Iran’s aviation authority will not hand over flight recorders from the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 that crashed moments after take-off from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew, to the manufacturer or US authorities.
Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation head, Ali Abedzadeh, said that the information in the black boxes would be assessed in Iran under ICAO rules but Ukrainian officials could take part in the evaluation of the flight which was destined for Kyiv.
This followed a reversal by the Ukrainian government in the immediate aftermath of the crash, when it ruled out an act of terror. Ukraine’s embassy in Tehran deleted a statement it had issued earlier in the day citing engine failure and replaced it with a new one saying “any statements about the reasons for the crash made before the commission’s decision are unofficial”.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said: “We need to examine every possible version. Whatever the conclusions over the reasons for the crash in Iran, we will check the entire civil aviation fleet’s flight capability.”
The early morning disaster was caused by “technical failure following a fire” on the flight, Ali Kashani, the airport’s spokesman, told Iran’s state news agency IRNA.
A spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, Abolfazl Shekarchi, rejected speculation that the plane was attacked accidentally by Iranian forces as “ridiculous”. “Rumours about this plane [crash] is [a] sheer lie,” he said, according to domestic media.
US secretary of state, Michael Pompeo, called for “complete co-operation” with any investigation. The US would “continue to follow the incident closely” and stood ready to offer Ukraine assistance, he said in a statement released just before President Trump made a speech lowering the temperature on US-Iran tensions.
Boeing did not shed any light on the circumstances beyond a statement offering condolences and saying it was “ready to assist in any way needed.”
Hours before the incident, Iran launched missile strikes against US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani.
By the time of the crash, major airlines had already begun rerouting or cancelling flights to avoid the airspace over Iraq and Iran after the US Federal Aviation Administration had banned US carriers from the area after the missile launches.
The aircraft crashed at 6am local time, about six minutes after take-off from Imam Khomeini airport, according to local media, which added that it came down near Parand, a town 35km south-west of the capital. Iranian officials said the flight recorders — the plane’s two black boxes — had been found.
According to Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, 82 of the passengers were Iranians, while 63 were from Canada, which has large Ukrainian and Iranian diasporas. Eleven of the dead, including nine crew members, were Ukrainian citizens. The others included three UK citizens, three Germans, 10 Swedes and four Afghans, Mr Prystaiko wrote on Twitter.
Mr Zelensky cut short a trip to Oman to return to Kyiv to deal with the crisis. He set up a special commission to investigate the crash and ordered prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani expressed his condolences to the Iranian nation and families of those who lost their lives including university students on board of Airbus 737-800. More than 20 graduates of Iran’s prestigious universities, including Sharif University of Technology, Amir Kabir University of Technology and the Iran University of Science and Technology, were passengers of the Ukrainian flight.
Ihor Sosnovskiy, UIA’s flight director, said the plane’s last maintenance check on Monday had uncovered no faults on arrival in Tehran or before take-off.
UIA’s pilots have trained flying on the 737 exclusively in Tehran for the past several years, Mr Sosnovskiy added, dismissing suggestions pilot error could have led to the crash.
“We know today that the plane was at 2,400 metres, so the chance of pilot error is minimal, we just aren’t considering it. With their experience, it’s very difficult to say that there could have been anything with the crew,” he told reporters.
The pilot, Volodymyr Yaponenko, had 11,600 hours of flight experience — nearly all of it on a 737 — while flight instructor Oleksiy Naumkin and co-pilot Serhiy Khomenko had 12,000 and 7,600 hours respectively.
It is the third Boeing jet to crash in the past 15 months. Shares in the company were down about 3 per cent by midday in New York on Wednesday, with the aviation sector broadly hit by concerns about the impact on the industry of the escalating Middle East tensions.
A video released on social media appeared to show the plane on fire before it hit the ground. Engine failures would not usually ignite catastrophic fires because a single handle allowed crew members to seal off the engine from flammable materials, said John Cox, an American crash investigator and former airline pilot.
If the unconfirmed video, purporting to show Flight 752 in a fiery dive, was accurate, the cause of the crash probably lay elsewhere, Mr Cox said. “Could it be an external force? Possibly. It’s too early to tell.”
Iran’s emergency medical services officials announced that teams had begun to collect the bodies of victims.
Boeing has been criticised for its response to two earlier crashes involving the 737 Max in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a total of 346 people. The 737 Max is the latest model of the 737, the bestselling commercial jet in history.
In December, the Boeing board removed Dennis Muilenburg as chief executive and replaced him with board chairman David Calhoun.
The 737 is an industry workhorse and a model that brings Boeing significant cash flow. While the UIA 737-800 belongs to the same family of aeroplanes as the grounded 737 Max, they are different models. The Ukrainian plane is a 737NG of which there are more than 8,000 in service worldwide.
The GE Aviation/Safran joint venture that made the engine powering the UIA flight, CFM, said it could not comment on the cause of the accident. It entered commercial service in 1997 and, as the exclusive engine for the Boeing 737 NG, it has clocked more than 415m engine flight hours.
But in recent months the NG range has been beset by problems. Several airlines have been forced to ground their older 737NG aircraft, including 800s, after cracks were found in the components attaching the wings to the fuselage, known as pickle forks.
The Federal Aviation Administration has also ordered Boeing to redesign the protective covering of engines powering the NG models after an uncontained engine failure resulted in a fatal accident.
The aeroplane was one of 24 Boeing 737-800s in use by UIA, according to the airline’s website, and was less than four years old.
UIA was founded as a national flag carrier following Ukraine’s independence in 1992, then privatised in 2011. Billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, Mr Zelensky’s controversial backer, is its controlling shareholder.
Additional reporting by Chloe Cornish in Beirut and Peggy Hollinger in London