Russia: Black boxes from deadly plane crash badly damaged

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

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Aviation experts on Sunday began examining the black boxes from the FlyDubai flight that crashed amid high winds at an airport in southern Russia, killing all 62 aboard.

FlyDubai's Boeing 737-800 from Dubai nosedived and exploded in a giant fireball before dawn Saturday after trying to land for a second time in strong winds in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. FlyDubai confirmed all 62 people on the plane were killed. Most of the passengers were Russian.

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.

Several planes had trouble landing at the airport at the time of the crash.

The Inter-State Aviation Committee said in a statement that the plane's data and voice recorders had been heavily damaged in the crash.

But Sergei Zaiko, deputy chairman of the committee, was quoted by Russian news agencies late Sunday as saying that the quality of material on the data recorder was high.

The black boxes were being viewed in Moscow by experts from Russia, the United Arab Emirates and France, the aviation commission said. The American-made Boeing plane had French-made engines.

At Rostov-on-Don, hundreds of people flocked Sunday to the airport, the region's largest, to lay flowers and leave candles and toys in memory of the dead. The city is 600 miles south of Moscow near the Ukrainian border.

Closed-circuit TV footage showed the plane going down at a steep angle and exploding. The powerful explosion left a big crater in the runway.

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A woman morns after putting flowers in memory for the victims of the crashed FlyDubai plane at the Rostov-on-Don airport, about 950 kilometers (600 miles) south of Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 20, 2016.
AP

The airport remained closed, but workers on Sunday afternoon were repairing the damage to the runway, and plans are to reopen on Monday morning, the airport said in a statement.

FlyDubai's chief executive, Ghaith al-Ghaith, said on Sunday the plane had enough fuel to maintain its holding pattern, which reportedly went on for two hours. He expressed confidence in Russian authorities and said the carrier intends to resume flights to the airport once it reopens.

He reiterated that the Rostov-on-Don airport was open Saturday despite the high winds and was "good enough to operate" at the time of the crash, and that it was up to Russian authorities to make that determination.

Some of the crash victims were from rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine where fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,100 people in nearly two years. The war has turned the region's main airport of Donetsk into a wasteland, and many locals have been using the airport in Rostov-on-Don, across the border.

Self-proclaimed rebel authorities in Donetsk said Sunday that two residents had been killed in the crash, while the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily reported that a family of three from the rebel-controlled town of Sverdlovsk in Ukraine was among the victims.

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.

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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, Sunday, March 20, 2016.
AP

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.