The Red Army Choir & Russia’s Strategic Khmeimim Airbase

The Red Army Choir or Alexandrov Ensemble was on board the missing Russian Tupolev 154 that crashed into the Black Sea near Sochi at 12.59 Moscow time early on Christmas morning.  There were no survivors after the aircraft refuelled in Sochi en route from Moscow to Damascus the Syrian capital. The Tu-154  was manufactured in 1983 and had logged 6,689 flying hours and Russian authorities have confirmed the captain was Roman Volkov. red_army_choir3

An army statement said Volkov was a class 1 pilot who had more than 3,000 hours experience,  but no specific information has been issued about his total time piloting a Tu-154.   The weather this morning was reported to be good,  with some broken clouds at 2000 feet,  temperature of 8˙ C, visibility 10 kilometres and wind 6 knots from the North East.

President Vladimir Putin has ordered a full investigation into the crash which has left the Red Army Choir without most of its members.  92 people were on board, 84 passengers and 8 crew.   Of the passengers, nine were reportedly journalists along with 63 members of the world famous choir choir and its head.  Also on board according to Russian sources was a really famous doctor called Elizabeth Glinka who is highly regarded in her homeland as the person who ran Spravedlivaya Pomoshch or “Fair Aid” charity.  This may be an irrelevant detail but worth noting as we await further news.

Vladimir Putin and Yelizaveta Glinka, executive director of the Spravidlivaya Pomoshch (Fair Aid)  who received the National Award for Outstanding Achievements in Human Rights.  Image: The Kremlin. 

The cruel fact is that the Second World War failed to destroy the Red Army Choir, but a single aviation incident this morning has gutted the institution.  So an established wartime process of entertaining troops which began with the Red Army Choir singing to Soviet soldiers in 1941 has ended  50-80 metres under the cold waters of the Black Sea.

Crash site courtesy Sputnik News

Observers have questioned why the choir travelled to Syria on board an ageing military jet (the Tupolev) which as been removed from commercial service in the country since 2013, while there’s an existing commercial service between the two countries.   The answer has been quick – they were not flying to Damascus but to a Russian run airbase in Syria called Khmeimim which is crucial to Moscow’s war in Syria.

Khmeimim was built in mid-2015 and is next door to the Bassel Al-Assad International Airport and serves as the strategic centre of Russia’s military operations against the Islamic State and other opposition groups in Syria.   Because of its importance, rebels launched an attack there in September 2015 when Russia’s own Grad Missiles were used against its own military installation.   Thousands of troops, backup staff, pilots and ground crew live inside the large airbase.

Khmeimim Airbase picture ©Reddit

Turning to the aircraft,  the Tupolev was first flown in the mid-60’s and over a thousand were produced until production ceased in the early 2000’s.


The plane is quick,  its cruising speed of over 900kph made it one of the fastest commercial jets in the world and it was a centre piece of Russian airlines for decades.  It carried over half of all passengers ever flown by Aeroflot for example until it ceased using the thirsty aircraft in 2010, and was exported to 17 non-Russian airlines over the years.

The initial comment from Russia’s military is that the crash was probably linked to mechanical failure or pilot error.  But aviators the world over will be sure to maintain some semblance of caution on cause.  There are so many factors in this incident that could lead to an alternative possibility.   There are actually three.  The technical, the pilot, and terror.  Considering Russia’s involvement in bombing civilians in Aleppo for months and its campaign to upend the opposition in Syria, surely the third option is still on the probable page until we get clarification.

While Putin has declared 26th December a national day of mourning,  additional questions arise.  Tu-154 flight registration 85563 was a military plane meaning that Turkey would not have cleared it to fly directly over its territory, recent rapprochement notwithstanding.  The pilots would have had to head south through Iran, then west across Iraq and finally into Syria rather than the short route over Turkey airspace.  Which accounts for it refuelling in Sochi for the longer somewhat circuitous route.

For those on board, may they rest in peace.


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