By Hrach Melkumian in Gyumri
The crash of a Russian fighter jet stationed in Armenia was officially confirmed on Thursday after rescuers found its wreckage and the body of its only crew on a snowy mountain slope near the northern city of Gyumri.
Early indications were that the MiG-29 aircraft, which disappeared from radar screens the previous day, rammed into the mountain due to poor visibility brought by an unexpected blizzard.
An Armenian-Russian rescue team that scoured the area on army helicopters early in the morning found the wreckage near the village of Lusaghbyur 15 kilometers east of Gyumri where the Russian military base in Armenia is headquartered. A heavy snowfall made the crash site inaccessible for vehicles.
Only a cameraman from the local Tsayg television station was allowed on board another helicopter that took Russian and Armenian military prosecutors to the site located approximately 2,500 meters above the sea level. His video pictures showed a slope strewn with debris sticking out of deep snowdrifts. A battered tail was the plane’s most visible fragment.
Rescuers were shown picking up a badly mutilated body of Major Konstantin Kardash, the 39-year-old pilot. The cameraman, Ara Kyureghian, said the body lay about 40 meters from the wreckage.
Russian army officers in Gyumri suggested that the experienced pilot could not bail out of the plane in time because he did not expect a collision. They blamed the crash on the bad weather.
This was also the preliminary conclusion drawn by a team of Russian Defense Ministry officials that arrived in Armenia the previous night. Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said the explanation seems convincing.
“The rescuers’ first explanation was that the plane hit a mountain,” Sarkisian told reporters in Yerevan. “I think that if there were other circumstances, the pilot could have turned on the catapult mechanism. Most probably that mechanism began working after the collision.”
According to Sarkisian, the investigators found the plane’s two black boxes. Cameraman Kyureghian claimed the opposite, however. He also said that the pilot’s seat which carried the catapult was sent to Yerevan for examination
The jet went missing on Wednesday shortly after taking off from the Erebuni military airport in Yerevan, about 140 kilometers to the south. Some Lusaghbyur villagers told RFE/RL that they saw it roaring overhead, but said they did not hear explosions.
Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force command decided to ground the other 17 MiG-29s in Armenia until further notice, Russian news agencies reported. All of them were deployed in the country in the late 1990s to reinforce the southern flank of a Russian-led defense bloc comprising several ex-Soviet states.
(Tsayg TV-Photolur photo: the fragment of the plane's tail.)