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.


Turkey & The Sinister Somalian Flight A321

Fortunate Placement.
Fortunate Placement.

A 55 year-old man has been sucked out of a Daallo Airlines Flight A321 to Djibouti which took off from Mogadishu airport in Somalia.  That’s not an opening paragraph you read every day.  Passengers reported hearing a loud explosion moments before the 55 year-old man identified as Abdullahi Abdisalam Borle was dragged out by the pressure differential.  He had been brought aboard in a wheel chair and was seated over the right wing. Which is fortunate.  Any further forward the debris could have damaged the engine.  Further back and the explosion may have affected the horizontal stabiliser.

While two passengers were slightly hurt,  there were no other casualties.  Which is a miracle, really.  It’s now reported that the most likely cause of the decompression was a small explosive device.  And the finger is being pointed at Borle.  He may have been the victim of the wrong time wrong place syndrome.

Authorities in Mogadishu announced formally on Saturday 6th February that the blast was caused by  a bomb which they say Borle was carrying hidden inside a laptop.    The force punched a one-metre-sized hole in the side of the aircraft.   What we know for sure is that a one-metre wide hole is all you need to suck a man out of a plane.

Courtesy of PPRUNE.ORG
Courtesy of PPRUNE.ORG

While Al Shabaab has said nothing, the signs are there that this flight was targeted.   Is it a co-incidence that Somalia’s UN ambassador, Awale Kullane, was on board the plane?

The license for the route is held by Turkish Airlines.  But citing “a technical problem” TA suddenly pulled its planes from Somalia the day before the blast and Daallo Airlines was duly installed.  Passengers were told they’d meet up with Turkish Airlines in Djibouti.  This is no co-incidence.  Turkish Airlines has been flying to Somalia daily for years.

So how much did authorities in Turkey know?  Was Daallo Airlines aware of said threat?  And the flight crew aboard.  What an interesting lot.  The pilot – a 64 year-old Serbian Pilot Vladimir Vodopivec.   He performed his role perfectly and must be lauded for bringing everyone but Borle back alive.    

With Moscow now firmly one of Ankara’s sworn enemies, and a Russian plane bombed out of the sky over Egypt, there are some who think think there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  Al Shabaab’s silence can either be explained by being embarrassed by failure,  or because someone else planted the bomb.

Where was Borle going?  Why was he in a wheel chair?  What device was he carrying?  Did he know that the laptop contained a bomb?  If he was a bomber why did he make the mistake of pulling the pin at 14000 feet instead of 33000 feet where the pressure differential would have probably torn the plane apart.  Or not?

What we can say with certainty too is that the Airbus airframe held together in a remarkable way despite the explosion and a hole torn in the fuselage.  There is also something really sinister about the count-down form in the name of the flight:




Catering, A Russian Sharm El-Sheikh Catastrophe & MH17

Have you ever sat in seat 33 A/B/C on a commercial airline flight?  Or D/E/F?  As far as I’m concerned, those are the best aviation seats on most local airlines.  If they allow you there in the first place.  Yes its close to the toilets at the back.  No, you can’t book these online or using the self-check at the airport.  Yes sometimes Kulula or SAA don’t open the back to allow you off first which means waiting until the slow moving pax drag their bodies out through the front door.  At times the noise increases as the crew work on preparing meals with a crash or slam of one of the metal boxes.  But I’ve found despite all of the above,  they’re the best seats, particularly the window.  And if you’re going to survive an accident, its more likely that you’re going to be sitting in the back rather than Business Class.

The trajectory of the accident with the bottom yellow stars indicating the position of the tail section.
The trajectory of the accident with the bottom yellow stars indicating the position of the tail section.

That may change with the latest revelations from the Russian airliner that went down over the Sinai with 224 people on board.  It’s known that the rear of the plane separated from the fuselage – that wreckage was found a few kilometres away from the main body at the weekend.  Now its being reported that Egyptian investigators are probing the company that provided on-board meals.   The food is stored just forward of the main rear bulkhead – and the main rear bulkhead sheared.

TASS reports that “A driver and employees who brought meals for the passengers of flight 9268 in the morning on October 31 are being interrogated.”  We all know that TASS has turned back into one of Moscow’s favourite propaganda engines,  but that doesn’t mean the Egyptians aren’t actually investigating this angle.

