Thirty-one people died Monday when a Russian plane crashed and burst into flames upon take-off from a Siberian airport at which another Boeing jumbo jet had to abort its flight only a few hours later.
The emergencies ministry said the French-Italian made ATR-72 was carrying 39 passengers and four crew when it came down 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the western Siberian city of Tyumen after taking off for the oil town of Surgut.
The twin-engine turboprop was operated by UTair — a private Russian airline that conducts most of its flights in the energy-rich regions of Siberia and the Ural Mountains.
The airline said in a statement that the plane came down “while conducting a forced landing 1.5 kilometres (about one mile)” outside Roshchino airport.
One witness on the ground said he noticed a problem as soon as the propeller plane left the runway.
“There was a small flash of light followed by smoke,” the witness identified only as Alexei told RIA Novosti news agency.
“The plane started turning, the smoke kept pouring out, and then the plane went into the field,” he said.
Intial reports suggested that the plane was in good condition and being operated by an experienced pilot on a sunny but chilly day that seemed to provide ideal flight conditions.
Investigators said the ATR-72 first entered into service in 1992 and had recorded 35,000 flight hours — figures that match those of planes used by Western airlines.
The flight was also employing a chief pilot who had amassed 2,500 flight hours over a spotless career.
One unnamed investigator told news agencies the circumstances suggested that the plane may simply not have been de-iced properly prior to take-off by the airport crew.
UTair itself gave no immediate reason for the crash.
But it reported that pilots of a much larger Boeing 747 had to put on their emergency breaks and abort an attempt to take-off from the same airport just a few hours later after discovering a serious problem with the jumbo jet.
“The Boeing 747 commander had to slow on the runway after reporting that the plane was not set to its standard configuration,” Interfax quoted the local Investigative Committee as saying.
Passengers on the Boeing were later put on another UTair flight.
Emergency and rescue workers who rushed to the crash site found the ATR-72 ablaze and the craft itself broken up into multiple charred pieces that bore few signs of life.
The city of Tyumen lies 1,700 kilometres (1,000 miles) east of Moscow and is the capital of one of Russia’s biggest oil producing regions of the same name.
The plane was flying to Surgut — the heart of the Surgutneftegaz energy company and one of Russia’s largest oil and natural gas producers.
Interfax said one of the company’s board members and several of its employees were on board the flight. Investigators were still identifying the survivors.
Russia’s once-proud aviation industry remains blighted by repeated accidents involving its ageing and poorly looked-after fleet.
President-elect Vladimir Putin has already ordered Russia’s older planes to be taken out of service by the end of the year and for pilots and smaller air carriers to be subject to strict tests and regulations.
The crash marks the first disaster Putin will have to deal with following his March 4 reelection and underscores the difficulties Russia has faced in updating its Soviet-era infrastructure.
Officials have identified poor pilot training and lax safety rules as one of the most immediate problems affecting Russian aviation.
But plans to eliminate smaller carriers that employ just a handful of planes as a safety precaution have run up against the reality that Russia lacks the fleet needed to span the country’s vast distances.
Officials promised to recall the licences of 30 smaller airlines in response to a September 2011 plane crash that claimed the lives of 44 people — most of them members of the championship-winning ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.