- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG (AP) — An aging Russian airliner went down in heavy fog and burst into flames just short of a runway in northwestern Russia, killing 44 people in a crash that officials blamed on pilot error. Eight people survived, dragged from the burning wreckage by locals.

The RusAir Tu-134 plane took off from Moscow and was moments from landing at the Petrozavodsk airport when it slammed into a nearby highway just before midnight Monday, Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman Oksana Semyonova told the Associated Press.

Preliminary information shows the crash was caused by the jet’s pilot missing the runway in adverse weather conditions, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Tuesday.

Russia‘s top investigative agency said it was also looking into whether technical problems with the 31-year-old plane might have contributed to the crash. There were no suspicions of foul play.

The plane’s approach was too low, so it clipped a tree and then hit a high-power line — causing the airport’s runway lights to go off for 10 seconds — before slamming into the ground, Sergei Izvolsky, a spokesman for the Russian air transport agency, told the AP.

The Emergencies Ministry said 44 people were killed. Local residents rescued the eight survivors, including a mother and her 9-year-son and 14-year-daughter. They were hospitalized in critical condition in Petrozavodsk.

Petrozavodsk is near the Finnish border, about 400 miles northwest of Moscow. The plane crashed about 100 yards from a small village, but no casualties were reported on the ground.

Speaking from the crash site, the federal air transport agency chief, Alexander Neradko, said the plane appeared to be intact when it hit a 50-foot-tall pine tree. “There was no sign of a fire or explosion on board the plane before the impact,” he said.

Sergei Shmatkov, an air traffic controller who oversaw the plane’s approach, told lifenews.ru that visibility near the airport was bad — close to the minimum level at the time of the crash — but the pilot still decided to land.

“The crew continued their descent at a moment when they already should have begun a second run,” he said.

Mr. Shmatkov said he ordered the crew to abort the landing the moment the runway lights went off but it already was too late.

Despite the plane’s age, RusAir said it was in good working order.

The twin-engined Tu-134, along with its larger sibling the Tu-154, has been the workhorse of Soviet and Russian civil aviation since the 1960s, with more than 800 planes built. The model that crashed was built in 1980 and had a capacity of 68 people and a range of about 1,240 miles.

Aviation experts said pilot error appeared to be the likely cause.

“There is a strict rule: If you are on a glide path and you have not made reliable eye contact with lights on the ground, there is no choice but to put the engines at full throttle and make another run,” said Oleg Smirnov, a former deputy civil aviation minister who now heads the nonprofit Partner of Civil Aviation Foundation.

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