Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 37 of the plane crash series on May 19th, 2018, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original.
In 1992, Russian flag carrier Aeroflot opened itself to the world with a fleet of newly purchased Airbus A310s, its first Western aircraft and the centerpiece of its effort to position itself as a modern airline and Russia as a modern country. But this dream would prove tragically short. On the 23rd of March 1994, an Aeroflot A310 bound for Hong Kong suddenly plunged from the sky in the middle of the night, tearing a horrific scar across a snowbound forest in the depths of Siberia. Of the 75 people on board, none would survive. What could have caused a brand new wide body jet, flown by men who were supposed to be among Russia’s most elite pilots, to plunge to earth from 33,000 feet in just two and a half minutes? Although Aeroflot tried unsuccessfully to hide it, the answer would stun the world: at the moment of the loss of control, a 15-year-old was flying the plane. From the shocking cockpit voice recorder transcript would emerge an intimate and tragic story of a proud father, two eager children, and a plane which none of them really understood, coming together in a moment of bad judgment and complacency to bring about one of history’s strangest and most tragic air disasters.
In Russia, the 1990s are remembered as a time of hardship, instability, and tragedy, as the vision of opportunity which briefly flashed before the dying Soviet Union instead devolved into societal collapse. As political chaos, runaway inflation, and shortages of basic goods spread throughout Russia, no industry escaped upheaval, including the airlines. The state-run flag carrier Aeroflot, which had once owned and operated every civilian airplane in the USSR, was broken up into its constituent parts and sold off to private owners, leaving only a core fleet of long-haul aircraft flying mainly international routes.
Forced to redefine itself in a radically different economy, Aeroflot sought to shed its reputation for uncomfortable airplanes and poor service by transforming itself into a modern airline which would not only improve Russia’s international reputation, but normalize flying on Aeroflot as a viable means of travel for businesspeople and tourists from around the world, regardless of whether Russia was their final destination. In the early 1990s, the biggest obstacle to this vision was perhaps Aeroflot’s fleet, which consisted of Soviet-built airframes designed for a different model of air travel. Under the command economy in the Soviet Union, air travel was effectively a form of public transportation, with artificially low fares, a network geared toward maximum coverage rather than profitability, and passenger cabins and in-flight service which were, in the words of Paul Duffy of Aviation Week, “more akin to [those] of a South American railway service, than of an airline.” The planes’ engines were noisy and inefficient, their seats were uncomfortable, and safety questions left foreigners hesitant to board them. With production of new, modernized Russian airliners having practically ceased, Aeroflot’s management saw only one solution: to buy Western aircraft.
Aeroflot’s choice of aircraft ultimately hinged on the reality of the airline’s route structure. Aeroflot had been left with long-haul international routes, which mostly could not be completed using Soviet-made aircraft unless they stopped for fuel mid-way. At the same time, however, most Western long-range airliners had far too many seats — the passenger volume on Aeroflot’s routes was simply too low to justify buying 747s or MD-11s. Instead, Aeroflot went for something smaller: the Airbus A310, whose capacity for between 220 and 240 passengers made it arguably the smallest wide body airliner ever built (and it was without question the shortest). There was no way Aeroflot could fill the 400 seats on a Boeing 747, but on the A310 they would at least have a shot, without having to sacrifice much in terms of range.
Although the planes were purchased new from the factory, the A310 was hardly Airbus’s latest model. While it incorporated some relatively advanced autoflight systems, it was not a fly-by-wire aircraft — it still had direct connections between the cockpit and the flight controls. Its automation was considered sophisticated when it first entered service in 1983, but by 1992 it no longer stood out from the crowd. In the former Soviet Union, however, it was a revolutionary technological leap. Automation had been one of the Soviet aircraft design bureaus’ biggest blind spots, and in 1992 Russia had not yet produced a passenger jet which could be flown by fewer than three pilots, let alone anything approaching the level of automation on the A310.
From the beginning, the plan was to incorporate the A310s into a special Aeroflot subsidiary which would act as the international face of the airline. In 1992, the special brand was allegedly launched under the name “Russian Airlines,” while Aeroflot as a whole was rebranded as “Aeroflot — Russian International Airlines,” or ARIA — a change meant to emphasize the airline’s new role as a flag carrier, although ultimately the branding would not stick, as Aeroflot turned inward once more in the 2000s. The Russian Airlines branding seems to have been even less permanent, and primary sources are often contradictory about the nature and even the name of the subdivision.
