MOSCOW – Russia’s transport minister said there was no reason to ground the country’s fleet of Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft, as investigators tried to determine what forced a jet to make an emergency landing and burst into flames, killing 41 people.
Speaking to journalists on May 6, Yevgeny Ditrikh also said the bodies of the 41 people who died in the May 5 crash at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport had been recovered.
He said 33 passengers and four crew survived, adding that six of the survivors were in serious condition.
Flight SU1492, operated by national airline Aeroflot, took off from Sheremetyevo and was heading for the northern city of Murmansk, carrying 73 passengers and five crew members when it was forced to turn around.
Video showed the plane making a hard landing at Sheremetyevo, bouncing, then speeding along a runway, with flames and black smoke pouring from its fuselage.
Asked by reporters at a news conference if the Sukhoi planes should be grounded pending the outcome of the investigation, Ditrikh responded: "There are no grounds for that."
Meanwhile, the Investigative Committee said both flight recorders from the jet have been recovered. Spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said investigators are looking into three main possible causes of the disaster: insufficiently skilled pilots, air-traffic controllers, or technicians who examined the aircraft; a faulty plane; and bad weather.
The aircraft took off from Sheremetyevo airport but was forced to turn back due to unspecified “technical reasons," according to Aeroflot. The company said that the plane's engines caught fire on the runway of the airport after making an emergency landing -- not in midair as initially reported.
In an audio recording posted by Russian media, a man identified as the pilot, Denis Yevdokimov, said the plane was struck by lightning, causing problems with systems on board and interrupting communications with the ground.
The audio appeared to show Yevdokimov saying that the return and landing was conducted by the book but that the jet caught fire after it hit the ground. Footage of the crash-landing appeared to show the plane bouncing several times after first touching down.
Passengers were also quoted as saying that the jet was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Storms were passing through the Moscow area at the time.
The Flightradar24 tracking service showed that the aircraft circled twice around Moscow and landed after about 45 minutes in the air.
Interfax news agency reported that the plane failed in its first attempt to land because it was still traveling at high speed, and then its automated equipment failed on the second approach, forcing the pilot into a hard landing.
Videos on social media show passengers jumping down the plane's inflatable evacuation slides and running across the airport's tarmac and grass, some with their luggage in hand.
"We started to land and everything happened immediately, instantaneously," survivor Maria Sitnikova told Russian media outlet Snob.
"There was one very powerful blow -- my eyes nearly popped out -- then a second one, a little softer, a third, and then smoke and everything started to burn," said Sitnikova, who said she was in row 10.
She said she saw no panicked stampede when passengers were exiting the plane -- "only smoke" -- but that it seemed people in seats toward the rear had little chance of survival.
"I was asking everybody, but we didn't see anyone from the tail among the survivors. They had no way out," Sitnikova said.
Aeroflot said the crew "did everything to save the passengers," who it said were evacuated in 55 seconds.
The plane's manufacturer said the aircraft had received maintenance last month. The pilot had some 1,400 hours of experience flying the plane, according to Aeroflot.
President Vladimir Putin had offered his condolences to the families of the victims, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Aeroflot has long shed its troubled post-Soviet safety record, with its fleet relying mainly on Boeing and Airbus aircraft. However, the state-owned company also owns at least 50 Superjets that it operates on both domestic and international routes.
Manufactured by the state conglomerate United Aircraft Corporation, the Superjet is a mid-range regional jet, conceived of as a way to help bolster the country’s civil aviation manufacturing industry in the face of competition from Boeing and Airbus, as well as Embraer and Bombardier.
Since first entering service in 2011, it has been hit by sporadic concerns over safety and reliability, including a December 2016 grounding after a defect was discovered in an aircraft's tail section.
This is the second fatal accident involving the SSJ100. In 2012, a demonstration flight in Indonesia struck a mountain, killing all 45 people on board.
One regional carrier, Yamal Airlines, said it was canceling its planned purchase of 10 Superjets, the TASS news agency reported. The company operates 15 planes, making it the second-largest operator of the Superjet after Aeroflot.