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Investigators search for cause of deadly plane crash

Last Updated Mar 19, 2016 7:25 AM EDT

MOSCOW -- A Dubai airliner with 62 people on board nosedived and exploded in a giant fireball early Saturday while trying to land in strong winds in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, killing all aboard, officials said.

Russia's Emergencies Ministry said the Boeing 737-800 operated by FlyDubai was carrying 55 passengers, most of them Russians, and seven crew members of various nationalities. FlyDubai confirmed that there were no survivors and said four children were among those killed.

The powerful explosion pulverized the plane into fragments, but investigators quickly recovered both flight recorders. The cause of the crash wasn't immediately known, but officials and experts suggested a sudden gust of wind could have been a possible reason.

CBS News transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave reports that other potential causes being looked at are pilot error and a technical failure.

"Our primary concern is for the families of the passengers and crew who were on board. Everyone at FlyDubai is in deep shock and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those involved," said CEO Ghaith al-Ghaith.

Emergencies Ministry members search the wreckage at the crash site of Flight 981, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Dubai-based budget carrier FlyDubai, at the airport of Rostov-On-Don, Russia, March 19, 2016.
Emergencies Ministry members search the wreckage at the crash site of Flight 981, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Dubai-based budget carrier FlyDubai, at the airport of Rostov-On-Don, Russia, March 19, 2016.
Reuters/Stringer

Vasily Golubev, the governor of the Rostov region some 600 miles south of Moscow, was quoted by Russian news agencies as telling local journalists that the plane crashed about 800 feet short of the runway.

The cause of the crash was not immediately determined, but Golubev said: "By all appearances, the cause of the air crash was the strongly gusting wind, approaching a hurricane level."

Russian investigators said they were looking into adverse weather and a possible pilot error as the most likely causes of the crash.

According to the weather data reported by Russian state television, winds at the moment of the crash at an altitude of 1,640 feet and higher were around 67 miles per hour.

Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for the flight-tracking website Flightradar24, told The Associated Press that the plane missed its approach then entered a holding pattern.

According to Flightradar24, the plane circled for about two hours before making another attempt to land. It said a Russian Aeroflot plane scheduled to land around the same time made three landing attempts but then diverted to another airport.

According to its data, the Dubai plane began climbing again after a go-around when it suddenly started to fall with vertical speed of up to 21,000 feet per minute.

The closed-circuit TV footage showed the plane going down in a steep angle and exploding in a huge fireball that lit up the night sky.

Some Russian aviation experts said the steep descent appeared to indicate that the crash most probably have been caused by a gust of wind.

"It was an uncontrollable fall," said Sergei Kruglikov, a veteran Russian pilot, said on Russian state television. He said that a sudden change in wind speed and direction could have caused the wings to abruptly lose their lifting power.

Several planes had landed in Rostov-on-Don shortly before the Dubai airliner was scheduled to touch down, but other flights later were diverted.

Another seasoned pilot, Viktor Zabolotsky, said a gust of wind probably caused the airliner to lose speed and crash as the pilot was making an attempt to go round.

President Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to the victims' families and top Russian Cabinet officials flew to the crash site to oversee the investigation.

Officials said the plane and bodies of the victims were torn into small pieces by the powerful blast, but investigators already have found the plane's cockpit conversation recorder and another one recording parameters of the flight.

It was FlyDubai's first crash since the budget carrier began operating in 2009. It was launched in 2008 by the government of Dubai, the Gulf commercial hub that is part of the seven-state United Arab Emirates federation. The carrier has been flying to Rostov-on-Don since 2013.

The airline shares a chairman with Dubai's government-backed Emirates, the Middle East's biggest airline, though the two carriers operate independently and maintain separate operations from their bases at Dubai International Airport, the region's busiest airport.

FlyDubai's fleet consisted of relatively young 737-800 aircraft, like the one that crashed. The airline says it operates more than 1,400 flights a week.

The airline has expanded rapidly in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Dubai is a popular tourist destination for Russian visitors, who are attracted by its beaches, shopping malls and year-round sunshine. Many Russian expatriates live and work in Dubai, a city where foreigners outnumber locals more than 4-to-1.

FlyDubai has a good safety record. In January 2015, one of its planes was struck on the fuselage by what appeared to small-arms fire shortly before it landed in Baghdad. That flight landed safely with no major injuries reported.