Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801

Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801
The wreckage at Operafjellet
Date29 August 1996
SummaryControlled flight into terrain due to pilot error and loss of situation awareness
SiteOperafjellet, Svalbard, Norway
78°12.846′N 016°05.719′E / 78°12.846′N 016°05.719′E / 78.214100; 16.095317
Aircraft typeTupolev Tu-154M
OperatorVnukovo Airlines
Flight originVnukovo International Airport, Moscow, Russia
DestinationSvalbard Airport, Longyear, Longyearbyen, Norway

Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801 was an international charter flight from Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia to Svalbard Airport in Longyearbyen, Svalbard Norway. On 29 August 1996, at 10:22:23 Central European Summer Time, crashed in Operafjellet, Svalbard, during the approach to Svalbard Airport, Longyear. All 141 people (11 crew members and 130 passengers, of which 3 were children) aboard the Tupolev Tu-154M were killed, making it the deadliest aviation accident ever in Norway. The accident was the result of a series of small navigational errors causing the aircraft to be 3.7 kilometres (2.3 mi; 2.0 nmi) from the approach centerline at the time of impact.

The Vnukovo Airlines aircraft, registration number RA-85621, had been chartered by Arktikugol, a Russian state-owned coal mining company, to fly Russian and Ukrainian workers to its Pyramiden town on Svalbard. The passengers all belonged to the Russian communities of Barentsburg and Pyramiden. The accident was a contributing cause for Arktikugol's closure of Pyramiden two years later. The accident was investigated by the Accident Investigation Board Norway with assistance from the Interstate Aviation Committee and became known as the Operafjell Accident (Norwegian: Operafjell-ulykken). After the accident, there were a series of lawsuits to determine the compensations to the victims' families.



The aircraft involved in the accident in January 1993, then operated by BosnaAir

Flight 2801 was a chartered flight flown by Vnukovo Airlines on behalf of Arktikugol, which operated mines at the two company towns of Barentsburg and Pyramiden in Svalbard.[1] The aircraft was a Tupolev Tu-154M, with registration RA-85621, and serial number 86A 742. Its manufacture date was 14 January 1987.[2]:15 The flight crew consisted of captain Evgeny Nikolaevich Nikolaev (44), first officer Boris Fedorovich Sudarev (58), navigator Igor Petrovich Akimov (50), flight engineer Anatoly Matveevich Karapetrov (38), five cabin crew, and two technicians. The captain had previously landed at Svalbard Airport; the first officer had not.[2]:7–8

On board were 130 passengers, consisting of Arktikugol employees and their families, three of whom were children.[2]:7 Waiting at the airport for the return flight were another 120 employees and their families.[3] The aircraft left Vnukovo Airport at 04:44 UTC (08:44 MSD). Estimated flight time was three and a half hours, and alternative airports were Murmansk Airport and Severomorsk-3, both in Murmansk Oblast.[2]:7 The flight proceeded normally until descent, following the routing W 29 from Moscow to Padun (west of Murmansk), before crossing to Bodø Flight Information Region over the Barents Sea cruising at FL 350 at an average airspeed of 500 kilometres per hour (310 mph). It then proceeded over non-directional beacons over Bjørnøya, Isfjorden, and Adventdalen.[2]:8

Svalbard Airport, Longyear, is the main airport serving the Svalbard archipelago. It is located on the south shore of Isfjorden, with high terrain to the south, southeast and east. It has a single, 2,140-metre-long (7,020 ft) 10/28 runway, running roughly east–west. The airport has an elevation of 28 metres (92 ft) above mean sea level (MSL), and has an aerodrome flight information service (AFIS), which is subordinate to Bodø Air Traffic Control Center (Bodø ATCC). The airport is regarded as uncontrolled and does not provide approach service.[2]:24

On that day, all aircraft had used runway 28 due to favorable wind conditions, climb-up conditions, and short distance from the terminal.[2]:25 The weather at the accident area was dominated by a low pressure trough, causing rain showers and wind from 15 to 30 knots (28 to 56 km/h; 17 to 35 mph) at 240–270°. Visibility exceeded 10 kilometres (6.2 mi; 5.4 nmi). Between 08:00 and 09:00, a weak trough passed, reducing visibility to six kilometres (4 mi) and a cloud base at 400 to 450 metres (1,300 to 1,500 ft).[2]:18


The Tu-154's route of flight and accident location

At 07:55 UTC (09:55 local Central European Summer Time, CEST), the crew requested clearance to start their descent. Because of lack of communication with Bodø ATCC, this was not obtained. At 07:56, information from Longyear AFIS was given that there was no conflicting traffic, allowing a descent to 1,800 metres (6,000 ft) MSL. The crew tried to request use of Runway 10, but this was, due to language problems, not understood as such by AFIS. Instead, Longyear communicated the actual weather and informed that Runway 28 was in use. An additional request for use of Runway 10 was again not understood, because of the misunderstanding of the term "runway in use". Because of this, the crew decided to instead use Runway 28.[2]:8

The crew used Jeppesen charts dated 21 January 1994. According to procedures, both horizontal situation indicators (HSI) were set to 283°, but the magnetic localizer course of 300° was not set. A global positioning system (GPS) was used as a back-up. No requests were made for VHF direction finding.[2]:8 From 3,000 metres (10,000 ft) MSL until impact, the flight was carried out in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and the flight controlled by automatic stabilization mode, with lateral navigation controlled by the navigator.[2]:9

