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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All 145 Dead in Irkutsk Plane Crash

All 145 people on board a Tu-154 plane were killed when it inexplicably turned 180 degrees and fell to the ground Wednesday while on final approach to the Irkutsk airport.

"I can see the runway," were the last words of pilot Valentin Goncharuk to air traffic controllers before the plane crashed into a meadow 22 kilometers from the airport.

The plane was making a refueling stop while on a flight from Yekaterinburg to Vladivostok. It crashed shortly after 2 a.m. local time (9 p.m. Moscow time).

Television footage showed pictures of smoldering chunks of metal among the sooty debris. Only the aircraft's tail, bearing the logo of the airline Vladivostokavia, and the landing gear were recognizable.

The 15-year-old Russian-made aircraft served in a Chinese airline until it was bought by Vladivostokavia late last year. It was overhauled this spring at the Vnukovo aviation repair plant and was expected to fly for five or six more years, said Deputy Transport Minister Karl Ruppel.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who flew to the site, said it was possible that all three of the plane's engines failed, Interfax reported. Shoigu said he had reason to believe this because when the crew last communicated with ground control, three minutes before the crash, they reported no problems. A failure in the aircraft's altimeter was also being considered, he said.

Moscow-based aviation analyst Paul Duffy said that if the three engines shut down it was likely that one engine disintegrated and damaged lines necessary to control the aircraft. The fire after the crash indicates that the plane did not run out of fuel, he said in a telephone interview.

However, Vladimir Belogub, the general director of the Aviakor plant in Samara, the manufacturer of the Tu-154, said on RTR television that all three engines shutting down was "highly unlikely from a technical point of view."

The plane appeared to hit the ground flat and it was facing 180 degrees off course, Shoigu told reporters in televised remarks.

"It is so hard to comprehend how it could happen … based on an elementary knowledge of aerodynamics," Shoigu told reporters at the scene. "It is a weird accident."

There was no explosion on board before the plane hit the ground, judging by the concentration of the debris in an area 100 meters by 60 meters, Ruppel said.

The plane was at a height of 850 meters and had just completed the third of four turns in its landing pattern when it lost contact with air traffic controllers, he said.

Contrary to some reports, the plane made only one attempt to land, the State Civil Aviation Service said, confirming that the pilots reported no problems.

Ruppel cautioned against jumping to any conclusions until a technical commission has had time to analyze data from the flight recorders, which will take two to three days. All three flight recorders were recovered and found to be in good condition, he said.

First Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who also flew to Irkutsk, was more emphatic.

"All references to someone's opinions are without grounds," he said on RTR. "This will traumatize the relatives of passengers and the crew. There are many versions that we cannot talk about from either a technical or a moral point of view."

The plane crashed about four kilometers from the village Burdakovka. A local woman told RTR that she heard the drone of the plane. "I looked, it flew over there. … Then it hit. There was an explosion, flames."

RTR reported that a few whole corpses were found, although they were severely burned.

The plane carried 136 passengers, six of them children, four crew and five cabin members. Among the passengers on Flight DD352 were 12 Chinese nationals.

President Vladimir Putin declared Thursday a national day of mourning. He ordered flags to be flown at half staff and asked television stations to pull any entertainment programs.

"The whole nation shares your sorrow," Putin said in a televised condolence message to the families. "This is a big tragedy. We have to do everything to support the families of the deceased in the shortest time possible."

Relatives of the passengers will receive 12,000 rubles in insurance payment, while relatives of crew members will receive 127,000 rubles. Funds for support of the families were organized in Irkutsk and Vladivostok.

Planes carrying relatives from Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok were scheduled to arrive in Irkutsk on Thursday. They will be provided with free lodging and psychological support.

Ruppel said the pilot of the plane had 13,481 flying hours, 3,661 of them on the Tu-154. The co-pilot had flown more than 2,000 hours on the Tu-154, he said.

The airline itself, a major operator between Far Eastern and Siberian destinations, had a good safety record. Formed in 1992 with the breakup of Aeroflot, it has 36 aircraft, many of them Tu-154s.

The Tu-154M that went down Wednesday rolled off the production line in the Samara plant in 1986 and was delivered to a Chinese airline, where it served for 14 years before it was bought by Vladivostokavia late last year.

Built to fly for 30,000 hours, it performed just over 20,000 in China, and after an overhaul was expected to fly for five or six more years, Ruppel said.

Since the overhaul was completed April 23 at the Vnukovo aviation repair plant in Moscow, the aircraft had flown 382 hours and performed 102 flights.

The plant's technical director, Mikhail Bulanov, said that the plane went through "the typical repairs and was fully operational."

The engines were overhauled at their manufacturer, Rybinsk Motors in the Yaroslavl region.

Rybinsk Motors was not available for comment.

Bulanov, however, dismissed any possible engine problems, saying that before returning the plane to the airline, the plant had performed two test flights and tests on the ground and did not record and malfunctions.

Wednesday's crash was the fourth near Irkutsk in recent years . The crash of a Tu-154M flown by regional airline Baikal-avia in 1994 killed 120 people. In 1997, a giant Ruslan An-124 military cargo plane crashed into an apartment block, killing 70 people. In 1999, a plane overloaded with commercial cargo crashed shortly after takeoff in Irkutsk with no casualties.

Russian civil aviation's worst record was registered in 1994 with 310 people killed. That year, an Aeroflot Airbus-310 crashed near Novokuznetsk, killing 70 people. Investigation reports attributed the crash to the pilot allowing his teenage son to take control of the plane.

Since 1996, the statistics have improved. In 1999, 43 people were killed in seven crashes and in 2000, 20 people in five crashes. This year, before Wednesday's crash, the State Civil Aviation Service had registered two crashes that killed 12 people.

Since 1997, the number of catastrophes per 100,000 flying hours on regular flights in Russia have been lower than in the United States or member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Domestic civil aviation has been taking steps to scale down the number of carriers from the current 300 and to toughen licensing. Ruppel said that the law on licensing will be considered by the State Duma before it recesses for the summer.

On the heels of Wednesday's accident, Putin ordered the State Civil Aviation Service to improve control over the technical state of aircraft.