Armenians Seek Answers After Plane Disaster

Air traffic controllers under the spotlight after Armenian Black Sea air tragedy.

Armenians Seek Answers After Plane Disaster

Air traffic controllers under the spotlight after Armenian Black Sea air tragedy.

Wednesday, 17 May, 2006

Relatives of the 113 passengers and crew who died in last week’s Armenian air crash are seeking answers to what lay behind the tragedy.

As efforts are continuing to locate the black box of the A-320 aircraft in the Black Sea, many different versions of what caused the disaster are already circulating in Armenia.

The release of a transcript of conversations between the pilots and Georgian traffic control has raised the question of whether Russian controllers mistakenly advised the plane to try to make a landing in Adler airport outside the Black Sea port of Sochi.

The Armavia aircraft crashed at around 02.15 local time on May 3. All of those on board, including six children, died. So far 53 bodies have been recovered and 47 identified. Armenia held two days of mourning last week for the dead.

In the search for answers in Armenia, much attention has centred on the issue of what advice the pilots were given by Georgian and Russian traffic controllers.

The air-traffic control department of Georgia, in whose airspace the plane spent most of its journey, has released the transcript of part of the conversation between its staff and the pilots of the A-320.

It suggests that after the captain of the Armenian plane, Grisha Grigorian, concerned about bad weather, had turned round and said he was returning to Yerevan, Russian controllers had advised him to attempt to land at Adler airport, but to circle it before making a final approach.

The Armenian and Georgian controllers met on May 4 to discuss what the Georgians had heard, but the Russians did not take part in the meeting. Some say the Russian no-show was because of the political strains between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Prior to the release of the tape, the Russians had denied that they had advised the plane to turn around and fly on to Sochi.

In the transcript, Georgian controllers and the pilot discuss whether the plane has enough fuel to return to Yerevan after being told that there was poor weather in Sochi.

Tea Gadabadze, press secretary of Georgian air-traffic control, told IWPR by telephone that all the transcripts have been handed over to the Armenian side. She said that the Georgians had only made public a small part of the tape “so as not to cause pain”.

Dmitry Adbashian, chairman of Armenia’s National Aviation Society, said, “[In the Georgian transcripts] you cannot hear the conversation between our pilots and the Russian controllers. I cannot exclude the possibility that the Sochi controllers made mistakes but I can’t confirm it as I have no facts.”

Artyom Movsesian, former head of civil aviation in Armenia, said he had information that the pilot made the decision to turn back because of bad weather but was persuaded by the Adler controllers that the weather was good enough to continue.

“We have a whole series of questions,” said Mikael Bagdasarov, head of Armavia airlines. “The plane was making a normal landing. The question arises why was he sent to make a second circuit?”

On May 11 the Intergovernmental Aviation Commission of former Soviet states, which is investigating the accident, issued a press release saying that Adler air traffic control had advised the captain of the plane to abort his landing and make a right turning shortly before he was due to touch down.

Interviewed by IWPR, Oleg Yermolov, deputy chairman of the committee rejected allegations that the controllers had acted irresponsibly.

He also said that he could “officially” deny reports in the Armenian newspaper Aravot that the Russian controllers were rude and swore at the pilots of the doomed aircraft.

Gayane Davtian, of the Armenian civil aviation authority, said that a nine-person team had been sent to Sochi and was deciphering the conversation between the control tower and the pilot.

The Armenian prosecutor’s office is also seeking to question the Adler airport controller.

Enquiries about the mechanical state of the aircraft and the experience of the pilot have uncovered little that is suspicious.

Colleagues of the pilot say that he was familiar with emergency situations and an experienced flyer. Questions have been asked about whether the A-320 was serviced in Armenia or Belgium - but, so far, there’s been no suggestion that it was in a dangerous condition.

Movesian said the plane, which was 11 years old, had last undergone checks in April and that it had been cleared for flight by the ground staff at Zvarnots airport in Yerevan.

In addition, there are no suggestions that the aircraft ran out of fuel.

The plane’s black boxes, which are at a depth of more than 400 metres, could help solve the crash mystery. Adbashian said that the flight recorders were strong enough to last for a month underwater, but he feared they would not be found.

On May 8, French experts arrived on the scene with equipment which they hope will be able to locate and lift the much-anticipated black boxes.

Gayane Mkrtchian is a reporter with in Yerevan. Seda Muradyan, IWPR Armenia country director, also contributed to this report


Georgia, Armenia
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