24  Remains of Yak-40 airliner which crashed on August 1, 1990 en route from Yerevan to Stepanakert
Azeri attack or pilot’s fault?

Azeri attack or pilot’s fault?

The crash of Armenian Yak-40

On August 1, 1990, a civil aircraft en route from Yerevan to Stepanakert crashed, killing the crew and all passengers onboard. According to the official narrative, the plane plunged due to the mistakes made by the pilots and controllers; however, the possibility of an Azerbaijani attack was much spoken about at that time. The truth never got through.

PanARMENIAN.Net - In summer 2012, PAN Photo photographer Areg Balayan together with fellow travellers Arayik Lazaryan and Vahan Sarumyan climbed the 2832-meter high Kusanats mountain in Artsakh to find the wreckage. They started the journey by car and continued on foot, ascending about 2600 meters to find some wrecks on the second day, which as not an easy task due to the lack of information about the crash site and the stiff terrain. Finally, the men were lucky enough to discover the parts of the plane scattered throughout a rather large area. It turned out that after a tail strike, the aircraft flew 50 more meters high. Balayan, who took photos of the site and the wreckage, recollects those days with hard feelings, as a belated witness of the tragedy.

PanARMENIAN.Net talked to the people familiar with the matter to hear their opinion about the crash and studied the conclusion of the commission involved in the investigation to present the chronology of events.

The year of 1990: The Artsakh movement was gaining ground, while the communication with Yerevan was possible only by air to transport volunteers to the front, as well as bring back the wounded and dead fighters. Up to 8 or 9 planes operated about 25 Yerevan-Stepanakert flights daily. On August 1, a Yak-40 took off from Erebuni airport in Yerevan at 9:41 am and headed for Stepanakert. The crew included command pilot Ararat Dallakyan, co-pilot Alexander Hovhannisyan and mechanic Zhora Davtyan. During the flight, which was supposed to last 40 minutes, the controllers in Stepanakert and Kapan lost communication with the aircraft. Later reports said that it crashed in the mountains. The crash site was determined on the next day.

According to the official data, the plane hit the Kusanats mountain 22 kilometers west of Stepanakert, after flying 28 minutes in clouded sky at a speed of 410-415 kph and crashed, killing all those aboard. A commission consisting of Armenian and Russian experts chaired by chief specialist Yuri Nastenko and co-chaired by a representative of the Azerbaijani civil aviation was formed to investigate the tragedy. Separate working groups were involved as well.

The flight subpanel was charged with the task to study and assess the technical condition of the plane, the weather effects, as well as the activity of controllers at the airports in Yerevan, Kapan and Stepanakert. The administrative subpanel, which operated in four groups, had to determine the number of the passengers, identify the victims and get information on the transported cargo. According to the documents, most of those killed were not identified and were buried in a common grave. The remains of the crew were brought to Yerevan.

AI-25 engine. Photo from investigation archive

The commission concluded that the aircraft piloted by Ararat Dallakyan went off course from time to time, supposedly to shorten the flight duration. The documents say that when flying over the Andranik mountain pass (in Armenia’s Ararat province) took 2 kilometers to the left at 9:49 am. Furthermore, when reaching the dividing line between Vayots Dzor and Syunik at 9:55 am, the pilot went 4 kilometers off course. The commission presumed that Dallakyan was going to cross Lachin in a way to get a direct route line towards Stepanakert, keeping in contact with the airport controllers. With the absence of radiolocation services, the airports both in Kapan in Stepanakert lacked any instructions regarding crossing border lines and the pilots themselves reported about the aircraft location, while the controllers sent directions on the preferable height to fly at.

Such heading drifts made sense, because the planes following the main course had to contact controllers at Aghdam airport when flying over the Lisagor pass. Due to the conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenian pilots avoided any contact with Aghdam to exclude the risk of being shot down.

Pilot Misha Andresyan recollects: “When I was approaching Stepanakert, a controller asked me to try to contact Dallakyan, as their attempts produced no result. I did succeed either. When I landed, we waited for several more hours but to no avail. Then we learned that the plane crashed. We thought it was shot down.”

Many others were of the same opinion. Experienced airman, one of the founders of Armenia’s civil aviation Seyran Vantsyan, who served on one of the commission’s working groups, notes, “At that time no one believed that the plane crashed due to the pilot’s error. We were sure it was an Azeri attack. Many years have passed and I don’t remember everything in detail now, but I think that the plane hit the mountain after being shot.”

