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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irkutsk Crash Report Irks Engine Maker

The Ukrainian company that built the engines blamed for causing the December crash of a giant cargo plane into residential Irkutsk has urged Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to question the official inquiry, alleging that the Russian air force is looking for a "scapegoat."

Newly appointed air force chief Anatoly Kornukov announced earlier this week that an investigating commission composed almost entirely of military personnel had ruled that the crash was the result of problems in the design of the Ukrainian-made D-18T engines.

Kornukov's statement drew an angry response Friday from the firm that manufactures the engines.

"We are in no doubt that the air force is looking for a scapegoat, and looking to pass on the responsibility for those [lost] lives," said Yaroslav Sukhoi, deputy director of the Motor-Sich plant in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia.

Kornukov said the commission ruled out the possibility that ground crews mixed summer and winter fuel types, causing the Antonov An-124 to crash seconds after takeoff.

The plane and its freight of two jet fighters bound for Vietnam plowed into a residential suburb of Irkutsk in the early hours of Dec. 6, killing all 15 crew members and about 65 local residents.

"We are absolutely sure of the safety of our engines," Sukhoi said. "We have sent two telegrams to the prime ministers of Ukraine and Russia asking them not to sign the commission's report."

Sukhoi said the commission refused to even look at the results of extensive tests carried out by his company after the crash. By simulating the operation of the engines in Irkutsk the company said it has proved the failure of the engines was caused by the formation of ice in fuel at low temperatures, not because of engine defects.

Independent analysts also remain skeptical of the commission's findings.

"It is highly unlikely that two engines would fail at exactly the same time and that a third engine would then shut down," said Paul Duffy, an independent expert who in 1991 participated in a series of international safety tests of the An-124, which is also called the Ruslan. "There would have to be a specific electrical or fuel problem involved."

The Ukrainian factory has requested another inquiry led by the Interstate Aviation Committee, a body made up of international experts that investigates civil aircraft accidents in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Duffy said.

Although it is normal for the military to handle any investigation of a military accident, the fact that Ukrainian manufacturer's reputation is at stake is a strong case for a neutral body to also conduct an investigation, he said.

According to Duffy, four out of the 45 Ruslans in service have crashed in the last seven years, three because of human error, raising questions about the way they are operated and maintained, not necessarily how they are built. The fourth is the plane involved in the Irkutsk crash.

"Even though three of these accidents at least were not aircraft-related this is a much higher level than I'd ordinarily expect and is still cause for concern," he said.

The air force's fleet of 22 An-124s remains grounded. Five Russian companies continue to fly up to 150-ton loads on international routes using another 20 slightly different commercial variants of the aircraft.

Dennis Cooper, the Moscow representative of the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority, said Friday the FAA has no current plans to ban the civil aircraft from its airspace.

"We are still waiting to hear what the current status of the investigation of the An-124 is, and whether that investigation affects the civil variant of the plane," Cooper said.

He said he was unaware of any aviation authorities that had imposed a ban on the Ruslan.

Press reports had suggested that a French ban of some An-124s had recently been lifted after U.S. aviation experts found Russian air-freight company Volga-Dnepr's planes to be in satisfactory condition.

Commercial cargo flights using Ruslans over the past three years have earned Russian companies more than $400 million. Loads have included heavy vehicles and machinery supplied by Western companies, and stage equipment and sets for a world tour by Michael Jackson.