A plane crash in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula emblematises the nation’s deteriorating aviation safety record and a much bigger problem of its gigantic Far East region that faces depopulation despite its mineral riches, according to experts.
All 22 passengers and six crew on board the An-28 aircraft, including two children, died after the aircraft crashed into a rock that towers over the Sea of Okhotsk in northwestern Kamchatka, Russia’s volcano-studded Pacific peninsula, on a foggy, cloudy Tuesday afternoon.
Most of the bodies have been fished out of the frigid waters.
Rescue workers continue to comb through the area of some 20 square kilometres (about 8 sq miles) in search of debris and the plane’s flight recorder, the Emergency Ministry said.
There is no official conclusion into what triggered Tuesday’s crash, but Russian prosecutors say that possible causes may include a pilot’s error, bad weather or a technical glitch.
The incident indicates a larger problem of small Russian airlines operating decades-old planes that need better equipment, such as instrument landing systems, that ensure the precision of flights, experts told Al Jazeera.
Newer equipment would increase the usability of each airport in bad weather – something known in aviation as a “meteorological minima”.
“This will give a chance to increase the meteorological minima, when safe takeoffs and landings are possible,” Oleg Panteleyev, a Moscow-based expert with the Infomost Consulting agency, told Al Jazeera.
Russia also has one of the world’s worst safety records.
According to a 2018 report by the Interstate Aviation Committee, a group that oversees air safety standards in the post-Soviet Union states, pilots’ errors cause 75 percent of plane crashes and other accidents in Russia and other ex-USSR states.
Some of the most recent deadliest crashes in Russia include the December 2016 tragedy, which saw a military plane crash into the Black Sea after taking off from Sochi International Airport, killing 92 people – including 64 members of the army choir on their way to Syria to perform for Russian troops.
In November 2013, a Boeing-737 owned by Russian company Tatarstan crashed in the Volga region city of Kazan, killing 50 passengers and crew.
In April 2010, all 96 people on board a Tupolev-154 Polish air force plane carrying Poland’s president and top Polish officials died in a crash near the western Russian city of Smolensk.
“There is reliably one big crash with corpses per year,” Mikhail Barabanov, an analyst with the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, said in a Facebook post in 2019, shortly after an emergency landing of an Aeroflot SSJ-100 plane in Moscow killed 41.
A dying region
In Kamchatka, planes are the only reliable way of moving around the region, a United Kingdom-sized peninsula with a population of mere 320,000.
Kamchatka’s mountainous terrain, numerous rivers and Siberian climate make the construction of asphalt roads impossible.
“There are no roads and land [transport] infrastructure as such, they’re minimal only in the coastal areas,” Moscow-based air safety expert Roman Gusarov told Al Jazeera.
“That’s why they operate small regional planes, mostly with turboprop engines, that are capable of landing on small airports with sort airstrips,” he said.
These airlines are vital to Russia, the world’s largest nation by landmass, where permafrost and huge distances make roads unreliable and impassable.
Kamchatka exemplifies these typically Russian conditions – and the reason why the eastern part of the nation of 143 million facing a catastrophic depopulation.
“There are no roads in principle” in the peninsula’s north, said Kamchatka native Natalia Sushko.
She was born on the peninsula’s south 62 years ago, but left it for the “continent”, as mainland Russia is called there, in 2013.
“Kamchatka is unimaginably beautiful, but that’s it. The summer lasts two or three months, but the rest of the year is rains, humidity, cold, winds and blizzards,” said Sushko, who now lives in a Moscow suburb.
Her departure is part of a mass exodus from Kamchatka and the rest of Russia’s Far East, a gargantuan chunk of Northeastern Asia that borders Alaska, China, North Korea and Japan and comprises two-fifths of Russia’s territory.
That is a bit more than all of Australia, but the region’s population is just 8.2 million. And that is 20 percent down from before the Soviet collapse.
Despite promises of free land and other perks, people still leave the region in droves, and by 2050, there could be fewer than four million people living there, demographers predict.
Planes and helicopters of all kinds played a key role in the Soviet Union’s effort to develop the resource-rich region.
Communist Moscow developed an aviation network that would transport people, food, drugs, medical equipment and even hay.
“We used to fly hay to the Far North so that children could drink milk,” Vitali Shelkovnikov, who heads the Moscow-based Flight Safety consulting agency, told Al Jazeera.
The cows that ate the hay were blind because of months-long Arctic nights, but their milk was still good for the kids, he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the bereaved families, and the regional governor pledged financial compensations of up to $5,000.
“We will do everything to help [you] survive this tragedy,” Vladimir Solodov told families of the victims in the town of Palana.
Some locals, however, believe that the tragedy could have been prevented – because a similar plane crashed into the same rock nine years ago.
In 2012, another An-28 with 14 people on board collided with the Pyatibratka (Of Five Brothers) rock. Only four passengers survived, and a wooden Orthodox cross with the names of the dead marks the collision site.
Locals pledged to have the rock blown up or change the route of planes landing in Palana. Aviation officials supported the idea, the local Kamchatka Info publication reported.
But authorities did not respond. “They didn’t even care to reply,” a local resident told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.