Vnukovo Airlines flight 2801: the crash that changed Svalbard forever

Wreckage of Vnukovo AIrlines flight 2801 sits atop Operafjellet after the crash. Image source: the Governor of Svalbard

On the 29th of August 1996, a charter flight carrying Russian and Ukrainian coal miners to the Norwegian Arctic territory of Svalbard strayed off course on final approach into Longyearbyen. The Tupolev Tu-154 slammed into the snowbound summit of Operafjellet, killing all 141 people on board and devastating the Russian expatriate community of Pyramiden. The Norwegian investigation into the crash, the deadliest in the country’s history, found that the pilots of the chartered jet lacked sufficient understanding of the runway environment, the local procedures, and the English language, leading them onto an approach that they were unprepared to complete. But the story of Vnukovo Airlines flight 2801 goes even deeper, tying into the abandonment of Pyramiden, the decline of Russian industry, and the very future of Svalbard. This article seeks to tell not just the story of a plane crash, but of a plane crash in context, as a snapshot into life in a place on the very margin of the world.

The location of Svalbard. Image source: The Ocean Adventure

Svalbard is an archipelago of largely barren islands in the Arctic Ocean, situated 650 kilometers north of Norway and some 1,000 kilometers south of the North Pole. The islands may have been discovered by Vikings as early as the 1100s, but the first recorded sighting came from a Dutch mariner in 1596. For a time after that, several European nations used Svalbard to hunt whales and walrus, but no territorial claims were ever made. However, interest in Svalbard began to grow around the turn of the 20th century as Norwegian, British, and American companies started tapping into the archipelago’s abundant supply of coal. It was coal and other minerals that finally put Svalbard on the map as something more than a desolate curiosity. In 1920, an agreement gave Norway sovereignty over the islands, with a framework for other countries to sign onto the treaty and launch their own economic operations there. It was by this method that the Soviet Union first gained a foothold in Svalbard.

The Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen. Image source: The Economist

Development in Svalbard began with Norway’s establishment of the town of Longyearbyen in 1926. 10 years later, the Soviet Union acquired rights to the coal fields at Pyramiden and Barentsburg, under the auspices of the Soviet state-run coal mining company Trust Arktikugol. However, coal extraction at the two sites only took off after the Second World War. Pyramiden (in Russian, Пирамида), named for the spectacular pyramid-shaped mountain that loomed over the town, became the focus of much attention. As it turned out, mining coal at Pyramiden was never actually profitable, but the Soviet Union had plenty of other reasons to be there. First and foremost, Pyramiden and Barentsburg represented a Soviet presence on the soil of a member of NATO, a level of access that they could get nowhere else. As the USSR poured money into expanding Pyramiden, Norway was of course aware of the ulterior motive, but Svalbard was its own little world, and the Norwegians and the Russians got along well despite the geopolitical cloud hanging over distant Europe.

Bird’s-eye view of Pyramiden. Image source: Cruise Mapper

During the post-war years, the Soviet Union sought to make Pyramiden not just a coal mining town, but a window into the best aspects of life in the USSR. Hundreds of miners and their families took up residence in its newly established dormitories, and the state provided a wide range of amenities for them to enjoy. Pyramiden sported the world’s northernmost grand piano, a museum, a heated swimming pool, greenhouses growing vegetables, livestock for meat, a playground for the children, a soccer field, a theatre, a library, a basketball court, a weight room, and more. (Pyramiden also was, and still is, home to the northernmost statue of Vladimir Lenin.) Because the soil was so poor and the growing season so short, few plants grew naturally, so Pyramiden imported dirt from Siberia, spread it all around the town, and planted grass to alleviate the bleak Arctic landscape. As a result of all these efforts, which were intended to present an image to the West as much anything, life for the average person in Pyramiden was considerably better than they could expect back in the Soviet Union.

