Published December 25, 2016
A Russian plane headed to an air base in Syria with 92 people aboard, including members of a well-known military choir, crashed into the Black Sea on Sunday minutes after taking off from the resort city of Sochi, Russia's Defense Ministry said.
There was no indication anyone survived the crash of the Tu-154, which belonged to the Defense Ministry and was taking the Alexandrov Ensemble to a New Year's concert at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. Crews recovered several bodies and ships, helicopters and drones were searching the area for more.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 10 bodies had been recovered so far.
"No survivors are seen," Konashenkov said.
Magomed Tolboyev, a decorated Russian test pilot, said the circumstances of the crash indicated that all people on board have died.
A total of 84 passengers and eight crew members were on the plane when it disappeared from radars two minutes after taking off in good weather. Emergency crews found fragments about 1.5 kilometers (less than one mile) from shore. There was no immediate word on the cause.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee at the upper house of Russian parliament, said the crash could have been caused by a technical malfunction or a crew error, but he believes it could not have been terrorism because the plane was operated by the military.
"I totally exclude" the idea of an attack bringing down the plane, he said in remarks carried by state RIA Novosti news agency.
The passenger list released by the Defense Ministry included 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, among them its leader, Valery Khalilov. The ensemble is the official choir of the Russian military and also includes a band and a dance company.
The military has repeatedly flown groups of Russian singers and artists to perform at Hemeimeem, which serves as the main hub for the Russian air campaign in Syria conducted since September 2015. New Year's is the main holiday for most Russians, and the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 is also widely celebrated.
Also on board was Yelizaveta Glinka, a Russian doctor who has won wide acclaim for her charity work that included missions to war zones in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Her foundation said that Glinka was accompanying a shipment of medicines for a hospital in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Glinka with an award earlier this month.
"We never feel sure that we will come back alive," she said at the Kremlin award ceremony. "But we are sure that kindness, compassion and charity are stronger than any weapon."
Nine Russian journalists from three Russian television stations were also among the passengers.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was personally coordinating the rescue efforts, and President Vladimir Putin has received official reports on the incident.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev described the crash as a "terrible tragedy."
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively by carriers in Russia and worldwide.
In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced their Tu-154s with more modern planes, but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.
While noisy and fuel-guzzling by modern standards, the plane has been popular with crews that appreciate its maneuverability and ruggedness.
"It's an excellent plane, which has proven its reliability during decades of service," veteran pilot Oleg Smirnov said in televised remarks.
The plane that crashed was built in 1983, and underwent repairs in 2014, according to the Defense Ministry.
In April 2010, a Tu-154 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed while trying to land in bad weather at a sporadically used military airport in Smolensk in western Russia, killing everyone on board. Investigations by both Polish and Russian experts blamed pilot error in bad weather conditions, but Polish authorities have launched a new probe.