August 24, 1996 Vreme News Digest Agency No 255

The Plane Crash

Last Flight Over Belgrade

by Jovan Dulovic, Milos Vasic, Ilija Vukelic, Branko Stosic (Moscow) & Sergei Kuznetsov (Ekatarinenburg)

The huge cargo plane circled over Belgrade for three hours with no contact with ground control and no electricity for its instruments. It was carrying a cargo which officials still can’t agree on although the plane was chartered through a mediator by Yugoslavia’s main arms export company. Finally, the IL-76 crashed and exploded trying to land at Surcin airport which caused a number of unpleasant questions

The IL-76 cargo plane, chartered by Spair Airlines from Ekaterinenburg in Russia from the Tiumen Airlines through Belgrade’s Jugoimport, took off from Surcin airport on Monday, August 19 at 00:10.

Such night flights seem to have been the norm for months and flight PAR-3601 was on its way to Malta again. There is still uncertainty about the cargo. A Spair spokesman said the plane was carrying 14.5 tons of machines and parts and 500 kg of signal equipment and someone else added in Russia that the equipment was flares. Belgrade airport sources said the plane was carrying car tires and sports equipment for Malta which was confirmed by a Spair spokesman on the island who added that the final destination was Libya and that the cargo had was cleared by the UN because of the arms embargo.

Reports from Moscow told a different tale: correspondents reported that the plane was carrying what they called "a secret military cargo". Indisputably, the plane was loaded in Belgrade although an official statement said the IL-76 had just a "technical landing" here which means it gathered fuel and underwent a routine check.

About 15 minutes after take-off, when it was somewhere over Valjevo, pilot Vladimir Starikov told Belgrade air traffic control that he was having electricity supply problems. The official version says all contact with the plane ended then despite constant calls by controllers on all frequencies. The only thing left for the air traffic controllers was the radar image on their screens.

The assumption now is that the plane lost all power for its navigation and communication systems. Many Belgrade residents saw the plane outlined against the night sky over the city and they said there were no lights. We can only assume what was going on inside the plane from what aviation experts said. One expert who knows about IL-76s and insisted on anonymity told VREME that kind of systems failure is almost incredible.

What we do know for sure is that the plane turned 180 degrees at Valjevo and returned to Belgrade. The weather was very bad with heavy low clouds. Starikov (17 years flying time) and his co-pilot Vladimir Barsenov (27 years) had to find their way. If their systems really did fail all at once - which exports still doubt - they had a magnetic compass, their watches and possibly a mechanical altimeter. When their estimated time of arrival at Belgrade was up the pilots undertook the first of several risky maneuvers: they slowed down and lost altitude. They couldn’t do anything else since the only way to find the runway was by sight.

Air traffic control and the airport’s local radar had them on their screens to the last moment although the IL-76 flew low over the city. At one point the clouds dropped to just 150 meters over the airport. Controllers and airport staff assumed the Russians would try to land and they sounded the alarm. In situations when an air traffic control center has a plane flying in its zone with no radio contact, the whole zone is closed to other aircraft and that’s what it did. The runway lights were all on, 15 fire fighting crews were deployed and a dramatic wait ensued. They couldn’t do anything more from the ground. Things would have been different if there were no clouds or if it had been daytime: The pilots would have been able to make their approach and try to land using mechanical instruments which is difficult but possible. By day, another plane could have been dispatched to bring the IL-76 home. Criticism that other planes should have been sent up are out of line, first because Starikov and Barsenov could find Belgrade on their own and second; sending another plane up to find a plane with no lights is an unacceptable risk -the more so since the chase would have been over Belgrade. The only thing to do was wait and hope the pilots could land.

The IL-76 appeared out of the dark sky over Belgrade about one hour after take-off and circled low. It’s hard to reconstruct it flight path. At 01:30 it circled central Belgrade very low and some eyewitnesses said it just missed the Beogradjanka building. Others heard it over New Belgrade. Some witnesses at the airport said it circled Surcin very low several times. The assumption is that the pilots flew low over the airport to sound the alarm. About 03:00 it was seen flying over New Belgrade’s block 44 towards Bezanijska Kosa; at about that time a man in Bezanijska Kosa saw it flying low with its landing gear out. That means the crew managed to lower the gear by hand. VREME’s anonymous expert assumes the crew saw the runway but kept flying to use up fuel since the IL-76 does not have the facilities for a quick fuel dump. It isn’t clear how much fuel was used up; the IL-76 takes 109,000 liters of kerosene and was flying to Malta so probably its tanks were full. Experts said the plane was still too heavy when it tried to land. One source told VREME that the crew must have tried everything they could to fix their systems: "They were all qualified and experienced men. The crew has five members including a radio operator and flight engineer, men who know the plane and its maintenance routines (reports from Moscow said the plane had to engineers on board). They have all the documentation and tools they need on board and we shouldn’t doubt they spent three hours working feverishly, trying to fix systems or improvise a radio relay." We can only imagine what that was like working in darkness with flashlights and the plane turning sharply.

The pilots did their job well except at the last moment. From what we can conclude from reports so far, the pilots decided at 03:16 to land at Surcin airport. They tried a 180 degree turn, aimed for the runway from a course of 121 degrees northwest. That’s where assessments begin to differ: some say they touched down far from the runway (1,500 meters) and crashed; others say it was too low in the turn and one wing touched the ground. Eyewitnesses said they saw flames on the low flying plane but added that it was too dark to tell which part of it was burning.

