MOSCOW -- A Russian plane carrying 71 people crashed near Moscow shortly after takeoff Sunday afternoon, killing all on board.
Flight 703, operated by the Russian regional carrier Saratov Airlines, was carrying 65 passengers and six crew members. The plane went down near the village of Stepanovskoe, about 50 miles southeast of Moscow in the Ramenskoye district, according to a statement from the Russian Emergencies Ministry.
Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov confirmed that there were no survivors. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear.
The Russian aviation authority, Rosaviatsia, said the flight departed at 2:21 p.m. Moscow time from Domodedovo Airport, the country's second-busiest. The Antonov AN-148, a small regional jet, was headed to the city of Orsk in the Orenburg region, about 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow near the border with Kazakhstan.
The pilots of the regional jet did not report any problems before the twin-engine aircraft plunged into the field about 25 miles from the airport, authorities said.
"Several minutes after takeoff, radio connection with the crew disappeared, the plane's mark disappeared from radars," the Emergencies Ministry said.
FlightRadar24, an online site that tracks real-time flight information, shows the plane losing altitude just six minutes after takeoff. It reached 6,400 feet before dropping to 5,800 feet, rising again briefly and falling sharply -- all within a minute.
The Emergencies Ministry posted the names of the passengers and crew members online Sunday afternoon, showing that at least three children were on board the plane.
A spokesman for the Orsk administration, Yelena Abramova, told Interfax that one of the passengers was a Swiss citizen. Almost all of the people on the plane were from the eastern part of the Orenburg region, according to the governor's office, Interfax said.
The 65 passengers ranged in age from 5 to 79, according to the list. Six crew members were also aboard.
Fragments of the plane and many bodies were discovered near Stepanovskoe, the official news agency Tass reported, citing a spokesman for the ministry.
"The snow is deep; we need heavy-duty equipment," Andrei Kulakov, head of the Ramenskoye district, said in an interview broadcast by the news channel Rossiya 24.
Emergency workers combed through the field while investigators descended on the airport to search for clues to what brought the jet down. One of the flight recorders was recovered, Russian news reports said, but it was not immediately clear if it was the data or voice recorder.
Investigators also conducted a search at the airline's main office in Saratov, reports said.
Both the federal transportation agency and the prosecutor's office in the carrier's home region opened investigations into the cause of the crash.
"The investigators will check all possible versions of the plane crash, including weather conditions, human factor, technical standing of the airplane and other possible options," the Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI, said in a statement.
Video broadcast from the site showed safety workers slogging through snowy fields scattered with low shrubs to try to reach the crash site and a piece of the plane burrowed into the snow.
More than 160 civil defense and national guard members were on the crash site, and Transport Minister Sokolov was on his way there.
Footage from the Orsk airport showed Russians pacing and wailing as news of the crash spread.
Orsk's Mayor Andrei Odintsov told Tass that a day of mourning had been declared in the Orenburg region today.
"This is a tragedy for all of Orenburg," Gov. Yury Berg said in a statement. "We will not leave anyone alone with the pain of losing loved ones."
Saratov Airlines has a fleet of 12 airplanes, five AN-148 aircraft among them. They were built by Antonov Enterprise, a Ukrainian company. One crashed in 2011 during a training flight, when the crew exceeded its maximum speed.
A government watchdog agency cited Saratov Airlines for safety concerns in December, but its report focused on the storage of flammable materials on the ground, not on its airplanes.
The plane that went down Sunday, built in 2010, was initially part of the fleet of Rossiya airline, but it was in storage for two years before being leased to Saratov a year ago.
A representative of the airline told Interfax that the plane had been checked before departure and no technical malfunction was found.
The plane also made flights from Moscow to Penza and Saratov on Sunday before the crash.
Airline spokesman Elena Voronova told the state news agency RIA Novosti that one of the pilots had more than 5,000 hours of flying time, 2,800 of them in an An-148. The other pilot had 812 hours of experience, largely in that model plane.
President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences and put off a planned trip to Sochi to monitor the investigation. Putin was to meet today with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the Black Sea resort, where the president has an official residence.
Instead, Abbas will meet with Putin in Moscow today, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.
"The president has instructed the government to set up a special commission over the plane crash in the Moscow region," Peskov said, according to Tass.
Outdated equipment and a lack of government oversight plagued Russian aviation for years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and there were frequent crashes.
But in recent years, the industry's safety record has improved markedly as major airlines have invested in fleets of Western airplanes.
Domodedovo Airport, where the plane took off, has been the focus of security concerns in the past. Security lapses came under sharp criticism in 2004, after Chechen suicide bombers destroyed two airliners that took off from the airport on the same evening, killing 90 people. A 2011 bombing in the arrivals area killed 37 people.
John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a U.S.-based safety consultant, said the plane's disappearance from radar could indicate that the jet's transponder lost power. A plane can also disappear from radar when it gets too close to the ground to reflect radar signals.
"That says potential of engine failure or a technical problem," Cox told The Associated Press.
The most recent devastating Russian crash occurred on Dec. 25, 2016, when a Tupulov TU-154 operated by the Ministry of Defense and headed for Syria plunged into the Black Sea moments after taking off from the southern resort of Sochi.
All 92 people on board died, including many members of a military choir traveling to Syria to entertain the troops.
In March 2016, all 62 people on board a FlyDubai 737 died when it crashed on landing at Rostov-on-Don.
The third most recent aviation disaster was attributed to a terrorist act.
In October 2015, a Russian charter flight ferrying 224 passengers and crew members to St. Petersburg from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, crashed soon after taking off, killing everyone on board.
Egypt later acknowledged that terrorists had most likely brought down the plane.
Information for this article was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar and Ivan Nechepurenko of The New York Times; by Jim Heintz and Jocelyn Gecker of The Associated Press; by Thomas Koerbel of Deutsche Presse-Agentur; and by Anton Troianovski of The Washington Post.
A Section on 02/12/2018
Print Headline: Russian airliner crash leaves 71 people dead