In total, Aeroflot’s A310 division was composed of five aircraft on lease from a holding company and registered in France. Flying these planes was the responsibility of an elite cadre of fewer than two dozen pilots, selected to be the first in Russia to be trained abroad on Western aircraft. The A310 division was marketed worldwide with emphasis on its friendly service, comfortable cabins, and experienced pilots, and after flights began in the second half of 1992, the reception was positive. In February 1994, Aviation Week wrote: “Western businessmen who have used the Russian carrier’s A310s said they were impressed with the level of service and professionalism of the crews. ‘I’ve flown with the A310s several times on the London-Moscow-Hong Kong route, and I was pleasantly surprised at the good in-flight service,’ said one British contractor with extensive dealings in the former Soviet Union. ‘I hope this service level will be transferred to the rest of the ‘new’ Aeroflot.’”
The unnamed businessman could not have been aware that less than two months later, Aeroflot’s London-Moscow-Hong Kong service would plunge from the sky over Siberia due to what turned out to be an unprecedented act of unprofessionalism.
On the evening of the 22nd of March, 1994, the crew of Aeroflot flight 593 to Hong Kong reported for duty at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. The Airbus A310 operating the flight had earlier arrived from London with several connecting passengers, but the second leg of the journey was lightly booked, with just 63 passengers on board, including numerous businessmen and several off-duty Aeroflot employees. They would be joined by 12 crewmembers, including nine flight attendants and an augmented cockpit crew of three, consisting of 40-year-old Captain Andrei Viktorovich Danilov, 33-year-old First Officer Igor Vasilyevich Piskaryov, and 39-year-old relief Captain Yaroslav Vladimirovich Kudrinsky, whose presence enabled the pilots to rotate their positions without exceeding duty time limits on the 9-hour flight.
Being a pilot on Aeroflot’s international services came with certain benefits which few could afford under the strained economic conditions in Russia in 1994. Among these were free or deeply discounted tickets for pilots’ families, providing the wives and children of A310 crewmembers with a unique opportunity to see the world at a time when most Russians could not. On the night of the 22nd of March, relief Captain Kudrinsky was using this policy to bring his children on their first ever trip abroad. Fifteen-year-old Eldar Kudrinsky and his 12-year-old sister Yana were among the 63 passengers, where they had been placed under the care of fellow passenger and off-duty Aeroflot pilot Vladimir Makarov, whose own daughter was on board as well.
At 13:39 UTC — already after dark in Moscow — flight 593 took off from Sheremetyevo Airport and climbed to its cruising altitude of 10,100 meters, approximately 33,300 feet. Captain Danilov and First Officer Piskaryov were at the controls, and would remain so for the next couple of hours.
By the time the cockpit voice recording begins at 17:26 UTC, Danilov had already returned to the cabin to sleep, turning over his seat to relief Captain Kudrinsky, who would remain on the flight deck all the way to Hong Kong. Piskaryov was still in the right seat, and would not be expected to hand it over until near the end of the flight, allowing Danilov to return. At that point they were still over Russia, high above Kemerovo Oblast’ in southern Siberia, near the city of Novokuznetsk, with many hours still to go.
Events first began to drift away from the ordinary at 17:40, or 00:40 local time in Novokuznetsk, when relief Captain Kudrinsky opened the cockpit to some very important guests — his children. Accompanied by the off-duty pilot Makarov, Yana and Eldar entered the cockpit at their father’s invitation to see the advanced A310 for the first time. Excited to be in the cockpit and awed by the vast array of computerized displays, the children were enthralled from the start. For a few minutes, Kudrinsky explained various aspects of the plane and what made it special, but he had bigger ideas, too. And so at 00:43, he turned to his 12-year-old daughter and said, “Come and sit here now, in my seat, would you like that?”
According to Russian aviation regulations, bringing guests into the cockpit of a passenger flight while en route was not, still is not, and never has been permitted. Needless to say, however, bringing children (usually boys) up to the flight deck while in the air was a longstanding tradition around the world prior to the post-9/11 crackdown on cockpit security breaches, and many people who grew up in the second half of the 20th century fondly recall receiving such invitations, typically without realizing that the practice was technically not allowed. Although it could occasionally present a distraction, giving children a glimpse of the flight deck was not normally a serious safety risk, especially since there was precious little else for pilots to do during level flight in cruise. But while inviting children to view the cockpit is one thing, allowing them to sit in the captain’s seat is quite another — albeit one which nevertheless happened from time to time without serious consequences.