Pyramiden peaked in the 1980s with a population of about 1,000 people, and Soviet citizens made up some two thirds of Svalbard’s 4,000 residents. But in 1991, everything came crashing down: the Soviet Union collapsed, plunging the newly independent Russia into a deep economic crisis, and money for the unprofitable coal mining operation at Pyramiden began to dry up. Quality of life dropped. The coal seam appeared near exhausted. But still the town’s residents hung on, pushing forward through the growing uncertainty — until one last devastating blow finally crippled that resolve.

The aircraft involved in the accident. Image source: Werner Fischdick

To transport miners and their families to and from Pyramiden, Trust Arktikugol periodically arranged charter flights between Moscow and Svalbard’s main airport in Longyearbyen. Pyramiden residents used the flights to travel to Russia or Ukraine on business or to see family. For one such flight in August 1996, Trust Arktikugol hired Vnukovo Airlines, a carrier that broke off of Aeroflot in 1993 during the decentralization of the Russian aviation industry. Vnukovo Airlines, named for Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, operated a fleet of 52 Soviet-made aircraft, including several three-engine Tupolev Tu-154s. It was one of these Tu-154s that was scheduled to take 130 passengers, including three children, from Moscow back to Longyearbyen on the 29th of August.

In Moscow, 141 people boarded the plane, including 11 crew. In command of the flight were two captains, Yevgeny Nikolaev and Boris Sudarev, who was acting as first officer. Also on the flight deck were navigator Igor Akimov and flight engineer Anatoly Karapetrov. Rounding out the crew were five flight attendants and two technicians who would service the plane during its layover in Svalbard. All the pilots had flown to Svalbard before, except for Sudarev, who would receive instruction from Nikolaev during the flight. At Vnukovo Airlines, it was also standard protocol for pilots to review the approach in a simulator before flying to unusual destinations, and before the flight the crew flew a simulated approach and landing to runway 10 at Svalbard Airport Longyear.

The area surrounding the airport, with the approach that the pilots intended to use. Map source: Google

Vnukovo Airlines flight 2801 departed Moscow and proceeded without incident to a scheduled stop in Murmansk, where it took on fuel before continuing to Svalbard. At the airport in Longyearbyen, 120 people from Pyramiden and Barentsburg showed up to greet their friends and family members upon arrival. Some hours later, flight 2801 began its descent. Clouds shrouded the islands up to an altitude of 10,000 feet, meaning that an instrument approach would be necessary. To keep the landing as simple as possible, Nikolaev and Sudarev planned to land on runway 10, approaching over the waters of Isfjord from the west.

Svalbard Airport Longyear seen from the northwest. Image source: Wikipedia

Longyearbyen did not have an air traffic controller; instead, it had what is known as an Aerodrome Flight Information Service, or AFIS. The AFIS officer, unlike a true controller, only had the authority to provide advisory information; he could not give orders to aircraft. But in Russia, there was no such thing as an AFIS officer. This gave rise to a critical misunderstanding as flight 2801 approached Svalbard: the Russian pilots believed they were speaking to a controller, when in fact they were speaking to an AFIS officer, creating a situation in which the crew interpreted pieces of advice as hard and fast commands.

Compounding this looming problem was the fact that the Russian crew and Norwegian AFIS officer had to communicate in English, which was not their first language. All pilots and controllers must learn a certain amount of English to receive their certification, but they do not necessarily acquire or retain a working knowledge of the language beyond a repertoire of standardized phrases. None of the crew of flight 2801 spoke anything more than basic airman’s English.

An excerpt from the cockpit voice recorder transcript from flight 2801. Image source: the Norwegian Air Accidents Investigation Board

Preparing for an approach over the fjord to runway 10, Captain Nikolaev conducted an approach briefing, and the crew divided up the duties of the approach. First Officer Sudarev would be flying, Captain Nikolaev would be monitoring, and the Navigator Akimov would handle the radio calls. But Sudarev quickly announced that he would control the vertical aspect only, and asked Akimov to handle lateral navigation. Captain Nikolaev should therefore have assumed responsibility for the radio calls, but he did not, because he was instructing Sudarev on landing in Longyearbyen, and because Akimov spoke better English. This put a disproportionate burden on Akimov, and represented poor crew resource management.

