Iran plane crash latest to afflict aging fleet

The Iran plane crash that killed 77 Sunday involved an aircraft bought second-hand 37 years ago, not uncommon in a fleet further hobbled by poor maintenance and a shortage of US-made spare parts.

By , Staff writer

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    Rescuers work at the crash site of a passenger plane near the city of Uroumieh, in northwest Iran, on Jan. 9. The plane, with over 100 passengers on board, crashed Sunday evening. At least 35 passengers survived and scores were killed, the local English language satellite Press TV quoted an unnamed Red Crescent official as saying.
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Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday ordered an investigation into the cause of a bad-weather crash of an IranAir passenger jet on Sunday that took 77 lives in northwest Iran.

The aging Boeing-727 plane – which was already second-hand when sold to Iran 37 years ago, according to Iranian media – broke into pieces when it crashed near the city of Orumiyeh after dark. State television showed rescuers battling thick snow to find dozens of survivors among the 104 on board.

The crash is the latest to afflict Iran’s aging fleet of aircraft, much of it delivered before the 1979 Islamic revolution and hobbled ever since by poor maintenance and a shortage of new planes and American-made spare parts due to sanctions.

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Iranian officials have often blamed the sanctions for Iran’s poor air safety record, and the semiofficial Fars News Agency quoted an “informed source” saying that on Sunday “the plane crashed due to a technical flaw.”

Preliminary reason: lack of visibility

State television also reported that pilots had reported a technical failure to the control tower before the jet disappeared from radar screens.

But transport officials on Monday blamed fog and snowy conditions some 460 miles northwest of the capital, Tehran, and reported that one black box had been retrieved. Three days of mourning were announced in the province.

“Based on the evidence, the plane’s captain could not land at Orumiyeh airport due to bad weather conditions and he decided to return [to Tehran],” Ahmad Majidi, the deputy for crisis management of the transport ministry, told Iranian media. “But for unknown reasons the plane crashed around five miles from the airport.”

Transport Minister Hamid Behbahani also stated that the “preliminary reason [for the crash] is lack of visibility and fog.”

Iran has seen numerous high-profile crashes of civilian and military planes alike, despite Iranian attempts to keep aged aircraft flying. In the past, Iran has not been able to directly purchase new US-made Boeing aircraft, nor European-made Airbus planes because a significant portion of parts are American-made.

In 2002, transport chief said aging fleet at 'crisis point'

Senior officials have acknowledged that Iran’s safety record was suffering because of sanctions. In late 2002, speaking days after the crash of a Ukrainian-made plane killed 46 scientists, the then-transport chief said several Boeing and Airbus planes had been grounded for lack of parts, and Iran’s aging fleet had “reached a crisis point.”

Fars reported on Monday that Iran “has recently started a plan to renew its air fleet not only through purchase of foreign planes, but also through domestic production.”

Officials announced in August that they were replacing Soviet-designed Tupolev passenger planes with 13 Boeing and six Airbus planes purchased through a third party. The transport ministry announced that five of the Boeing jets had already arrived in Iran.

Fars also noted that Iran was boosting production on its own 52-seat, double turboprop aircraft called the Iran-140. The defense ministry was “fully prepared to manufacture them” once they received the order, Iran’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi told Fars in October. Already by then, he said, Iran had manufactured seven of the planes.

Recent plane crashes in Iran

Sunday’s crash adds to a long list of incidents. In July 2009, a Caspian Airlines Tupolev bound for Armenia caught fire and crashed northeast of Tehran, killing all 168 on board.

In January 2008 an IranAir Fokker-100 experienced double engine failure on take-off in Tehran and burned on the tarmac.

In November 2006, a military plane crashed upon takeoff in Tehran, killing all 39 on board – 30 of them Revolution Guard soldiers.

In December 2005, a US-made Iranian military C-130 plane ferrying journalists to military exercises crashed into a 10-story apartment block, killing all 94 on board and as many as 34 others.

And in the worst incident in Iranian aviation history, a February 2003 crash into mountains of southeast Iran of an Ilyushin-76 troop carrier with Revolutionary Guard passengers left all 302 dead.

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