At her father’s invitation, Yana clambered into the left seat of the A310, which Kudrinsky had vacated moments earlier. She found it hard to see over the dashboard, so she said, “Dad, raise me up,” and Kudrinsky adjusted the seat height to give her a better view. In the distance, the last lights of the Kuzbass mining region faded into a near-endless expanse of night-darkened mountains.
For a few minutes, Yana asked about various systems, and Kudrinsky faithfully answered. Then, it seems, he got another dubious idea: “Hey Yana, are you going to fly it?” he said. “Go ahead, take the controls.”
As Yana lightly placed her hands on the control column, her father stood between the pilots’ seats, reaching for the autopilot control panel, and switched the autopilot’s lateral control mode from “NAV” to “heading select.”
Throughout the flight, the plane had been flying on autopilot, with its vertical channel in altitude hold mode to keep the plane at 10,100 meters, while the lateral channel navigated the plane along a pre-programmed string of waypoints stretching all the way from Moscow to Hong Kong. By switching from “NAV” mode to “HDG/SEL” mode, Kudrinsky temporarily switched off that pre-programmed track, allowing him to direct the autopilot to assume a particular magnetic heading. Once the system was in heading select mode (HDG/SEL), he simply turned the heading knob on the autopilot control panel several rotations to the left, and the autopilot dutifully placed the plane into a left turn. In response to the autopilot’s inputs, the control column turned to the left beneath Yana’s hands, giving her a simulation of what it might feel like to fly the plane. Although some accounts insinuate that Kudrinsky was trying to give her a convincing illusion of control, it appears his actions were merely demonstrative, as he explained what he was doing throughout the maneuver.
After letting the plane turn to the left for some time, reaching a bank angle of about 20 degrees, Kudrinsky eventually re-engaged NAV mode, and the autopilot automatically turned the plane back to the right to resume the pre-programmed route.
Seven and a half minutes had passed, in which Yana and her father engaged in almost continuous conversation, before the girl left the captain’s seat to make way for her older brother Eldar. The 15-year-old Eldar was even more enthusiastic about the airplane than his sister, and Makarov, who was standing in the back of the cockpit, joked, “Let’s get a picture of the pilot!”
“You’re taking a picture?” Eldar asked.
“Yes, I am,” said Makarov, presumably wielding a camera.
Eldar had been sitting in the captain’s seat for three minutes before he became emboldened enough to ask, presumably gesturing at the control column, “Can I turn this? The control?”
“Yes,” Kudrinsky said without hesitation. He presumably believed that with the plane on autopilot, any inputs Eldar might make would have no effect on the course of the flight.
Eldar immediately placed his hands on the control column.
“Okay, watch the ground, where you’re going to turn.” Kudrinsky instructed. “Go to the left, turn to the left!”
Eldar cautiously applied about 10 kilograms of force, turning the wheel three or four degrees to the left. Initially, the autopilot resisted, keeping the plane on course. Seconds later, however, Kudrinsky switched the autopilot to HDG/SEL mode and used the heading knob to enter a leftward heading, causing the autopilot to turn the plane to the left in line with Eldar’s inputs. The feedback force on the control column relaxed until it disappeared.
“See it turn?” Kudrinsky said. “Is the plane turning to the left?”
“It is,” said Eldar.
After about eight seconds, by which time the plane had reached 21 degrees of left bank, Kudrinsky reached for the heading knob again, and turned it back to the right.
“Now going right,” he said.
“Set the horizon to normal for him,” Makarov interjected.
In response, the autopilot began to bank back the other way, slowly rolling through wings level. Eldar followed through, letting his hands move with the control column as it turned to the right.
At that point, Kudrinsky switched the autopilot’s lateral channel back to NAV mode to resume their pre-planned track. The right bank increased from six to fifteen degrees, then started to go back to the left as the plane rolled out on its intended heading. But this time Eldar was out of the loop: instead of letting the control column turn beneath his hands, he held it in place at three to five degrees right, causing the feedback force to increase as the autopilot tried to bank the other way.
Given time, Kudrinsky might have noticed the problem and told Eldar to either let go or turn the other way, but at that moment Yana started plying him with questions again, so he turned his attention to his daughter. All the while, the feedback force on the control column increased until, at 00:55 and 29 seconds, the autopilot’s lateral channel quietly disconnected.