At 9:55 a.m., Akimov opened radio contact with the AFIS officer in Svalbard and asked for permission to descend. However, his English skills, while marginally better than those of the other crew members, were quite poor. He repeatedly used the word “estimate” when he intended to say “request,” telling the AFIS officer that flight 2801 was “estimating descent.” The AFIS officer had no authority to approve or deny a request to descend, but he responded with the word “approved,” reinforcing the pilots’ preconception that he had the authority of a full air traffic controller.

Another excerpt from the radio conversation (internal cockpit conversations are omitted).

Akimov then followed up by saying, “Estimated approach runway 10,” when he meant “Requesting approach [to] runway 10.” Consequently, the AFIS officer didn’t interpret this as a request to use runway 10, and instead told Akimov that the current runway in use was runway 28 (the same runway from the opposite direction). This was because the prevailing wind that day favoured an approach to runway 28. But the crew hadn’t planned to use this runway and still wanted to use runway 10.

Therefore, Akimov told the controller, “Longyear Information, 2801, request runway in use for landing to runway 10.”

This nonstandard terminology again confused the AFIS officer, who thought Akimov wanted clarification on which runway was in use. “VKO 2801, Longyear,” he replied, “the runway in use is 28.”

Akimov, not realizing that the AFIS officer could only give advice and not commands, misunderstood this clarification as an order to use runway 28. He replied that flight 2801 would land on runway 28, and from that moment the crew abandoned the plan they’d spent the last several minutes preparing and started over from scratch.

Map of the approach to runway 28.

Beginning with the unexpected and unwanted runway change, events began to spiral out of control. The crew didn’t perform a formal approach briefing for runway 28, which is especially notable considering that it was a very unusual approach. Landing on runway 28 requires a descent on a heading of 300˚ down the centre of the Adventdal Valley, avoiding mountains rising to 3,000 feet on both sides, then making a left turn at the last moment to line up with the runway. Known as an “offset approach,” this type of approach was largely unfamiliar to the Russian crew, and it was not clear that everyone on the flight deck fully comprehended its peculiarity. Not only was this approach difficult, it lacked an instrument landing system, and Svalbard Airport Longyear did not have radar. Nevertheless, Captain Nikolaev and First Officer Sudarev correctly tuned their instruments to display the centerline of the final approach.

Akimov now had to rush to prepare to navigate the plane onto this new approach, while simultaneously handling radio communications in a language he barely understood. Over the next several minutes, he misstated altitudes, gave and then retracted an incorrect ETA, and repeatedly referred to the Advent radio beacon, or ADV (“Alpha Delta Victor”), as “Lima Alpha” (LA). At the same time, the pilots started their descent without having completed the before descent checklist. The result was an approach that was dangerously rushed and for which the crew was unprepared.

Progress of flight 2801 vs. the ideal flight path.

Flight 2801 needed to make a hard right turn after passing abeam the Advent radio beacon, to fly away from the airport before looping back to begin the approach. (The segment heading away from the airport is known as the outbound leg; the return segment is known as the inbound leg.) However, the overworked navigator began the right turn too late, putting the plane to the left of the optimal centerline of the outbound leg (see diagram). Flying parallel to the centerline, the pilots took no action to get back on course, even though Captain Nikolaev commented that “A corrective turn will be necessary.” During the outbound leg, the AFIS officer asked flight 2801 to report when it was 8 miles from the airport on the inbound leg. Another muddled conversation ensued when Akimov incorrectly read this back as 10 miles. By now the AFIS officer had gotten the impression that the crew was confused — little did he know this would be his last conversation with the Russian plane.

Progress of flight 2801 vs. the ideal flight path.

