Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

50 Feared Dead in Russian Air Crash

All 50 people on board a chartered Russian airliner were feared dead after it crashed Tuesday in the North Caucasus shortly after the pilot signaled that it was being hijacked, Russian officials said.

The pilot sent the coded signal moments before the plane, a 50-seat Antonov-24 charter on its way from Stavropol in southern Russia to Trabzon in Turkey, plummeted from the sky, aviation officials said.

"This signal should only be launched in the event of an attack on the crew," said Yury Korenets, director of Russia's flight safety inspection bureau.

Korenets added, however, that no "immediate conclusion was possible" because similar distress signals had in the past been sent by mistake.

A spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry in the southern Russian republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, where the plane went down, said witnesses reported hearing a blast at the time of the accident.

NTV television quoted witnesses as saying the tail of the plane appeared to blow off in the air and had landed about 1 kilometer from the fuselage.

A ministry official said by telephone from Cherkessk that the wreckage was scattered over a 3-kilometer area, suggesting the possibility of an explosion.

Rescue workers, who ministry officials said had reached the site of the wreckage within 40 minutes of the crash, had recovered 36 bodies by late afternoon. Officials said they did not expect to find any survivors.

Neither the Emergency Situations Ministry nor the airline company provided any details about the nationalities of the passengers.

Korenets said the hijack signal was tracked for five or six seconds by the control tower in Stavropol before the plane disappeared from radar screens at 9:30 a.m, 36 minutes into its flight.

The aircraft was flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters when it disappeared.

Despite talk about a possible explosion, the crash is likely to add to concerns about Russia's recent appalling aviation safety record and the airworthiness of the nation's aging fleets of aircraft.

The Antonov-24 is a twin-engine, propeller driven plane that went out of production in 1978.

Korenets maintained that the aircraft, despite its age, had met "all the norms of airworthiness."

Sources cited by Interfax said rescuers had recovered one of the plane's black boxes, or flight data recorders, but Korenets could not confirm that information.The plane, which belonged to a company based in Stavropol, went

down near the town of Cherkessk about 90 kilometers south of Stavropol.

The plane was carrying 41 passengers, an eight-member crew and

one director from the airline.

The Emergency Situations ministry had said earlier that there

were 48 people on board the doomed plane, but later put the number

at 46.

A special team from Russia's state civil aviation committee was expected to leave Moscow late Tuesday to help in the investigation, Interfax said.

It was the first major air crash this year in Russia, where air

disasters have increased in recent years because of poor maintenance and equipment in an industry that found itself suddenly starved of cash after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The former Soviet carrier, Aeroflot, has been split into dozens of so-called "baby-flots" -- which often are poorly financed.

In 1996, 14 civilian plane crashes were reported across the country with a total of 219 victims, said the civil aviation committee spokesman.

Moscow's civil aviation committee blamed the increase in crashes

upon the growth of charter companies.

Cheap charter flights are popular with Russians traveling abroad to buy consumer goods for resale in Russia. Turkey is one of the top charter destinations for such shopping tours.