Like many other autopilots on Western aircraft — but unlike those on Soviet models — the A310 autopilot’s lateral and vertical channels could each disconnect independently under specific circumstances, without affecting the other. This design feature was not intended to be used in normal flight. It existed only so that a pilot could react immediately in the event of a sudden departure from controlled flight while the plane was on autopilot. Applying between 11 and 13 kilograms of roll force to the control column would disconnect the autopilot’s lateral channel, while a similar amount of force applied forward or backward would disconnect the vertical (pitch) channel, allowing a pilot to take control instantly without having to fight against a malfunctioning autopilot, and without having to waste time reaching for the autopilot disconnect button either. This is a standard feature of almost every autopilot, but on most Soviet models, force applied in any direction would disconnect both channels simultaneously.
The insidious aspect of this feature on the A310 was that the disconnection of one channel but not the other would fail to trigger either the visual or aural autopilot disconnect warnings. If, for example, only the lateral channel was disconnected, then not only would the autopilot remain engaged, but the selected lateral mode would continue to be displayed on the autopilot control panel, even though the autopilot actually no longer possessed any lateral control authority.
In the event, the lateral channel disconnected when the roll force on the control columns reached 11–13 kilograms, and did so with no warning whatsoever. Flight data showed that Eldar alone was not responsible for the disconnection — First Officer Piskaryov was holding onto his control column as well, presumably in order to react if Eldar made any sudden inputs. Because the control columns were linked, he could feel every input which Eldar made. He might therefore have been unaware that it was the autopilot which was trying to turn back to the left, and not Eldar.
Furthermore, the disconnection threshold was met when the cumulative force on both control columns reached 11–13 kilograms, meaning that Eldar and Piskaryov might each have been applying as little as 5–6 kilograms of force when the disconnection occurred.
As the lateral channel disconnected, a torque limiter engaged to physically declutch the autopilot’s aileron actuator, preventing it from making any roll inputs. This would have caused a change in the feedback forces on the control columns as the resistance put up by the autopilot abruptly vanished, but Eldar could not have been expected to notice, and Piskaryov probably thought the change in feedback was because of an input by Eldar. As a result, no one noticed that the autopilot was no longer steering the plane — in fact, Piskaryov and Eldar were.
With their control columns positioned a few degrees right of center, and the autopilot no longer compensating, the plane slowly began to bank to the right, initially at a rate of about one degree per second. After a little while, someone — probably Eldar — turned the wheel a little farther, and the rate of roll increased to two degrees per second. Before long, the plane reached 30 degrees of bank, the normal in-flight maximum, and then kept right on going, approaching 45. Incredibly, amid the banter in the cockpit, no one noticed that something was wrong.
In the background, the cockpit voice recorder captured Kudrinsky conversing with Yana. The girl’s voice was faintly audible in the background, but only Kudrinsky’s side of the conversation could be understood.
“What’s the matter Yana?”
“You’ll only go to sleep in the first class cabin. Don’t run there or they’ll fire us!”
At 00:55 and 36 seconds, Eldar suddenly commented, “Why is it turning?” Against the odds, he was the first to notice that the plane was going off course.
“It’s turning by itself?” Kudrinsky asked.
“Yes,” said Eldar.
“But why is it doing that?” said Kudrinsky.
“I don’t know,” Eldar replied.
“Have we lost the route?” Kudrinsky asked.
“It’s entering a [holding] area,” Makarov suggested.
“We’ve reached an area, a holding area,” Piskaryov agreed.
“Have we?” asked Kudrinsky.
“Of course,” said Piskaryov.
On their flight management displays, the pre-programmed navigation track had been replaced by a curving white line ahead of the aircraft symbol, circling back the way they came. This was simply the aircraft’s projected trajectory, but, not realizing that the autopilot was no longer in control of their heading, the pilots failed to consider this possibility. Instead, they seem to have concluded that the autopilot had inadvertently placed them into a holding pattern above a navigational waypoint — an annoying issue which was not unheard of in the complex airspace over the former Soviet Union.
As the pilots debated the reason for the turn, the plane’s bank angle increased past 45 degrees. With the wings unable to maintain lift at such a high bank angle, the plane began to descend. The autopilot’s still-active vertical channel, which had been set to hold an altitude of 10,100 meters, reacted by pitching the nose up and increasing engine thrust. As it accelerated into the turn, the G-forces on board the plane started to increase, pressing the occupants harder and harder into the floor.
“Guys…” Makarov said, sounding nervous.
As the autopilot pitched up in the turn, the angle of attack — that is, the angle of the airflow over the wings relative to the plane’s direction of travel — began to increase rapidly. If the angle of attack becomes too high, the air will no longer flow smoothly over the tops of the wings, resulting in heavy buffeting, followed by an aerodynamic stall as the wings lose their ability to generate lift. Within seconds, the angle of attack approached the stall threshold, and the airplane started to vibrate alarmingly.
