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141 Feared Killed in Crash of Russian Jet

August 30, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A Russian charter jet shuttling coal miners from Moscow to work on a remote Norwegian island slammed into a snow-covered mountain near its Arctic destination Thursday, apparently killing all 141 people aboard.

It was Norway's worst air disaster and the deadliest for the deteriorating aviation system inherited by Russia and other former Soviet republics nearly five years ago.

Norwegian air traffic controllers lost contact with the Tupolev Tu-154 jet during what they called a routine approach to Spitsbergen Island's airport. The plane struck the peak of Opera Mountain, about six miles away and 3,000 feet above sea level, and broke into pieces.

"We can't say it's impossible to find survivors, but when there's a crash that pulverizes the plane . . . the chances are very slim," Rune B. Hansen, acting governor of the island, told Reuters.

Rescue crews reached the snowbound crash site by helicopter but later suspended their search because of fog and freezing winds.

The jet was taking 129 Russians and Ukrainians to a Russian mining company town on the desolate island. The travelers included 37 wives and children of miners. Under a 1920 treaty, Russia shares mining rights on Spitsbergen and the rest of the Svalbard archipelago, about 400 miles north of the Norwegian mainland, and shuttles miners there under two-year contracts. Twelve crew members were reported aboard the jet, owned by Russia's Vnukovo Airlines and chartered to the mining company, Arktikugol.

Since the breakup of the monopoly Aeroflot into more than 400 carriers--many with little start-up cash--the former Soviet air fleet has logged an abysmal safety record and more than 1,000 crash fatalities. It is plagued by poor maintenance, safety violations and such cost-cutting tricks as overloading cargo and using substandard fuel.

Whether any such factor contributed to Thursday's disaster was unclear, as officials in neither country offered an explanation.

Authorities on Spitsbergen said they detected no distress signal from the jet as it approached in cloudy skies with light winds and four-mile visibility. "It is not a difficult airport," Bjoerne Hattestad of Norwegian Aeronautical Inspection told reporters in Norway, adding that the landing guidance systems were found to be in working order.

Vnukovo Airlines said the captain had flown Tu-154s for two decades and the same route many times.

Russian-made Tu-154s, similar to Boeing 727s, carry about half of Russia's air passengers and have their share of disasters. One crashed in Siberia in January 1994, killing 125 people, after a poorly repaired engine caught fire. Another crashed in December in Russia's Far East, killing 97; investigators said a radar station scheduled to monitor the flight had been damaged by a hurricane and not repaired.

While many Russian planes are dangerously outdated, the one that crashed Thursday was an improved model of the 28-year-old original and had been flying since 1988. Vnukovo Airlines officials said that would suggest a lower probability of technical failure.

Whatever its cause, the accident's fatalities, if confirmed, would push this year's air death toll in Russia to 175, one more than in all 1995. The accident came 10 days after 12 people died in the crash of a Russian cargo plane in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

A record 310 people died in Russian air accidents in 1994--the year Aeroflot gained infamy because a crewman's 16-year-old son took the controls of an Airbus and crashed, killing all 75 aboard.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin ordered urgent steps this year to improve flight safety. His government has budgeted $2 billion over the next four years to replace aviation fleets and keep the aircraft industry from collapsing.

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