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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Boeing 737 Plane Crash in Iran Prompts Conflicting Statements

A Ukrainian airliner carrying at least 176 people crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday, killing everyone on board. It was unclear what caused the disaster, but the aircraft, a Boeing 737-800, went down amid an escalating, violent conflict between the United States and Iran.
Early statements from both Ukraine and Iran about what happened to the flight bound for Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital were both confused and contradictory. Just hours earlier, Iran had fired missiles at two bases in Iraq that house United States troops, and Iranian forces were on alert for an American counter-strike.

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.
The Iranian Students’ News Agency, a state-run media organization, shared a video it said showed the predawn crash, with an aircraft, apparently in flames, descending in the distance before a bright burst filled the sky upon impact.
Photos and videos from the crash site showed rescuers in a field littered with plane debris, smoldering fires and the belongings of passengers.
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.
The plane had reached an altitude of almost 8,000 feet and a speed of more than 300 miles per hour, according to Flightradar 24, which tracks aircraft by their radio signals.
“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.”
Qassem Biniaz, an official at the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, told the Islamic Republic News Agency, the government’s official news agency, that an engine caught fire and the pilot was unable to regain control.
Iranian news organizations tied to the government referred to technical problems with the plane, but they did not elaborate or cite evidence. Later, the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency that so far, there was no evidence of technical problems.
An airliner should be able to fly even if one engine fails. An “uncontained” engine failure, in which parts of the engine disintegrate, can spray shrapnel that damages and even destroys the plane, but such events are rare.
The disaster has the potential to add to the crisis at Boeing, which has been dealing with the fallout from two crashes involving a different model of jet, the 737 Max, for which software has been blamed.
After the crash, Ukraine’s embassy in Iran initially issued a statement ruling out terrorism or a rocket attack as a cause of the crash. But the statement was later removed from the embassy’s website and replaced by one saying it was too early to draw any conclusions.
Mr. Abedzadeh said the airliner had not contacted the control tower about an emergency.
After an accident, the “black boxes” are often sent to the plane’s maker for analysis, but Iran would not send the flight data recorders to Boeing, an American company, Mr. Abedzadeh said in an interview with Mehr.
“We will not give the black box to the manufacturer and the Americans,” Mehr quoted him as saying. Ukrainian officials, he said, would be involved in Iran’s investigation of the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which often takes part in aviation accident investigations in other parts of the world, “is working with the State Department and other agencies to determine the best course of action,” said Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman.
There were 176 people aboard, including nine crew members, according to the airline, which released the names of the dead, but the Iranian authorities listed 177, while some Iranian news organizations cited other figures. The breakdown of the victims’ nationalities also diverged, though that may be because some passengers held dual citizenship; Iran’s tally included 147 Iranians and two Canadians, while Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, said there were 82 Iranians and 63 Canadians.
At a news conference at Boryspil International Airport in Kyiv several hours after the crash, Ukraine International Airlines executives said the plane had been in good working order and operated by a highly trained crew. They offered no theories as to what might have happened and declined to comment on whether or not it might have been shot down.
“Given their experience, it is very difficult to say that there was something wrong with the crew,” Ihor Sosnovskyi, the airline’s vice president of flight operations, said at the briefing.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said he had ordered the prosecutor general to open a criminal investigation into the crash and that the country’s entire civil aviation fleet would be checked.
“All possible versions of what occurred must be examined,” Mr. Zelensky said in a Facebook post, adding that Ukrainian experts would travel to Tehran to investigate and recover the bodies of Ukrainians. “Our priority is to establish the truth and find those responsible for this terrible catastrophe.”
Boeing faces its own pressure. The company has been under intense scrutiny after the crash of two 737 Max jets in less than five months, which together killed 346 people. The Max has been grounded worldwide since March, creating a crisis for the company and leading to the firing of the chief executive.
As the company struggles to get a fix for the Max approved by regulators, new safety risks have recently emerged with the plane, which the company may also need to assess on the 737-NG family, which includes the 737-800.
The 737-NG is one of the world’s most widely used airliners, with more than 7,000 built since 1998, and it has a very good safety record. It has logged more than 250 million hours of flight time and fewer than a dozen fatal accidents.
“We are aware of the media reports out of Iran and we are gathering more information,” Boeing said in a statement.
The crash came at a tense time in Iran, as conflict with the United States had the country on edge. Iran fired missiles early Wednesday at bases in Iraq that are used by Americans forces, in retaliation for a United States airstrike on Friday that killed a top Iranian general and the leader of Iran-backed Iraqi militias — the latest in a long sequence of escalations.
On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration barred American airliners from flying over Iran, citing a risk that commercial planes would be mistaken for military aircraft. Several non-American carriers rerouted flights on Wednesday to avoid Iraq and Iran, according to Flightradar24.
In 2014, early in the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists, a Russian missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people.
The crash could touch a nerve politically in Ukraine, because Ukraine International Airlines is partly owned through a network of offshore companies by Ihor Kolomoisky. Mr. Kolomoisky is an oligarch with close ties to the Ukrainian president.
Mr. Zelensky cut short his trip to Oman, where he was spending the holidays, and was returning to Kyiv. “Horrible news from the Middle East,” he said in a post on Facebook. “My sincere condolences to the relatives and loved ones of all of the passengers and crew members.”
While airlines in the former Soviet Union have a generally poor safety record, Ukraine International Airlines says on its website that its safety is audited and meets Federal Aviation Administration standards for code-sharing flights with foreign partners. It had not previously suffered a fatal crash, according to a list of Ukrainian aircraft accidents compiled by the Flight Safety Foundation.
The airline said the plane was manufactured in 2016 and delivered directly from the factory, and that it had most recently undergone scheduled maintenance on Monday — two days before the crash. The airline said it was canceling flights to Tehran indefinitely and promised a full investigation into the causes of the crash, involving officials from Ukraine, Iran and Boeing.
The airline began in the 1990s as newly independent Ukraine’s state flag carrier but was subsequently privatized. Its website calls the business a “public private entity.” Before suspending service to Tehran on Wednesday, the carrier offered five direct flights per week from the Iranian capital to Kyiv. The airline flies a fleet of 35 Boeings and seven Embraer aircraft, according to its website.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it had set up a crisis working group and a telephone hotline in response to the crash.

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