“Hold it, hold the column, hold it!” Kudrinsky shouted at both Piskaryov and Eldar. In response, Eldar held his control column in the neutral position, while Piskaryov attempted to bank back to the left. Because he was fighting Eldar, and because the disrupted airflow over the wings was reducing the effectiveness of the ailerons, his inputs were ineffective, and the plane continued rolling to the right. Unsure why the plane wasn’t reacting, Piskaryov turned back to the right to gauge the response. As a result, the roll rate rapidly accelerated, causing the plane to reach 90 degrees of bank in a matter of seconds.
“The speed!” Piskaryov exclaimed. Turning to Eldar, he shouted, “Turn the other way! The other way!”
“Turn left!” Kudrinsky chimed in.
“Turn right!” Piskaryov said, mixing up his directions.
“Turn left, left!” Kudrinsky corrected.
“The other side!”
“To the right!”
“To the right?”
“Don’t you see or what? Turn right! To the right!”
Two altitude alert warnings sounded as the plane left its programmed altitude, followed by a loud autopilot disconnect alarm as Piskaryov’s inputs finally exceeded the disconnect threshold of the vertical channel. Simultaneously, the airplane stalled, suffering a catastrophic loss of lift, triggering a stall warning for four seconds before the autopilot alarm overrode it. Still banked between 80 and 90 degrees to the right, the plane began to fall into a spiral, its nose pitched down as much as 50 degrees. The G-forces continued to increase as the spiral tightened, making the occupants feel twice their normal weight.
In response to the stall, an automated system known as the alpha floor protection kicked in, pushing the nose down to decrease the angle of attack. The inputs were effective, as the plane exited the stall and airflow over the wings stabilized, but now they were in a steep 40-degree dive, accelerating rapidly with the engines near full power. The rate of descent increased toward -40,000 feet per minute, the pilots’ altimeters unspooling faster than they could read them.
“To the left! There’s the ground!” Piskaryov said, regaining his bearings. He turned his controls hard to the left, and the wings rolled level, pulling the plane out of its spiral. Within seconds, however, the aircraft exceeded its maximum operating speed, triggering a terrifying overspeed warning. Traveling at a blistering 420 knots, Piskaryov hauled back on his controls to recover from the dive, but the high-speed pull-out caused G-forces to skyrocket. The aircraft was subjected to an astonishing 4.7 G’s, far exceeding the design limit load. The airplane’s structure began to warp under the immense strain.
“Eldar, get out!” Kudrinsky shouted at his son. “Go to the back, go to the back Eldar!” he screamed. “You see we’re in danger, don’t you?” But the G-forces were pressing him down into his seat so hard that he would have felt five times his normal weight. Although he tried to obey his father’s order, he was physically unable to move.
“Throttles to idle!” Piskaryov shouted, trying to reduce their speed. But by that point the plane was already starting to level out, and their speed was decreasing. Normal flight may have resumed if Piskaryov had simply let go of the controls, but instead he continued to hold his control column all the way back to the stop. Within seconds, the airplane began to climb. But if Piskaryov wanted to push the controls forward to level off, he might have been unable to do so — the diminutive copilot topped out at just 160cm (5’3”), and his seat was pushed all the way back to the stop. In that position, he couldn’t even reach the rudder pedals, and probably couldn’t push the control column more than a few degrees toward nose down either.
Meanwhile, Kudrinsky continued to shout at his son. “Get out!” he yelled. “Eldar, get out, get out! I’m telling you, get out!
As the plane climbed steeply, their airspeed dropped precipitously. Within seconds, they had decelerated to just 99 knots, far too slowly to maintain flight. The G-forces lifted, replaced by near weightlessness. Eldar scrambled out of the captain’s seat, but in the process he accidentally stepped on the right rudder pedal, sending the plane yawing sharply to the right. As Kudrinsky threw himself back into his seat, Piskaryov rolled hard to the left against the right yaw, and the plane stalled, spun around, and flipped violently upside down, hurtling into a spiral dive.
“Full power! Full power! Full power” Piskaryov bellowed, and Kudrinsky jammed the throttles forward.
“I gave power, I gave it!” Kudrinsky yelled. “What’s the speed?”
“I haven’t seen the instrument!” said Piskaryov.
