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FlyDubai jet crash kills 62 in failed Russia landing attempt

Russian Emergency Ministry employees investigate the wreckage of a crashed plane at the Rostov-on-Don airport, about 950 kilometers (600 miles) south of Moscow, Russia Saturday, March 19, 2016. A Dubai airliner crashed and caught fire early Saturday while landing in strong winds in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, officials said. (AP Photo)
Russian Emergency Ministry employees investigate the wreckage of a crashed plane at the Rostov-on-Don airport, about 950 kilometers (600 miles) south of Moscow, Russia Saturday, March 19, 2016. A Dubai airliner crashed and caught fire early Saturday while landing in strong winds in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, officials said. (AP Photo)

(Bloomberg) -- A passenger jet operated by Middle Eastern budget carrier FlyDubai broke apart while trying to land in high winds in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday morning, killing all 62 people on board.

Flight FZ981 was making a repeat landing attempt in poor weather about 3:40 a.m. when it crashed and burst into flames, the Rostov branch of the Emergencies Ministry said on its website. The Boeing Co. 737-800 was carrying 55 passengers and seven crew when it came down about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) south of Moscow.

Human error, technical failure and difficult weather conditions are among possible causes under scrutiny, according to the website of the Investigative Committee, the main Russian investigating authority. Rossiya-24 state television, citing a local weather service, said winds in Rostov-on-Don exceeded 20 meters per second (about 45 miles per hour) about the time of the accident.

“As far as we know, the airport was open and we were good to operate,” FlyDubai Chief Executive Officer Ghaith Al Ghaith said at a press conference in Dubai. “This investigation will take time until all facts are collected. Before we commit and say anything, we have to be sure. If weather wasn’t suitable, the plane wouldn’t have flown.”

While authorities said the wing came in contact with the ground, independent tracking service posted data suggesting that the approach was unusual even before the jet reached the airport.

Two hours

Flightradar24 showed the plane circled for about two hours after an initial landing attempt — consistent with a report by Rossiya-24 — and then descended and slowed down before abruptly pulling up and accelerating at the last minute. The final Flightradar24 readings then showed the plane losing altitude and still gaining airspeed. FlyDubai said both flight recorders, the plane’s so-called black boxes, have been recovered.

Two hours is in general an unusually long time for circling, Ismail Al Hosani, a representative of the U.A.E.’s civil aviation body, said at the Dubai press conference, in response to speculation that the plane had been delaying its final approach.

A preliminary list showed 33 women, 18 men, four children and seven crew on the single-aisle 737, which Ghaith said was inspected on Jan. 21. The passengers were mostly Russian, with Ukrainian, Uzbek and Indian nationals also on board. The Cypriot pilot and Spanish co-pilot were “quite experienced,” having logged more than 11,000 flying hours between them, Ghaith said. The pilot was identified as Aristos Sokratous, Ria Novosti reported, citing transportation prosecutors.

‘Unstable approach’

Bad weather “may have resulted in an unstable approach situation leading the crew to initiate a go-around, execute a missed approach procedure and review the options to either divert or attempt another landing,” said Mark Martin, an aviation analyst and founder of Dubai-based Martin Consultancy.

Rostov-on-Don Airport is considered a straightforward airport to land at, Viktor Gorbachev, head of a Russian airport lobby group, said in an interview with Rossiya-24. The only danger could have been a crosswind, he said. There were several airports within 30 minutes flying time that could have been used instead, he said.

Related: Remote-control planes could stop crashes, air-control chief says

“Holding a plane for whatever convenience, weather or slots, is a judgment call at the moment,” FlyDubai’s Ghaith said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve not seen anything that would suggest that an alternative airport was on the cards, but again we’d not know until all the information is put in front of us.”

Russian Transportation Minister Maxim Sokolov and head of Federal Aviation Authority Alexander Neradko are in Rostov-on- Don and will visit the site soon, Zhanna Terekhova, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Ministry, said by phone.

Insurance coverage

FlyDubai is covered by insurance worth $500 million, Sokolov said during a news conference broadcast by Rossiya-24.

The airport is operated by a unit of billionaire Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group. It has two runways and serves more than 2 million passengers per year on domestic and international flights. The airport will remain closed until midnight, spokeswoman Olga Ladeyschikova said by phone.

The city of Rostov-on-Don is near the Black Sea, not far from the border with Ukraine in the south of the country. Body parts have been found near the wreckage, Interfax reported, citing Igor Oder, head of the southern region branch of the Emergency Ministry.

In between the FlyDubai jet’s first attempt to land and the crash, another plane made three landing efforts and then diverted, FlightRadar 24, which tracks airline movements, said in a Twitter posting.

“Diversion is a judgment call,” Ghaith said in a statement.

Boeing aware

Boeing is aware of the incident and is gathering further details, the planemaker said in an e-mailed statement. The 737 is the workhorse of the global airline fleet and the model is Boeing’s biggest source of profit.

The United Arab Emirates’ civil aviation authority has sent representatives and advisers to work closely with the Russian authorities to conduct the investigation under international standards, Saif Mohamad Al Suwaidi, director-general of the regulatory body, said.

FlyDubai, owned by the government of Dubai, is one of two no-frills airlines in the United Arab Emirates. It began operations in 2009 and has an all-Boeing fleet of 50 aircraft with a network of about 90 destinations.

The year 2015 was pronounced one of the safest years for airlines globally by the International Air Transport Association. The number of fatal accidents fell by two thirds last year, excluding more than 300 deaths resulting from a pilot suicide and possible terror attack.

--With assistance from Janet Ong, Torrey Clark, Kyunghee Park and Ann Koh.

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