The IL-76 hit the ground at 03:16 some 1,500 meters to the right of the runway. There was a loud explosion with parts of the plane flying almost to the airport building. A night watchman in a nearby warehouse said a number of secondary explosions came after the crash. Some sources said firemen didn’t reach the site until the explosions stopped but that report was not confirmed. Official reports said no one survived the crash but the identity and number of victims still isn’t certain, which is strange: Prior to take-off the crew has to file a manifest of their cargo and a passenger list. Obviously someone does not want the number and identities of the crash victims published.

The police quickly closed off the area and stopped traffic along the nearby highway. The cordon was strong: policemen chased off any journalists who tried to get to the site (except for a chosen few), took film our of reporters’ cameras and even stopped anyone from slowing down on parts of the highway where the crash site was visible. Even Russian diplomats were barred from the site which was also a cause for questions.

The plane that crashed cost 17,680,000 USD in 1993, 11 or 12 people were killed and that is reason enough to start asking questions such as:

1. The IL-76, registry number RA-76513 on flight PAR-3601 should have taken off earlier around 23:00 but when they started engines, all power systems failed, according to people who were at the airport. The fault was fixed and the pilot decided to leave. We don’t know how much his decision was influenced by the owner of the cargo Misko Djordjevic. Djordjevic (43), a former JAT employee turned businessman, opened the Mensus Trade company on Cyprus and, allegedly, ferried humanitarian aid to Yugoslavia using Russian planes. Some reports said Djordjevic and his partner Toma Damnjanovic were also co-owners of Spair Airlines or at least partners in some deal. Spair chartered the IL-76 from the Tiumen Airlines which is known in Russian aviation circles as one of the newly formed "Mickey Mouse" companies who don’t service their planes but do exploit them to the limit for hard currency, a Moscow aviation expert told VREME. Spair deputy director Vyera Logvinjenko said the plane underwent regular technical checkups at Tiumen but operational maintenance was done by Spair staff. That plane was 12 years old with a maximum life expectancy of 30 years. The Moscow expert said he could not recall a systems failure that could be explained by everything going wrong that could. Maintenance is the key to everything. All flight controllers said they had no contact with the plane from around 00:35 on August 19, everything else shows that plane didn’t even have electricity for its outside lights.

2. There was confusion about the cargo and that hasn’t cleared up while this is being written (Wednesday, August 21 in the afternoon), nor is there agreement on what the cargo was or how much of it there was. Official versions start from 15 tons of vehicles, spares and signal flares (Ekatarinenburg, Wednesday) to 40 tons of spare parts and tires (the FRY traffic ministry) to aircraft tires, agricultural machinery parts and sports equipment (Belgrade airport). The destination also isn’t clear: sources in Ekatarinenburg, Moscow and Belgrade said the Spair aircraft was going to Malta, the Spair spokesman there said it was going to Libya carrying a civilian cargo. The story that it was carrying a secret military cargo was denied for VREME by Logivenko: "It was an ordinary commercial flight. The plane was on a Belgrade-Malta charter flight carrying tires and parts. There were also flares on board which can be transported in passenger planes since they’re not military explosive devices. There can be no mention of it being overweight because the plane could carry 40 tons of cargo and had just 15 tons on board. In any case were never fly to Libya."

Of the speculation that the plane was carrying munitions, Dragomir Gavrilovic, permanent representative of the FRY federal directorate for trade in special purpose goods (arms dealers) in Moscow told VREME: "It’s unlikely that that plane was carrying weapons although that possibility can’t be excluded. In any case that flight and that company have nothing to do with this establishment. In any case, we are no mainly engaged in investment deals."

A VREME reporter in Ekatarinenburg found out several interesting things: "The IL-76 was insured by one of our companies but that does not mean it was carrying arms," he was told in branch of the Russian military insurance department. He was also told that "most of our clients are renowned organizations such as the Russian Federation Security Department, the general staff international military cooperation department, President Yeltsin’s transport service." Deputy director Valeri Soyanyin said they are now looking into a payment demand.

The IL-76 was chartered earlier by the FRY company Jugoimport (a military import-export company set up in the 1950s as part of the defense ministry) through Mensus Trade, the reporter in Russia was told. He was also told that the cargo was 1,000 aircraft tires, weighing 14 tons and 744 kilos of flares for the Air Cargo House registered in Malta with Malta as the final destination.

The reporter also talked to two pilots who have experience flying on the IL-76 and they said the failure of all four electricity generators could also have been caused on purpose. They never heard of a similar system failure in 20 years of flying.

Spair spokesmen said they could not comment, but didn’t exclude sabotage, until the flight recorders are decoded. Spair also refused to provide information on the companies it deals with and the cargoes. There was tension at the Spair press conference on Wednesday afternoon in Ekatarinenburg when spokesman were asked about the cargo, destination and other details. Why are those details being kept secret? Jugoimport is a company owned by the defense ministry and spends taxpayers’ money on various mediators to do dubious deals such as delivering aircraft tires to Malta and what is Malta going to do with them and the flares which could have been transported by sea at a much lower cost?

The ball will start unraveling soon. Libya, if the cargo really was going there, is the worst possible destination at the moment: Bill Clinton has based his election campaign on fighting international terrorism which he blames on Libya. Russian sources said this is the start of a big international scandal and that might prove true despite the Russian government commission investigating the crash.