Their speed was beginning to increase again, but they were spinning around and around like a top, descending rapidly with the nose pointed almost directly at the ground. Furiously working the controls, Kudrinsky managed to stabilize their roll angle at 20 degrees left, and together the pilots started to pull the plane out of the dive, from 90 degrees nose down to just 20. But Kudrinsky was only barely able to maintain his inputs — his seat was also pushed all the way back, and at only 170 cm (5’7”), he was not tall enough to reach the controls properly from this position either.
“The speed is high!” Piskaryov exclaimed.
“It is high, isn’t it?” said Kudrinsky.
“Too high!” said Piskaryov.
“I switched it off,” said Kudrinsky.
“We’ll get out, we’ll get out, we’ll get out,” said Piskaryov. “To the right, foot to the right! The speed is high, reduce power!”
“I reduced it!” said Kudrinsky.
Unfortunately, just as they were on the cusp of recovery, the increase in pitch caused their speed to drop too low, and an inadvertent kick to the rudder sent them back into a violent spin, this time even tighter than before. The plane turned over again into another dive, accelerating alarmingly.
“Gently!” Piskaryov shouted. “Fuck, not again!”
“Don’t turn right, the speed, I put some…” Kudrinsky said.
Kudrinsky pumped the rudder back and forth, arresting the spin. Although they were still falling fast, some semblance of control was starting to return again. Both pilots started trying to ease the plane out of the dive.
“We’ll get out now! Everything is okay!” Kudrinsky yelled. “Pull up gently! Gently, gently I said!”
At that point the spin finally stopped, and the nose came up to the horizon. They were still falling rapidly, but the rate of descent was starting to decrease as they pulled out of the dive. A little more time, and they would have made it — but it was too late. In a nearly flat attitude and with a descent rate of -13,800 feet per minute, Aeroflot flight 593 slammed into the side of a snow-covered mountain, ripping a terrible swath through the darkened forest. The A310 disintegrated utterly, spewing debris out into the night at tremendous speed amid a great flash of fire. Seconds later, the last flying pieces of wreckage came clattering to a stop, and quiet again descended over the Siberian wilderness, save only for the faint crackle of the flames.
At 59 minutes past midnight, controllers in Novokuznetsk readied themselves for flight 593’s next scheduled position report, but it never came. The plane had vanished from their radar screens, and their calls to the flight were met with a dreaded, unending silence. They waited with bated breath for nearly two hours, before they finally received the terrible news: burning wreckage had been seen on a remote mountainside some 24 kilometers southeast of the town of Mezhdurechensk. A team of rescuers had made their way up a narrow dirt road to the scene, where a burning streak had been carved into a hill above the empty shells of houses in the near-abandoned settlement of Malyy Maizas. Pieces of wreckage had rained down through the forest just outside the townsite — tiny fragments of fuselage frames, wing skin, engines, and much besides. By the time the rescuers secured the site, it was clear that none of the 75 passengers and crew had survived.
Aside from the emergency operations, which were effective, the official response to the crash was chaotic and disorganized. Numerous Russian aviation officials gave statements to the media based on wild, unfounded speculation which strained the credulity of international observers. Others insisted that the plane must have been brought down by a bomb, simply because it fell suddenly while in cruise, normally the safest part of the flight. The discovery of the intact body of a flight attendant wearing an oxygen mask led to early theories of an explosive decompression, but if anything had come off the plane before impact, finding it would have been difficult.
The investigation into the crash was headed by the Interstate Aviation Committee, or MAK, an international aviation body created in 1991 to carry out various regulatory and investigative activities across much of the former Soviet Union. Although the organization is now known for verbose, detailed, and pointed reports, this was one of its first major investigations, and its skills were as yet untested. Little did the investigators know, however, that answers would come in shocking fashion as soon as they listened to the cockpit voice recording, at a facility in France some two weeks after the accident.
The CVR recording left little doubt that the pilots had lost control while relief Captain Kudrinsky was demonstrating the plane’s capabilities to his children, and that at various points the children were actually sitting in the captain’s seat and manipulating the controls. This news leaked to the press almost immediately, but in incomplete form, and all sorts of wild rumors ensued, with various newspapers claiming that the pilots had left the cockpit entirely with the children at the controls, that Makarov — the pilot riding as a passenger — had intervened in an unsuccessful attempt to save the plane, and even that Eldar Kudrinsky was under the influence of prescription medications. For their part, MAK representatives, unsure how to react and panicking about the leaks, flat out denied that any children had touched the controls at all. Aeroflot went even farther, claiming that the reports of children in the cockpit were slanderous lies intended to harm the airline’s reputation.
In the end, the MAK could not deny the obvious. Although they diligently sought other explanations, all their tests and analysis pointed to only one possible sequence of events.
