MOSCOW — A teen-ager reportedly allowed to play pilot in the cockpit may have caused last month's crash of a Russian-leased Airbus jet that killed 75 people, Moscow media reported Saturday.
The Russian commission investigating the crash in Siberia has yet to announce its official findings, but it did say Saturday that tapes from the plane's "black box" recorder show that guests were visiting the cockpit before the Airbus A-310 went down. Four Moscow newspapers reported that "children's voices" appear on the cockpit tapes.
The commission's specialists are still working on identifying the voices and the exact causes of the crash, a spokesman told the Interfax news agency.
But Russian media were already full of a mind-boggling--though still unofficial--account of how the pilot's son may have accidentally sent the Airbus into an unstoppable nose dive by hitting a switch that turned off the autopilot.
If true, the story of how the plane crashed will do much to cement Russian civil aviation's reputation as unsafe. Although the Airbus, made by a consortium based in France, appears to have been mechanically sound, it may have been done in by lax Russian discipline.
According to the English-language Moscow Times, which carried the most complete account of the crash, the flight from Moscow to Hong Kong on March 22 had been under-booked, so about 30 airline employees and family members came along for a free trip.
Among them was the 15-year-old son of Capt. Yaroslav Kudrinsky, the Moscow Times said, quoting Aeroflot and Transportation Ministry officials who asked to remain anonymous. The plane flew under the aegis of Russian International Airlines, the international branch of Aeroflot.
"Cockpit voice recorder readings indicated that the youth inadvertently knocked off the autopilot and fell against the control column as his father and other crew members stood behind him," the Moscow Times said.
When the plane then plunged into a nose dive from its flying height of 33,000 feet, the adults were apparently thrown off their feet, unable to reach the controls of the plane immediately. The dive became so steep that the crew could not correct it, the Moscow Times said.
Among those aboard were 23 foreigners, including one American. None of the passengers or crew survived when the plane hit the tundra near the Mongolian border.
Valery Eksuzian, the head of Russian International Airlines, told Interfax on Friday that the Airbus crew was "not to blame." He said that analysis of radio contacts indicated that "the plane started to act in ways which were not programmed into the autopilot. Judging by their exclamations, the crew was greatly surprised."
Eksuzian heartily denied a French television report that none of the crew members were in the cockpit just before things went wrong. But no officials have denied that the pilot's son caused the crash.
Russia's NTV television network reported Saturday that Kudrinsky let his son, Eldar--whose age was given as 16 instead of 15--take his seat in the cockpit and went back into the cabin. When the trouble started, another pilot who happened to be among the passengers jumped to the controls to try to save the plane but failed, NTV said. It said the boy's blood showed traces of barbiturates.
The Russian crash commission has been analyzing the recordings with Airbus manufacturers in France, according to the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. The commission's conclusions are expected in about a week and a half.
The crash was so mysterious that officials had originally speculated that it might have been caused by a terrorist's bomb, but they now rule out that theory. Mechanical failure also appears to be ruled out.
It would seem, the Vechernaya Moskva newspaper wrote, that "the reason for the tragedy was the human factor. Namely, that the pilot gave his seat to his 16-year-old son, let him 'drive.' "
"Of course, this is hard to believe. But if you think about it, after a spontaneous 'That's impossible!' something else comes to mind: How coincidental are the catastrophes happening more and more often in our skies?" Vechernaya Moskva asked. "Has the splitting of Aeroflot into more than 200 companies really strengthened discipline?"
In fact, discipline in the unified Aeroflot of the former Soviet Union had not been good either. Pilots routinely took bribes to allow passengers without tickets to fly with them--sometimes in the cockpit itself--and technical difficulties in the aging Soviet fleet abounded.