals that attested to failures of the plane, its engines or their systems," the statement said.

"It has been established that present in the cockpit were two passengers, a son and daughter of one of the crew members who, in violation of flight rules, was demonstrating and explaining to them the principles of piloting," the statement said.

"Four minutes after passing Novokuznetsk the plane listed to the right more than it should have, which resulted in a sharp loss of altitude and collision with the ground," Yefimov's statement said.

The statement summarized initial results of a government commission's analysis of the A-310's flight recorders. The recorders were examined in France before being returned to Russia.

The statement -- released unusually early for such cases -- appeared to place the burden of responsibility for the March 23 crash on Aeroflot, although it did not say whether the children caused the accident.

Senior Transportation Ministry and Aeroflot officials, speaking anonymously, have said the 15-year-old son of the Airbus' pilot inadvertently caused the crash by falling on the controls.

Valery Eksuzyan, the general director of Russian Airlines, the Aeroflot company that leased the Airbus, acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that the son and daughter of the plane's pilot were in the cockpit before the crash -- a fact he had questioned in an interview Monday.

However, Eksuzyan said he had in formation which made him "99 percent sure" the children had not caused the crash.

The official said he was "100 percent sure" both the pilot, Yaroslav Kudrinsky, and his co-pilot, Igor Piskaryov, were in their proper places at the plane's controls. He said the children were likely standing behind Kudrinsky's chair as he gave them the lesson overheard by the flight recorder. In two days, Eksuzyan said, relatives of the passengers and crew of the crash victims would listen to the flight recordings, after which officials would be better able to tell exactly who was sitting where. He added that the nature of the pilots' injuries showed they were sitting in their places at the moment of the crash.

Eksuzyan said the presence of children and other non-crew passengers in the cockpit -- though never at the controls -- was a harmless practice common in many major airlines. He said the practice was against Aeroflot's rules, but that airline officials often allowed it.

Eksuzyan said he believed a technical failure would be found responsible for the crash. Although the plane's flight recorders did not record any malfunction, he said this was normal at such a preliminary stage of the investigation.

One independent aviation analyst contacted in London on Tuesday agreed that the Transportation Minister's statement was inconclusive as to whether the children in the cockpit were the actual cause of the crash.

"It is not clear whether either one of them were at the controls," said Kieran Daly, commercial aviation editor for Flight International magazine. "It's still a bit unclear as to what happened."

But Daly, who spoke by phone from his London office, suggested the minister's statement was aimed at eventually placing the blame on Aeroflot.

Yefimov was "talking in code, dropping a heavy hint," Daly said, adding that the statement would have the effect of blaming Aeroflot rather than the manufacturer, Airbus.

The official news agency Itar-Tass quoted unidentified experts as saying that: "there is a desire to force on the public a picture of unprofessionalism and irresponsibility among Russian pilots."

Daly said that Aeroflot international "does not crash more than anybody else." He went on to say the characterization of Aeroflot as incompetent "until now has not applied. Now a question has been raised."

As a result of Tuesday's statement, Daly said, many prospective Aeroflot international passengers would switch to other carriers.

"This is obviously very serious," Daly said. "Aeroflot will struggle to shake this off."