The trouble aboard the flight began with relief Captain Kudrinsky’s decision to invite his children to the flight deck. This first decision was technically against the rules, which barred unnecessary visitors from the cockpit, but this was perhaps a forgivable lapse. Countless pilots around the world had done the same, and no harm had ever come of it. If anything, such visits helped imbue the love of aviation into successive generations, which was certainly what Kudrinsky was trying to do when he decided to show off the plane to his kids. He might also have been motivated by pride in the A310, unable to resist awing an impressionable audience with the Airbus’s advanced technology.
Over the next few minutes, however, Kudrinsky steadily upped the ante, drifting from questionable judgment into blatant unprofessionalism. The decision to let Yana and Eldar sit in his seat was obviously reckless, though again, he was not the first to do it, and nothing bad had ever happened in the past. Investigators took far more issue with Kudrinsky’s failure to mitigate the risk he was taking. When he left his seat, he should have formally handed over control to First Officer Piskaryov and briefed the copilot on what he was going to do, so that he would be prepared to react. Instead, he simply launched into his demonstration without telling Piskaryov anything. This would play an important role later, as Piskaryov failed to prepare to take control of the plane, should it become necessary — most notably by leaving his seat at its rearmost position, where he couldn’t reach some of the controls.
Having already put them into a risky situation, Kudrinsky topped off his series of dubious decisions with the biggest whopper of them all: he gave Eldar permission to make inputs using the control column. It goes without saying that Eldar was not a qualified pilot and that allowing him to control the airplane was blatantly illegal. Investigators had largely held their tongue up until that point, but this was simply a step too far. In their report, the MAK wrote that Kudrinsky’s decision to let Eldar move the control column “showed an utterly careless and irresponsible disregard for flight safety, the result of poor discipline and a blatant ignorance of the rules contained in [the civil aviation regulations.]”
As Eldar manipulated the controls, he and Piskaryov inadvertently applied enough force to disengage the lateral channel of the autopilot. Here, the MAK turned its criticism on Airbus, calling into question the compliance of the design with Russian regulations, which required the engagement, disengagement, or change of mode of any autoflight system to be accompanied by a corresponding indication; and the International Civil Aviation Organization’s guidelines, which stated that there should be an appropriate indication for any “inadvertent change or disengagement of a mode.” In the event, however, this partial disconnection was not accompanied by any sort of warning or indication, and in fact the autopilot mode display would have continued to suggest that NAV mode was active, even though it was not. Airbus had evidently not considered the possibility that pilots could inadvertently disengage one channel but not the other, or assumed that it would not be a big deal if they did — an assumption which should have been proved wrong clear back in 1972, when Eastern Airlines flight 401 descended into the Florida Everglades after the pilots accidentally disengaged the vertical channel of the autopilot on their Lockheed L-1011 while attempting to fix a broken lightbulb.
Much as the lightbulb distracted the crew of the Eastern Airlines jet, the presence of children in the cockpit distracted the crew of Aeroflot flight 593, as they excitedly answered the questions continuously fired off by the inquisitive Yana Kudrinskaya. Nobody was monitoring the instruments, except apparently Eldar, who was the first to observe that the plane was banking excessively. Having been alerted to the issue, however, the pilots failed to follow the principle of “aviate, navigate, communicate” — they tried to figure out why the plane was turning before attempting to stop it. This was probably because they believed the autopilot was engaged, and did not think the autopilot could do anything dangerous to the flight path, reducing their sense of urgency.
By the time First Officer Piskaryov attempted to correct the excessive bank angle, the plane was already beginning to stall, and the disrupted airflow rendered the ailerons almost useless. Had he intervened six seconds earlier, he would have recovered easily, but in the event he was too late, and the plane begin to spiral uncontrollably inward. An automatic system brought the plane out of its stall, and Piskaryov managed to recover from the dive, but he overcorrected, allowing the plane to pitch up too steeply — likely in part because he physically could not reach far enough forward to push the nose down, although he may also have been disoriented by the rapid transition from descent to climb. Kudrinsky wanted to step in to help, but he had to get Eldar out of his seat first, which was initially impossible due to the G-forces.
Unfortunately, Piskaryov’s inputs led to a second stall, which was then turned into a stall-spin due to an ill-timed right rudder input. This couldn’t have come from Piskaryov, whose feet couldn’t reach the pedals, so the MAK theorized that Eldar stepped on the pedal as he was leaving the captain’s seat. After taking his seat back, Kudrinsky did a decent job recovering from the stall-spin, but he pulled out too aggressively, causing their speed to drop until an errant rudder input sent the plane into a second spin even worse than the first one.