Initially a whole bunch of speculation broke out. That it was pilot error.  That one of the pitot tubes was iced and the plane speed dropped.  Or that the plane broke up when the bulkhead collapsed due to poor maintenance or a fix from a tail strike a decade ago.  The Cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder are being scrutinised at this time.

Meanwhile, the British and Irish have cancelled all flights to and from Sharm El-Sheikh.   Cairo is muttering about how this is unfair,  but they would because the military junta that now rules Egypt is set to lose more cash as tourists flee their country.   A third of Egypt’s GDP is based on tourism.

And this from the British Cabinet Office Briefing Room is most telling:

“While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed. But as more information has come to light we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.”

May well?  That’s diplomat speak for its the probably cause.

The Daily Express in the UK reports that :

“.. cockpit recordings from the Russian jet emerged last night, with Russian reports suggested “uncharacteristic noises” had been recorded, although the pilots had failed to issue a mayday call.”

Well when you’re trying to save your life, you tend to communicate last.  Aviate Navigate Communicate is our mantra for a reason.  As pilots we’ve all been in intense situations and the last thing you do is start yapping away to ATC when you’re trying to live.  You’re hanging onto the controls and talking without using the push-to-talk, in other words,  through the on-board intercom.

And Daesh or the so-called Islamic State claimed it was responsible for bringing down the plane.  But their propaganda video showed radicals allegedly using some kind of missile which is highly improbable.  It’s more likely that they just jumped on the bandwagon.

US radar shows a flash at the point at which the plane began breaking apart which could be from fuel exploding, but also could be from a small device on board which blew up, shearing off the tail and leading to the catastrophe.  It’s too early to tell.  One thing is for sure.  Could it be that the Russians would rather see the real facts emerge from an airliner that crashed?  Unlike their prevarication over the MH17 disaster where the Eastern Ukrainian rebels appear to have mis-identified a Malaysian commercial airliner as a Ukrainian bomber and shot it down.   There Moscow has bent over backwards defending the actions of its Eastern Ukrainian allies.

It’s one of life’s cruel ironies.  In my last blog I indicated that if I was a Russian Intelligence officer,  I would be very concerned about my citizens and my officials after the recent revelations about MH17 and the Ukrainian rebels.  Then if I had relatives who went down on board MH17 and was feeling motivated by revenge,  the target of my hatred would probably be either Russian,  or Eastern Ukrainian.   Or both.

Did a Malaysian or someone else get even with the Russians by bringing down the Airliner over the Sinai? Security at Sharm El-Sheikh is notoriously lax.  Particularly apron security.

Please, what a conspiracy theory!

Stupid even to suggest, no?





Old BUK shot down MH17 & Lone Wolves

So its confirmed.  A Russian-made BUK missile was used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines MH17 over the Ukraine last year.  Forget the snarling and gnashing of teeth by conspiracy theorists,  its very clear from the evidence presented at the time and journalists who watched that the BUK was used by Russian-backed rebels.   Now Dutch investigators have confirmed what we already knew but couldn’t say so until the inquiry ruled.

BUK. Courtesy of Wikipedia
BUK. Courtesy of Wikipedia

If you don’t believe it, take a look here.

But its no time to point fingers, is it?  The dead,  all 298 of them,  have loved ones who’re still trying to come to terms with this event.

The big question is why didn’t Malaysian Airlines order its pilots to fly around the Ukraine?  The region has been gripped by a violent separatist-inspired war.  Most other airlines had deviated or were flying higher than 28 000 feet to avoid being struck by stray missiles.

The pilots had asked for permission to climb for specifically that reason and were denied their request.  It’s easy to sit here and use 20:20 vision in the classic display of hind-sight-ism and says stuff like “why didn’t the pilots turn back immediately”.  This had fatal consequences for all on board, though.

As the apologists of Moscow and Nato used the event to grandstand – bodies littered the fields below and rained down on a village.  No amount of waxing lyrical about who’s to blame will bring them back.

After the horror event,  Russian-backed rebels moved their BUK launcher away rapidly after it became clear that they’d shot down an airliner.  The great weight of evidence proves without a shadow of a doubt that the rebels thought they were shooting down a Ukraine military aircraft.  Only later was that official rebel line altered to include Western Fighter jets,  Ukraine fighter jets and ground-to-air missiles fired by the Ukrainian military.

The families won’t get their closure.