Next, the crew had to make a 180-degree turn onto the inbound leg down the Adventdal Valley. But because they were too far to the left of the centerline of the outbound leg, they came out of the turn too far to the right of the centerline of the inbound leg (see diagram). The compass heading of the inbound leg was 300 degrees. During this turn, Captain Nikolaev adjusted the heading knob instead of Akimov. He appeared to roll out of the turn too late, overshooting the appropriate heading by 10 degrees, perhaps in an attempt to get back toward the centerline. But this appeared to confuse the other crew members. Sudarev told him to “Set it straight,” at which point Nikolaev appeared to give up lateral control, asking “What [heading] should I hold?”

“Maybe we took the final turn too early?” Sudarev asked.

Now Nikolaev appeared to change his mind about which way they needed to go. “Let’s turn to the right,” he said, incorrectly deciding that they were now too far to the left. The crew’s navigational instruments didn’t seem to tally with one another. They were starting to lose situational awareness. Akimov made a turn back onto a heading of 300 degrees, putting them on a course paralleling the centerline of the inbound leg on the right side.

At this point, Akimov made a critical mistake. While rushing to program his GPS earlier in the approach, he had entered the desired approach path incorrectly by failing to account for the offset. The approach centerline on his GPS therefore represented the extended centerline of the runway on a heading of 283 degrees, rather than down the Adventdal Valley on a heading of 300 degrees, like the charts indicated and the other pilots had programmed. This caused Akimov to believe that they were to the left of the approach centerline when they were in fact to the right of it (see diagram below).

Progress of flight 2801 vs. the ideal flight path, with annotation explaining Akimov’s mistake.

At the same time, Captain Nikolaev could look at his course deviation indicator (CDI), which he had programmed with the correct centerline, and see that they were indeed too far to the right. This created a misunderstanding between Nikolaev and Akimov that was never corrected. The two men were in effect operating based on a different understanding of the facts caused by the different approach centerlines they had programmed into their respective instruments; only Nikolaev’s was correct, but unfortunately Akimov was the one controlling their course. The captain and the navigator began arguing about which way they needed to go. Akimov forcefully insisted that to follow the approach chart, they needed to go to the right, while Nikolaev protested that they ought to go left. During this time, flight 2801 had been flying level at 5,000 feet; but now that they were getting closer to the airport, they elected to descend, despite not agreeing on where they were. Eventually Nikolaev simply ordered Akimov to steer left, but Akimov, believing this to be folly, didn’t adjust the heading far enough to get back on course. Nikolaev ordered that they turn more, but Akimov refused. At that point Nikolaev gave in completely, telling Akimov, “You guide us, you guide us!”

By now, flight 2801 was on a collision course with the 3,000-foot massif of Operafjellet, a mountain looming over the right side of the Adventdal Valley. Still, the crew scarcely wavered from their deadly course as they continued to argue over which way to go. Minor heading corrections were made, first to the right, then back to the left. At 10:23, the Tupolev’s Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) activated, warning the crew that they were on a collision course with terrain. The GPWS consists of both an aural alarm and a visual warning. But the aural part of the warning failed for unknown reasons, leaving only the flashing red light. Momentarily confused by the activation of one but not the other, the pilots hesitated for a couple seconds. Then a separate radio altimeter warning kicked in as this instrument also detected a dangerous closure rate with the ground. The crew took evasive action immediately, accelerating hard and pulling up in an attempt to climb away from the danger. But it was too late. The sheer face of the flat-topped Operafjellet suddenly materialized out of the fog, looming dead ahead.

My original drawing of the moment of impact.

“Mountains!” shouted Sudarev. His were the last words recorded on the cockpit voice recorder. A split second later, the Tupolev plowed into the top of the cliffs at a 45-degree angle, shattering instantly upon impact with the icy precipice. The front of the plane, including the cockpit and the left wing, were catapulted upward onto the top of the plateau, while the tail section and the engines careened off the cliff face and tumbled down into the yawning chasm below. The crash broke loose an unstable mass of ice and snow, triggering an avalanche that swept through the wreckage just seconds after it came to rest.