Tragically, investigators noted that after the first spin, when Kudrinsky had wrangled the plane into a 20-degree nose down position with 20 degrees of left bank, recovery would have been assured if he had simply let go of the controls. Aerodynamic principles would have caused the plane to regain level flight from that position all on its own, but amid the panic, he never returned his controls to the neutral position, and the upset resumed. Kudrinsky again executed a successful spin recovery, but by the time the maneuver was complete, they had run out of altitude, and the plane struck the ground.
The pilots’ repeated unsuccessful attempts to regain control highlighted the importance of upset and recovery training, which teaches pilots to fly out of unusual aircraft attitudes. Despite being Aeroflot’s “best of the best,” neither pilot had undergone this training, and neither had ever attempted to recover from a high bank angle upset before. If they had, then the outcome might have been very different.
Investigators also criticized the training given to the pilots by Airbus during their transition to the A310. This training made no mention of the fact that the autopilot could partially disconnect, nor was this clearly explained in the flight crew operations manual. If Kudrinsky had known this, he might never have let Eldar move the control column in the first place.
Lastly, the MAK urged aircraft manufacturers to fit their planes with high bank angle warning systems. Although such warnings are ubiquitous today, in 1994 most planes did not have bank angle warnings. If flight 593 had had one, investigators wrote, the pilots would have been alerted to the excessive bank angle earlier, and Piskaryov might have corrected it before the ailerons became ineffective in the stall.
When the MAK released its findings in November 1994, proving that children in the cockpit had caused the crash, the reputation of Aeroflot was severely damaged. The professional reputation of the A310 crews, praised so highly by Aviation Week, was left in tatters. Instead, the accident was a damning indictment of aviation in the new Russia — if the most elite pilots at Russia’s best organized airline could bring down a plane in such a reckless and unnecessary manner, then could any Russian airline be trusted? Accident statistics during the 1990s showed that the answer was no. In fact, the level of aviation safety in Russia fell dramatically from late Soviet levels beginning in 1991, and did not begin to recover until approximately 2010. As for Aeroflot’s special A310 division, the final report proved to be its death knell, and “Russian Airlines” was unceremoniously absorbed back into the parent company in 1995. A few other safety improvements were made, such as the inclusion of information about the partial disconnection of the autopilot during training for A310 pilots. But what could be done to prevent otherwise competent pilots from making such gross errors of judgment? Although safety experts demanded more discipline from Russian pilots, there was no silver bullet which would instill it, and there never has been.
Today, the crash of Aeroflot flight 593 looms large in our popular consciousness. The story is oft repeated, usually with missing or distorted details, as primary sources are few — practically every retelling ultimately draws on the limited information contained in the MAK’s unusually short 22-page final report, which does not quite clarify all of our most burning questions. Nevertheless, we are drawn to this story of a proud father showing off his plane to his eager children, because it is deeply relatable. Even though Yaroslav Kudrinsky committed an act of great recklessness, we understand why he did it. We understand that he became caught up in the moment, propelled forward by pride and excitement, slowly making more and more dangerous decisions amid a fog of complacency. We empathize with the terror he must have felt in the flight’s final minutes, knowing that he was fighting to save not only his own life and his passengers’ lives, but the lives of his beloved son and daughter as well. And we grieve for their mother — left at home in Moscow to learn that her whole family had been lost, dashed against a mountain in Siberia not due to a sudden mechanical failure or a terrorist’s bomb, but because of the peculiar blindness of a father left alone with his children.
This unique empathy is perhaps the reason why most retellings position Kudrinsky as a tragic hero, in the Greek sense, rather than the villain of his own story. And it also explains why, in an act which remains controversial to this day, the remains of the crew were laid to rest in an elite cemetery in Moscow beside the firefighters who died at Chernobyl. Yana and Eldar are buried there too, side by side with a single headstone, on which their likenesses are carved above an image of a rose. Seeing them there, anger melts into sadness. Certainly few pilots are likely to repeat Kudrinsky’s mistakes — the price he paid was unimaginable, and it is this empathy for his fate which allows us to forgive the seemingly unforgivable. The father of crash victim Adrian Deauville perhaps put it best: “I can forgive the pilots,” he said. “I can forgive the children, for they were innocent. This man was 39 years old, and for those 39 years he had an exemplary flying career. He had a family, he was proud of them, and it was the final five minutes of those 39 years that went awry.”
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