Dallakyan’s son, Karen, tells, “When one of my father’s colleagues came to tell us that his plane crashed after hitting a rock, no one believed. However, this version was prompted at the highest level, so everyone had to repeat it. The condition of the engine also proved that the plane was shot down. But the engine disappeared some time later. Besides, they said that a shepherd found the record boxes and damaged the tape, which sounded absurd, as the record box is a hermetically sealed device and the tape doesn’t melt even at high temperature.”

According to the commission’s conclusion, the crew was skilled enough to operate a safe flight. Command pilot Dallakyan was a matured airman, who spent over 8000 hours at the control wheel, including 5368 hours of flying Yak-40. His employment history had never been marred by any incident.

His son says, “My father was a very experienced pilot, who served as an example for his friends and colleagues. The graduates of the flight school were allowed to fly only after passing the exam he administered. The co-pilot was no less experienced.”

In the words of Misha Andreasyan, the aircraft had two pilots in command, as “Ararat and Alexander were among the best.”

The investigating commission partially put the blame on the controllers in Kapan and Stepanakert. The documents say that Kapan airport controller allowed drifting down up to 3900 meters at the crew’s request at 10:03 am, however failed to check the coordinates and height afterwards.

The commission’s conclusion reads that the command pilot hesitated about his positioning data because of the cloudiness that reached 3000-3300 meters. Noticing the peak of 3616-meter high Mets Beveratap mount to the left of the plane, he presumably took it for a peak of Artsakh mountain chain that is 2832 meters high and requested an altitude of 3900 meters. Actually, failing to determine his location correctly, the pilot started drifting down before its due time, according to the investigators.

Lacking data about the aircraft’s exact location, the controller in Stepanakert also allowed the descent operation. In a report provided to the commission, he says that at 10:08 am (just before the crash), Dallakyan contacted him and told that he had already passed the Artsakh mountain chain and requested to allow descending till 2400 meters. Then the communication was lost. At that moment, the plane was already 24 kilometers off the course.

AI-25 engine. Photo from investigation archive

The number of passengers was also investigated as a possible cause of the crash. Yak-40 was designed to transport from 36 to 40 passengers depending on their age and the amount of the cargo and fuel. According to the commission’s documents, the plane was conveying 30 passengers. However, a working group in Nagorno Karabakh said that there were 40 people aboard. Another group said the number of passengers reached 43, some of whom were flying ticketless. Besides, there were 100kg and 250kg of postal and passenger cargo respectively.

“Although Yak-40 was had 36 passenger seats, we were transporting more people, calling them “secondary passengers”. We didn’t count their weight, as well as the amount of the fuel we were short of. We fueled the tank just enough to reach the destination, not more. Upon landing in Stepanakert, we game the remaining fuel to the locals, who needed it badly,” Andreasyan recollects.

According to the commission, by conveying 43 passengers instead of 30, the crew violated the rules. However, the tank was not fueled completely and the load totaled 250 kg, which brought the general flight weight to about 16,200-16,400 kg, with the possible limit of 16,800. It means that the number of passengers could not be the cause of the crash.

Seyran Vantsyan notes: “The aircraft wasn’t overloaded; otherwise it could not cover about 200 kilometers from Yerevan to Stepnakert. You should also remember that even if the number of passengers exceeded the norm, some of them were children, who could not be a big surplus to the flight weight.”

According to the official data, at the plane hit the mountain when preparing to land. It was completely destroyed. The fuel tanks exploded when hitting the ground, setting fire all round. The parts of human bodies were scattered around.

The investigators ruled out that the plane caught fire when flying, insisting that the fuel tanks exploded as the aircraft crashed to the ground after hitting the rock.

The official conclusion says that Yak-40 crashed over the following reasons:

-the violation of aviation rules by the command pilot, which resulted in premature descending and collision with the mountain.

-the violation of instructions by the airport controllers in Yerevan, Kapan and Stepanakert, who failed to perform their duties properly.

Although the investigating commission excluded any possibility of land attack, there are many people who never believed that the plane crashed due to the pilots’ error.

Meanwhile, Dallakyan’s family continues to live in an old damaged building near Erebuni airport. Karen says his father was awarded with one medal posthumously.

Samson Hovhannisyan / PanARMENIAN.Net, Areg Balayan / PAN Photo, Arayik Lazaryan and Vahan Sarumyan
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