September 7, 2011 was the “darkest day” in the history of Russian ice hockey, when every member of the sport’s leading team was killed in a devastating plane crash that remains unexplained a decade later.
Crash investigators found a web of clues including falsified documents, banned drugs, and reckless rule-breaking that all contributed to the deadly accident.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were set to take on Minsk in the opening game of the 2011–12 season.
But as their 120-seat Yakovlev Yak-42D set to carry Lokomotiv’s 26 players and three team staff to the Belarusian capital took off it overshot the end of the runway, clipping a radio antenna before spinning into the Volga river and bursting into an horrific fireball.
Only two men were pulled alive from the wreckage, both with extensive burns: the team’s 26-year-old right-winger Alexander Galimov and flight engineer Alexander Sizov.
Both were hospitalised and placed in medically induced comas.
Galimov succumbed to his injuries a few days later leaving Sizov as the only survivor of the shocking crash.
He was finally released from hospital at the end of the following month.
But the causes of the crash took far longer to unravel, and some aspects of the disaster remain unexplained.
Audio from the cockpit voice recorder reveals an argument between the pilot and co-pilot in the final seconds before the crash.
As the Yak-42D approached takeoff speed first officer Igor Zhivelov yelled at captain Andrei Solomentsev “What are you doing?”.
The last sound on the cockpit voice recorder is Solomentsev’s desperate cry: “We’re f****d!”
A 330-foot skid mark left on the runway led some analysts to believe that Solomentsev may have had braced his foot on the brake pedal as he tried to take off, preventing the airliner from reaching takeoff speed.
Russsian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that the parking brake of the aircraft was still engaged as it powered down the runway.
Taking the brake off would have been the captain’s responsibility and one theory is that Solomentsev wasn’t feeling well prior to take off and had asked Zhivelov to take over – neglecting to tell him that the brake was still on.
In order to prevent confusion on the flight deck, commercial airline pilots are only permitted to fly one type of airliner at a time, stopping for retraining when switching aircraft types.
But the Yakovlev’s operators, Yak Service, couldn’t afford to employ enough pilots to cover all its planes and would routinely ignore that rule.
Zhivelov is known to have skimmed through the pre-flight checklist at speed, and it’s possible that he had been following procedures for the similar Yak-40 rather than the similar 42D.
Also, the arrangement of the Yak 40 and 42D’s brake pedals is slightly different, making it all too possible for Solomentsev to depress the brake pedal without realising.
Even more damning, First Officer Zhivelov shouldn’t have been flying at all. He was taking Phenobarbital to treat a neurological problem that was affecting his ability to feel his hands and feet properly.
The drug causes drowsiness, slows reactions and clouds judgement. Investigators found that Zhivelov had been buying the drug himself without consulting a doctor. If he had been prescribed the drug by a registered health professional he wouldn’t have been allowed to fly.
Also, Solomentsev’s flight training turned out to have been dangerously slipshod. Instructors had rated his performance as “excellent” without apparently checking his ability at all.
Even worse, his low-visibility conditions qualification was a complete forgery – there’s no evidence that Solomentsev took that test at all.
Investigators concluded that although they were undeniably experienced flyers, neither Zhivelov nor Solomentsev should have been flying the aircraft on that day.
As the investigation progressed, Yak Service’s shady business practices unravelled dramatically and the company never flew another passenger flight. But Yak Services turned out to be simply a front for another operator. The true owners of the aircraft were never revealed.
A more hopeful note was sounded when it was revealed that Lokomotiv’s star striker, Ivan Tkachenko, had secretly been giving large sums of money to sick children in Russian hospitals.
On the very day of his death, Tkachenko had anonymously donated nearly £12,000 to pay for a life-saving surgery for a 16-year-old girl he had never met.
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