The Ukraine Plane Crash in Iran: Black Boxes and Other Questions

The Ukraine Plane Crash in Iran: Black Boxes and Other Questions

On Wednesday morning, a passenger plane bound for Ukraine exploded as it slammed into a field in Iran, just minutes after takeoff. The Boeing jet was operated by a Ukrainian carrier, and at least 176 people were on board. None survived.

There was no immediate indication that the crash was related to the recent tensions between Iran and the United States. But questions remained about the cause, and there have been some contradictory statements from officials in both Iran and Ukraine.

The plane’s so-called black boxes could help answer some of those questions, but Iranian officials may not turn the devices over to Boeing, which would typically be involved in an investigation into what went wrong.

The Boeing 737-800, operated by Ukraine International Airlines, left the international airport in Tehran at 6:12 a.m. for Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and abruptly ceased the automatic transmission of flight data two to three minutes later. It remained in the air a few minutes longer and crashed shortly before dawn.

No one survived. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said in a tweet on Wednesday that there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians including nine crew members, 10 people from Sweden, four from Afghanistan, three from Britain and three from Germany.

But separate breakdowns of the victims’ nationalities diverged, possibly because some passengers had dual nationalities. According to one Iranian tally, there were 147 Iranians and two Canadians.

The Iranian Students’ News Agency, a state-run media organization, shared a video it said showed the predawn crash, with an aircraft, apparently in flames, descending in the distance before a burst of light filled the sky upon impact.

While the cause of the crash remains unclear, some aviation experts said that what was known indicated that the plane could have been attacked. Investigators should have that possibility “at the top of their agenda,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States.

Early statements from both countries were somewhat contradictory.

Qassem Biniaz, an official at the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, told the Islamic Republic News Agency, the government’s official news agency, that an engine had caught fire and the pilot was unable to regain control.

Iranian news organizations tied to the government initially referred to technical problems with the plane, without providing details or evidence. Ukraine’s Embassy in Iran initially issued a statement ruling out terrorism or a rocket attack as a cause of the crash.

But Ukraine’s statement was later removed from the embassy’s website and replaced by one saying it was too early to draw any conclusions. The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency that so far there was no evidence of technical problems.

A spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, Abolfazl Shekarchi, said the crash was not a result of any military action.

“They are spreading propaganda that the Ukrainian flight was targeted,” the Iranian news media quoted Mr. Shekarchi as saying. “This is ridiculous. Most of the passengers on this flight were our valued young Iranian men and women. Whatever we do, we do it for the protection and defense of our country and our people.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said in a statement that he was “shocked and saddened” that the crash had “claimed the lives of 176 people, including 63 Canadians.”

“Our government will continue to work closely with its international partners to ensure that this crash is thoroughly investigated, and that Canadians’ questions are answered,” he added.

After an accident, the “black boxes,” the term used for flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders, can help officials analyze what went wrong. Plane manufacturers are typically involved in those investigations. But in an interview with Mehr, Mr. Abedzadeh said that Iran would not send the recorders to Boeing, an American company.

“We will not give the black box to the manufacturer and the Americans,” Mehr quoted him as saying. Ukrainian officials, he said, would be involved in Iran’s investigation of the crash.

In a statement, Boeing said that “we are in contact with our airline customer and stand by them in this difficult time. We are ready to assist in any way needed.”

Michael Huerta, a former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the fact that the crash happened in Iran could complicate analysis.

“What is different about this one is that a hostile country is controlling the investigation,” Mr. Huerta said. “In global aviation we would like to think that the technical experts will rule the day, but given that it’s Iran, we’ll have to wait and see.”

The plane that crashed in Tehran was a Boeing 737-800, which is a separate model from the 737 Max jets that crashed in Indonesia in October 2018 and in Ethiopia in March. The once-popular 737 Max jet remains grounded as investigators examine how an automated system on the planes contributed to the crashes.

Crashes involving the 737-800 are relatively rare. The model is part of the 737 NG family, which is widely used and generally has a good safety record, but which may need to be re-examined in light of a safety audit by Boeing on the 737 Max.

Ukraine International Airlines said that the jet that crashed was made in 2016 and had a scheduled maintenance service on Monday.

There was no immediate indication that the plane had been shot down or otherwise attacked because of the tensions between the two countries.

Those tensions escalated in recent weeks as an American military contractor was killed in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias stormed the United States Embassy compound in Baghdad, and Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed in an American drone strike on Friday.

On Tuesday, in response to the killing of General Suleimani, Iran fired missiles at two bases in Iraq that housed American troops. The damage appeared to be to the bases’ infrastructure and not to people at the sites.

On Wednesday, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in a tweet that Iran had “concluded” its attacks on American forces and does “not seek escalation or war.” But officials around the region cautioned that the statement did not mean Iran was done maneuvering.

In a statement about the crash, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The United States will continue to follow this incident closely and stands prepared to offer Ukraine all possible assistance. The United States calls for complete cooperation with any investigation into the cause of the crash.”

David Gelles contributed reporting.

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