Rescuers at the crash site on top of Operafjellet. Image source: Aviation Accidents Database

There were no witnesses to the crash, high up on a mountain face overlooking a trackless valley. But when the plane failed to arrive as scheduled, search and rescue operations swung into action while relatives waited in the airport, desperate for news. Shortly after noon, they received the news they had been dreading: the crash site had been found on Operafjellet, and there were no survivors. All 141 people on board had died instantly on impact. A Russian media report initially provided false hope when it claimed five people had been found alive and taken to a hospital, but its claim proved to be untrue.

The crash shook Svalbard to its core. This was the deadliest plane crash in Norwegian history by nearly a factor of three. Never before had such a monumental tragedy occurred on this isolated archipelago. As many as one in seven residents of Pyramiden had been killed, and the remainder had all lost multiple close family members and friends. An aura of despair fell over the once happy and resilient community, whose residents, reeling from the tragedy, knew nothing would ever be the same.

The bust of Lenin looks across Pyramiden to the far side of the fjord. Image source: The Barents Observer

As the investigation by Norwegian and Russian authorities worked to uncover the cause of the crash, Trust Arktikugol worked to decide the fate of Pyramiden. For a while, the town continued to run, its residents going about their duties in a state of perpetual listlessness, as though grief had robbed it of its soul. Trust Arktikugol saw the writing on the wall. The community had been shattered, the coal seam had nearly run out, and it wouldn’t be profitable to dig deeper to reach more. The strategic value of the town had declined in the post-Cold War world. For Russia, the lesson was clear: there was no sense mining coal in Pyramiden any longer. In 1997, Trust Arktikugol decided to close the town, and in March of 1998, the last lump of coal was extracted.

There is a bit of an urban legend, if you can call it urban in a place like Svalbard, that Pyramiden was abandoned essentially overnight. This isn’t strictly true. The exodus began in March, and by October, all but the tiniest skeleton crew had packed their bags and moved to Barentsburg, or back home to Russia or Ukraine. One could be forgiven for thinking they left in a hurry. Books still lie scattered on office desks, bottles of vodka still stand where they were last set down, and machinery still sits wherever they left it after using it for the last time. For the people who had made their lives in Pyramiden, the closure of the town was bittersweet. Although its streets were stained by tragedy, they also left behind happier memories of the community they forged and the time they spent together.

Wreckage of flight 2801 atop Operafjellet. Image source: The Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives

The investigation into the crash of Vnukovo Airlines flight 2801 blamed a series of mistakes by the crew that underscored some of the most noteworthy causes of human error in aviation. If the pilots had a better understanding of English and of local air traffic control policy, they would have gone ahead with the plan to land on runway 10, and that would have been the end of it. Once they switched to the unfamiliar approach to runway 28, which they had not briefed or practiced in the simulator, they let their aircraft get ahead of them. The overworked navigator made a critical error programming the GPS (which should not have been used as the primary navigation aid in the first place), and the rest of the crew did not work together to resolve the resulting disagreement.

Some of the debris tumbled down to the base of the mountain. Image source: The Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives

At numerous points during the fateful approach, the pilots could have taken a step back and realized they were headed for disaster. They knew they were off course after the turn onto the outbound leg, but they forged onward anyway. They descended into mountainous terrain in inclement weather, even though they were unsure of their position. First Officer Sudarev repeatedly asked questions like, “Where are we?” and “How are we approaching? Is it correct or not?” that should have been clear warning signs of an unstable approach. And yet, it doesn’t seem that any of the pilots ever considered the possibility of making a missed approach, climbing to a safe altitude and giving themselves time to figure it out. They succumbed to tunnel vision, a frustratingly common psychological pitfall in which one becomes so focused on a goal — in this case, landing — that one ignores all evidence suggesting that the goal is best abandoned. Recognizing this sort of fixation is crucial to safe flight. Sadly, despite encountering a multitude of warning signs, the pilots never managed to put them together and see the big picture.