At 08:10 UTC, the aircraft reached 1,524 metres (5,000 ft) MSL, which is the minimum altitude to Advent and the initial approach altitude. At 08:15:32 UTC, it reached Advent and entered a base turn, reaching a magnetic heading of 160° at 08:16:28 UTC. While the crew had adjusted for the wind drift, they did not attempt to intercept the magnetic course 155° outbound from Advent. During this turn, there was a malfunction in the electric trimming mechanism, which caused the piloting pilot to deactivate the aircraft flight control systems' servogear in the pitch channel at 08:15:58. This was again activated at 08:16:42 UTC.[2]:9

At 08:17:08 UTC, the crew started the turn to bring the aircraft to 300° magnetic inbound, however, the lateral deviation from the outbound magnetic course was 155°, or 3.7 kilometres (2.3 mi; 2.0 nmi) to the left. At 08:17:57 UTC, the navigator said "Ah, abeam eight miles 2801 inbound", to which AFIS replied two seconds later "Correct". This was the last radio communication between the crew and Longyear. At 08:18:30 UTC, the piloting pilot turned off the autopilot pitch channel.[2]:9 For the rest of the flight, the plane continued with autopilot only in roll.[2]:10

Following the aircraft passing through the localizer centerline and having rolled out on 290°, there was a discussion among the crew if the turn had been made at the right time. The initial comment about this was made by the first officer at 08:19:06 UTC. This resulted in a roll out of the turn to final approach and corrective turn to magnetic heading 306°. At this time, the aircraft was 27.4 nautical miles (50.7 km; 31.5 mi) from the airport and 2.8 kilometres (1.7 mi; 1.5 nmi) right of the centerline at 1,520 metres (5,000 ft) MSL with an airspeed of 330 kilometres per hour (210 mph). Instead of intercepting the centerline, the crew continued to track on the right side, nearly paralleling the localizer course.[2]:10

At 08:20:17 UTC, the pilot in command ordered the aircraft turned to 291°, which adjusted for drift resulted in a course close to 300°. At this time, the aircraft had a lateral deviation from the approach centerline of 3.7 kilometres (2.3 mi). The aircraft started descending at 08:20:24 UTC. A corrective turn was made at 08:21:13 UTC and completed 11 seconds later at magnetic heading 300°. At the time, the aircraft was descending 5 to 7 metres per second (16 to 23 ft/s). The aircraft started turning left at 08:22:05 UTC, and immediately entered an area of turbulence created by the surrounding mountains.[2]:10

During initial approach, the radio altimeter warning had been activated several times, which indicated less than 750 metres (2,460 ft) from the aircraft to the terrain. During final approach, the ground proximity warning system was activated nine seconds before impact, which lasted until impact. Six seconds before impact, the radio altimeter warning was activated. At 08:22:23 UTC (10:22:23 local CEST) the aircraft collided with the top of Operafjellet at 907 metres (2,976 ft) elevation, located 14.2 kilometres (8.8 mi) from Svalbard Airport and 3.7 kilometres (2.3 mi) right of the approach centerline. The aircraft was destroyed and all occupants perished.[2]:10 It is the single deadliest plane crash to have occurred on Norwegian soil.[4]


Adventfjorden with Operafjellet, the location of the accident, in the background

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Northern Norway received a message about the crash at 10:30 CEST (8:30 UTC) and the search and rescue service was immediately deployed. This included seven Norwegian aircraft that were in the area. The area had bad weather with a low cloud height, resulting in difficult searching conditions. The aircraft was found at 12:06 CEST at Operafjellet, 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) east of Svalbard Airport. Most of the aircraft was located on the mountain's plateau, although some debris had slidden down a vertical cliff and was scattered along the valley and partially covered by an avalanche. Rescue workers and medics from Longyearbyen Hospital arrived at 12:36, and quickly established that there were no survivors.[1]

The responsibility of the recovery was transferred to the Governor of Svalbard on 30 August, since there were no survivors. In addition, police personnel from the mainland were transferred to Svalbard to work with the investigation and recovery. The work was supplemented by local volunteers. Because of the bad weather, which included fog and snow, it was often impossible to transport workers to the plateau, and work therefore started in the valley.[1]

Governor Ann-Kristin Olsen traveled to Barentsburg on 30 August to inform the communities about the accident, and distributed ample written information in Russian about the then-known details about the crash. Later in the day, a Russian aircraft arrived with Deputy Minister Aleksandr Petrovich of the Ministry of Emergency Situations along with a team of 11 rescue workers, and representatives from the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC), the Embassy of Ukraine in Moscow, the Federal Air Transport Agency and Vnukovo Airlines. In a meeting that evening, the Governor accepted Russian assistance, while it was confirmed by international agreement that the investigation would be led by the authorities in the country where the accident occurred, Norway. On 31 August, Minister of Justice Grete Faremo visited the Russian settlements as a representative from the Government of Norway.[1]

The accident had a large impact on the community, with only 1,600 people living in the two Russian settlements. The population in the communities do not speak Norwegian, and do not have a road connection to Longyearbyen. This made it difficult for the Governor to give accurate and detailed information. Issues were further complicated by erroneous reports in Russian media that there were five survivors. The Governor's cabin in Barentsburg was manned during the aftermath, and bulletins were distributed with updated information in Russian.[1] The accident was one of the factors causing Arktikugol to abandon Pyramiden in 1998.[5]