Moscow will ensure that the narrative is all about some Ukraine military jet nearby that fired a missile,  while the NATO alliance will talk up the dangers of the Russian bear and its minions.

Russia was at pains at the to either deny or then defend the “donation” of the 70’s era BUK system to the rebels – but they’ve got a large stash available for use/purchase by friends and friends of friends.

I just think that those really culpable here aren’t the soldiers who fired the missile,  nor the rebels, nor Russia/NATO.

It’s the Malaysian Airlines executive and board.  And that’s clear from the dismal business and aviation record notched up by the airline.  The terrible reality for the Dutch, Australian, Malaysian and other relatives of the victims is that MH has no money.  It’s skint. So there’s little chance that any form of financial compensation will be paid by anyone.

So look out for the usual suspects on their hind legs shouting at each other about culpability.  Russia TV will broadcast its nightly melange of reality tripe and mash.  Dutch investigators will be calmly explaining that they’re not apportioning blame while Ukraine nationalists will spew their usual hatred back towards their eastern peers.

Back home,  the families will listen enraged, frustrated.

If I was those involved I would be a little worried about a lone wolf from one of these countries pitching up and taking direct and violent action against Malaysian Airlines, Russia, or representatives of the Separatists.


Who shot down Malaysian Airlines MH17?


Another Malaysian Airliner down.  This time its taken out by a missile fired from the eastern Ukraine.  While Moscow hurriedly tries to cover its tracks with regards to missile technology it has exported to the Russian separatists – and here I mean the BUK system – there are signs to follow allowing reasonable people to point a finger.

Raymond Pronk
Raymond Pronk

From the professional pilots rumour network or PPRUNE:

“BREAKING NEWS: Russia foreign minister Lavrov says Moscow does not plan to take “black box” flight recorders from pro-russian separatists in eastern Ukraine”

But the black boxes are not going to tell us much more than where the missile struck.  And by all accounts, given the fact that the tail section separated early, it appears we know what brought it down.

Who fired the missile?  The multimillion dollar question.  And why did Malaysian Airlines continue to fly a route that was dangerous?  Pilots talking on PPRUNE have repeatedly warned about the Ukraine corridor.

Looking at this event,  its clear that Russia is in a spot of bother.  While it would serve Kiev to have the rebels blamed,  the events immediately after the crash are illuminating.

1) Pro-Russian rebels congratulated themselves on downing an Antonov 26.  Propaganda arm Russian TV then report that minutes earlier, a Ukranian military plane was downed by the “heroes”.

2) Within half an hour,  rebels realise that the bodies falling from the sky include women and children.  And the plane is clearly a civilian airline.

3)Recordings begin circulating of pro-Russian separatists talking about the error.  These are quickly expunged from the internet.

4) Video recordings on youtube of a rebel placed BUK system in a nearby village mysteriously vanish.  Fortunately alert web-harvesters quickly download before Moscow/rebels/whomever removes them.


A Buk-M1-2 SAM system 9A310M1-2 TELAR at 2005 - courtesy Wikipedia
A Buk-M1-2 SAM system 9A310M1-2 TELAR at 2005 – courtesy Wikipedia

It’s now thought that the rebels may have committed a cardinal sin in shooting down a civilian aircraft.  And before pro-Putin folks leap up and shout this down – consider that the rebels have been very successful in doing just that. Shooting down planes.  Here is a list from the last few weeks:

  • seven Su-25 attack jets
  • three Su-24 attackers
  • one Su-27 fighter jet
  • an Il-76 military transport aircraft
  • SEVENTEEN  Mi-8 and Mi-24 military helicopters.

Clearly the rebels had mobilised their ground-to-air missile capability and were practicing a lot.  And what better to practice on than a plane that appears on their BUK radar (which can track planes for 140km) and high enough to be a spy plane from the west.  While Air France amongst others has flown this route, the MH17 track is much closer to their BUK launch vehicles than previously.  So a semi-vodka induced thug sitting inside one of these mobile units picks up the cursor on his radar – tracks the plane until its overhead and BAM!

While Vladimir Putin points his finger at Kiev and Lavrov indulges in red herrings (eg, the black boxes which matter only a little in this case),  the initial evidence is rather damning.  One wonders what spin is to emerge from Moscow this time.  And one wonders what Kuala Lumpur will do.

Given the Malaysian government’s utterly useless reaction to their previous air disaster – who knows?