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By Aresu Eqbali in Tehran, Rory Jones in Dubai and Georgi Kantchev in Moscow
A Ukraine International Airlines jetliner crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board, an incident that comes amid military clashes between the U.S. and Iran.
The Boeing Co. 737-800 single-aisle jet crashed after departing the Iranian capital's Imam Khomeini International Airport en route to Kyiv, Ukraine, with photos of the crash site showing thousands of pieces of scattered and charred debris.
While officials are seeking to determine the crash's cause, the incident threatens to trigger another headache for Boeing, already engulfed in the fallout from two fatal jet crashes that have grounded one of its models.
Determining the reason for Wednesday's crash could take months or even years, and the process is likely to be unusually fraught. The heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran could further complicate investigators' efforts.
Iran's state news agency reported the crash resulted from an engine fire caused by a technical fault, but didn't explain how that conclusion was reached.
Boeing said it was in contact with Ukraine International Airlines and was ready to assist in any way. "This is a tragic event and our heartfelt thoughts are with the crew, passengers and their families," it said.
CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric Co. and France's Safran SA that makes the 737-800 engine, said it was saddened by the incident but that "any speculation regarding the cause is premature."
In a typical crash probe, Boeing, GE and the U.S. transportation-accident investigation agency would gain access to the site. Based on international convention, investigators usually allow the home country of the airline and the makers of the plane and its major systems to participate in crash probes. That could prove difficult after Iranian threats to target Americans and missile strikes in retaliation for the targeted U.S. killing of an Iranian general.
Iranian investigators have found the plane's black box and it will be analyzed by the Iran Civil Aviation Organization, said Ali Abedzadeh, the organization's chief, state-run IRNA news agency reported. Depending on the technology required to analyze the box, it could be sent to another country, he added.
But in a sign that politics could impede the probe, Mr. Abedzadeh also told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency that his organization wouldn't provide Boeing or the U.S. access to the black box. Local officials told IRNA that the plane's connection to the control tower was lost immediately after takeoff and the pilot also didn't contact air-traffic control about an emergency.
The U.S. said it was following the incident closely, was prepared to offer Ukraine assistance and called for complete cooperation with any investigation into the cause of the crash.
The aircraft was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew. At least 16 were children under the age of 10, according to a passenger list released by the airline. While most of the passengers were Iranian, there were also Canadians and Ukrainians on board, as well as citizens of Britain, Germany and Sweden. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that, according to reports, there were 63 Canadians on board and that the country was in touch with officials in Ukraine and elsewhere to ensure the crash is thoroughly investigated.
Ukraine International Airlines said the Boeing aircraft was manufactured in 2016 and underwent its last scheduled maintenance on Monday. The airline said it was working with aviation authorities to determine what happened and had suspended flights to Tehran indefinitely.
The airline said the aircraft was one of its best, and that it hadn't received any safety alerts before the flight, but that the jet disappeared from radar screens minutes after taking off.
It also said the flight crew included three pilots with extensive experience with the aircraft and knowledge of operating at Tehran's airport, given the airline uses it for training on the 737. The captain, Volodymyr Gaponenko, had 11,600 hours on the Boeing 737, the airline said.
"According to our records, the aircraft ascended as high as 2,400 meters [7,900 feet]," said Ihor Sosnovsky, the airline's vice president of operations. "Given the crew's experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance."
Reaching that altitude in about 2 1/2 minutes would indicate a normal climb away from the field, suggesting engines were operating normally, at least until a point.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered his condolences and said the country would send a team of experts to Iran to investigate the circumstances of the crash. Ukraine will also test the airworthiness of its entire fleet of civilian aircraft.
"Our priority is to establish the truth and those responsible for this terrible catastrophe," Mr. Zelensky said.
Ukraine International Airlines, founded in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, is the country's flag carrier and largest airline. It has a fleet of 42 jets, most of them modern, Western-built jetliners that are rented from aircraft lessors. Planes operated by the airline haven't crashed before.
Iran, meanwhile, has a relatively poor air-safety record. Its airlines and infrastructure have been hobbled by sanctions that led to shortages of spare parts and the cancellation of $40 billion in new aircraft from Boeing and Airbus SE.
For Boeing, the crash follows a series of technical failures with its newer-version 737 MAX aircraft. The Ukrainian 737 is an earlier model and doesn't have the flight-control feature that was implicated in crashes last year and led to the MAX fleet being grounded globally.
The 737-800 is the most popular version of the aerospace giant's workhorse jet, with the roughly 5,000 produced since it entered service in 1998 enjoying one of the industry's best safety records.
Seating between 160 and 190 passengers, the aircraft is operated by hundreds of carriers and alongside a smaller and larger variant accounts for around 25% of all commercial jetliners in operation.
The aircraft, and its variants, has a world-wide accident rate of roughly one fatal crash per 10 million departures, according to Boeing accident statistics. That is much lower than the overall global rate for all Western-built jets, and significantly below the historic fatal accident rate for other Boeing workhorse models such as the 767 and 747-400 wide-body jets.
The Ukrainian International crash is the eighth fatal accident involving the 737-800 or its variants, according to Aviation Safety Network, an independent flight-safety group that tracks accident and incident statistics. The latest fatal crash was in 2018 involving an Air Niugini jet in Micronesia.
Pilot error was determined to be the probable cause in all but one of the accidents, said Harro Ranter, head of the Aviation Safety Network.
The only fatality stemming from a mechanical or other system failure, he said, occurred in April 2017 when an internal part of a Southwest Airlines Co. engine broke off violently and ended up killing a single passenger in the cabin.
The aviation industry is grappling with the heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S., with the Middle East one of the world's busiest flight corridors for services between Europe and Asia.
Iran early Wednesday launched strikes against two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, attacks it said were retribution for the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.
After the strikes, Dubai-based carriers Emirates Airline and Flydubai canceled flights to and from the Iraqi capital Baghdad. That followed Bahrain-based Gulf Air, Saudi Arabia's Flynas and Royal Jordanian Airlines, which all canceled flights to and from Baghdad on Friday.
The Federal Aviation Administration is prohibiting U.S. carriers from traveling in airspace over Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, while the European Aviation Safety Agency has recommended that airlines avoid Iraqi airspace as a precaution.
Some international airlines, including Air France, Qantas and KLM, have said they would avoid airspace over Iraq and Iran, while Lufthansa canceled Wednesday's flight from Frankfurt to Tehran and said it was evaluating when the service could be resumed.
Kim Mackrael, Andy Pasztor, Ben Otto and Doug Cameron contributed to this article.
Write to Rory Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org and Georgi Kantchev at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 08, 2020 15:29 ET (20:29 GMT)
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