As Jazz mentioned earlier, there was a plane crash last night in Iran which killed 176 people. The crash happened just a couple hours after the Iranian attack on Iraqi bases where Americans are stationed. Iranian state TV attributed the crash of the Ukrainian airliner to mechanical problems, however, the NY Times is now reporting that aviation experts aren’t so sure. The alleged sequence of events, and a video of the crash raise questions about whether this might have been an attack of some kind:
Though the evidence remained sketchy, aviation experts said that what was known indicated that the plane could have been attacked. Investigators should have that possibility “at the top of their agenda,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States…
Ukraine International Flight 752 left Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran at 6:12 a.m. on Wednesday and abruptly ceased the automatic transmission of flight data about two to three minutes later, though it remained in the air for a few minutes longer.
Experts say that is an extremely rare sequence of events, even in a catastrophic accident — and all the more unexpected in a relatively new plane, built in 2016, of a model with a very good safety record…
“Planes just don’t blow up in mid air,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at Teal Group, an aviation consulting firm. “It doesn’t work like that.”
A state-run news agency released this video which it claims shows the airliner going down and then exploding:
نخستین ویدئو از سقوط هواپیمای اوکراینی اطراف شهریار pic.twitter.com/M3bZiLLryQ
— خبرگزاری ایسنا (@isna_farsi) January 8, 2020
That appears to be a plane on fire but if so it doesn’t necessarily rule out foul play. The obvious question is why a new plane caught on fire just two minutes after takeoff. As for the crew, ABC reports they were very experienced and that the Ukrainian company that owned the plane has never had a crash:
The crew was highly experienced, according to the executives; the captain, Volodymyr Gaponenko, had 11,600 flying hours, mostly spent on 737 aircraft, Ihor Sosnovsky, the airline’s vice president of operations, told reporters. His two co-pilots also had several thousand hours flying the same planes, he said.
“Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance,” Sosnovsky said. According to the airlines, this is the first fatal crash since its founding in 1992.
An Iranian official told a state news service that one of the plane’s engines had caught fire but passenger jets are designed to fly with one engine in an emergency. If this was an engine fire, the plane should have been able to attempt a landing. Also, the pilot never contacted ground control to say there was an emergency. The black boxes were recovered from the crash site and should provide some insight into what happened, but Iran is refusing to send them to Boeing for analysis since Boeing is an American company. It’s not clear if Iran will attempt to do the analysis itself or send the black boxes elsewhere.
As suspicious as all this sounds, the possibility of an intentional attack also doesn’t seem to make much sense. This was a Ukrainian airliner but it was full of Iranians flying out of Tehran. Of the 176 people reportedly killed, Iran said 147 were Iranian. Ukraine provided different figures which the NY Times suggests may be the result differently counting people with dual citizenship: “Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, said there were 82 Iranians and 63 Canadians.” As crazy as I think the Iranian regime is, shooting down a jet full of Iranians does not make much sense.
That still leaves several possibilities, including that this plane was brought down by mistake. The crash happened hours after the Iranian attack on Iraq, an attack which appears to have been calculated to send a message without killing any US citizens. Perhaps the plane was mistaken for a military aircraft and shot down by Iran’s own air defenses?
For now it’s all just speculation. What we can say is the official story coming out of Iran doesn’t seem to explain all of the facts. Here’s a BBC report on the crash which notes that the plane was delayed before takeoff:
Update: From the Washington Post, a former FAA accident investigator says it looks deliberate:
“To me it has all the earmarks of an intentional act. I don’t know whether it was a bomb or a missile or an incendiary device,” he said.
Update: This mystery appears to be solved. Two outlets are now reporting the US has evidence the plane was shot down by Iran.