Wreckage of flight 2801 atop Operafjellet. Image source: The Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives

In its final report on the crash, the Norwegian Aircraft Accident Investigation Board made 19 safety recommendations, including that Vnukovo Airlines train its pilots in crew resource management and better techniques to maintain situational awareness; that Russia’s civil aviation authority provide better English language training for pilots, and that Norway’s CAA do the same for controllers; that Vnukovo Airlines teach pilots to speak up and call for a missed approach if they are unsure of the aircraft’s position; that the approach to runway 28 at Longyearbyen be revised; and that periodic checks be performed to ensure the quality of cockpit voice recordings. Many of the remaining recommendations were more obscure procedural points meant to make it easier for crews to perform complex approaches like the one attempted by the accident flight. The board also encouraged Norway’s CAA to continue its effort to install radar at mountainous airports, noting that in 1998, an Aeroflot Ilyushin Il-76 strayed off course while landing in the Norwegian town of Evenes, and an accident was avoided when the controller spotted the deviation on radar and ordered the plane to make a missed approach.

Even as Russia evacuated Pyramiden, relatives of the victims filed lawsuits against Vnukovo Airlines and its insurance company, seeking compensation for what they viewed as negligence by its pilots. In Ukraine, home to many of the victims, relatives expressed anger at a lack of transparency and poor communication. The airline offered $20,000 per victim, a paltry sum compared to what they would have been entitled to under Norwegian law, but the treaty governing Svalbard exempted them from Norway’s compensation rules. Despite the best efforts of their lawyers, the plaintiffs were forced to settle for about $60,000 each after running out of money to pursue the matter further.

A tourist photographs the ruins of the coal mine at Pyramiden. Image source: BuenDia Photography

Today, for the 400 or so Russians and Ukrainians still living in Svalbard, life goes on. Coal mining continues in Barentsburg, giving the town a reason to exist, at least for now. Pyramiden, however, is slowly decaying, although a handful of holdouts do their best to keep it maintained. As wood withers in the arctic cold and seagulls take up residence on the sills of shattered windows, the bust of Lenin still looks down upon the ice-choked fjord, and one could imagine that the theater might yet show a movie again someday. Recently, Pyramiden has become something a of a tourist attraction, as people trickle out to the edge of the world to see the Soviet ghost town frozen in time. The town’s hotel even reopened to house the visitors, and a few companies based in Longyearbyen now offer guided tours that provide a unique window into a time capsule preserving the ebb and flow of Soviet life.

Barentsburg, the other Russian town in Svalbard. Image source: Visit Svalbard

But nothing lasts forever. Periodically there are questions about the future of Barentsburg too. How long Russia will maintain its outpost in the Norwegian Arctic is uncertain, as the country enters a new and protracted era of economic hardship and demand for coal begins to drop around the world. Russian industry is on the decline, and the arctic is littered with similar abandoned towns that once produced the raw materials that fueled the economy of the Soviet Union (although the story of Pyramiden is perhaps unique among them). It is plausible that in the next few decades, Russia might pull out of Svalbard entirely, leaving only the Norwegians to look after the graves they will leave behind.

The memorial to the victims of the crash. Image source: Henric på Svalbard

Some of the wreckage of the Tupolev Tu-154 still lies on the slopes of Operafjellet where it came to rest. A plaque topped with an Orthodox cross and a bell peeks out of the snow, alongside a few half-buried wreaths and a piece of the airliner’s wing, standing up straight like some strange metallic monolith. In fading letters, the plaque reads, “An eternal monument to the polar explorers, tragically killed in the air disaster — 29 August 1996,” followed by the list of all 141 names. In the perpetually frozen climate of Svalbard, both the monument and the town of Pyramiden might well outlast all memory of the plane crash that left such an outsized mark on this obscure corner of the earth.

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (soon™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.

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