In episode 121 of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the shocking story behind the cause of the crash of Aeroflot 593, which crashed in Siberia while enroute to Hong Kong on March 22, 1994. While Flight 593 cruised at altitude, relief Captain Yaroslav Kudrinsky allowed his two children, Eldar and Yana, to sit in his seat. While Yana simply turned the plane, Eldar ended up accidentally applying pressure on the control column. This action inadvertently gave him partial control over the plane when this caused the autopilot that controlled the ailerons to disconnect, unknown to anyone in the cockpit. Eldar turned the plane right, and then it kept turning, until the plane went beyond a 45-degree bank angle. It took minutes before either the relief captain or his first officer understood the situation unfolding, and once they did, they struggled over the next few minutes as the plane climbed, descended, stalled, and then corkscrewed twice. It didn’t help that at times, positive and negative g-forces crippled the captain’s ability to retake his seat behind the controls. Ultimately, with the pilots back at the control, they recovered from the dive – twice – but the first time they overcorrected and caused a second stall, and the second time they recovered but ran out of altitude and crashed into the hillside below. The Russian investigation discovered the presence of the captain’s children at the controls, which was a key contributor the crash. However, the pilots’ lack of experience in upset recovery training and lack of awareness that the A310 autopilot could partially disconnect without an audible warning were also contributors. The crash left the public split over how much blame the pilots should be attributed, with many every-day Russians feeling the pilots were heroes who tried their best in a “freak accident” to recover the pane. However, families of the Flight 593 victims, along with most experts in aviation, believed the pilots displayed a severe disregard for procedure and adherence to flight safety.
Aeroflot’s New International Flights Mean Prestigious Pilots
Aeroflot Flight 593 is preparing for departure from Moscow, Russia, to Hong Kong on March 22, 1994. The aircraft that is known as Flight 593 is an Airbus A310-300, and in fact, is fairly new to the Aeroflot fleet. This is only our second episode featuring this airline, so here is a quick refresher about it.
Aeroflot is Russia’s state-owned airline. Following economic difficulties in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Aeroflot decided to take advantage of international flights when domestic travel began to slump. The airline created a label within Aeroflot called Russian International Airlines (RIA). To make these routes even more prestigious, RIA bought several new Airbus A310s, which at the time, were the latest and greatest of the A-300 class. And if RIA was going to have first-class flying machines, they needed first-class pilots to fly them.
There are three such pilots on Flight 593. The captain was Andrey Danilov, aged 40, who was hired by Aeroflot in November 1992. He had accrued over 9,500 hours of flight time, including 950 hours in the A310. The first officer was Igor Piskaryov, aged 33, hired by Aeroflot in October 1993, who had almost 6,000 hours of flight time, including 440 hours in the A310. The relief captain was Yaroslav Kudrinsky, aged 39, who was hired by Aeroflot in November 1992; he had almost 9,000 flying hours, including 907 hours in the A310.
Aeroflot pilots like Danilov, Kudrinsky, and Piskaryov are considered prestigious, too, and even wear different uniforms to delineate them from other Aeroflot pilots. Their station as international pilots flying the new Airbus fleet was so prestigious that only 16 men out of 3,000 pilots were selected to fly these routes.
These so-called “best of the best” pilots received extensive training on the new Airbus type, which were fully automated aircraft equipped with flight protection systems, including an advanced autopilot that could fly the plane itself for long stretches of the route. In addition to the three flight crew members, nine flight attendants are also on board Flight 593.
Aeroflot Flight 593 Passengers Include Captain’s Two Children
Joining the crew that night are 63 passengers, most of whom are Russian nationals, including about 30 Aeroflot airline employees and family members. The remaining passengers are mostly businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who were looking for economic opportunities in Russia.
There are also two special guests onboard Flight 593 this evening. Captain Kudrinsky’s two children: fifteen-year-old Eldar and 12-year-old Yana, who are looking forward to going on a four-day holiday with their father to Hong Kong. Another pilot, Vladimir Makarov, who was flying as a passenger and is a close friend of the captain’s, will sit beside the children and assist them during the flight.
Flight 593 takes off just after 4:30 PM local time for their almost fourteen-hour trip to Hong Kong, and soon the plane is at cruising altitude of 33,000 feet (or 10,100 m). Everything is smooth, including the weather, and at this point, First Captain Danilov takes his rest break while relief Captain Kudrinsky takes over in the cockpit and becomes acting captain for this leg of the journey. But, unknown to the 75 people onboard Flight 592, this flight would turn out to be unlike any other flight in Russia’s history.
While Inflight, Aeroflot Flight 593 Begins to Bank Dangerously to the Right
Four hours into the flight, there is a crisis unfolding in the cockpit as the pilots battle to maintain control of an aircraft that is suddenly – and steeply – turning to the right. It passes through a 45-degree bank angle, and the nose begins to tilt up. Passengers, who are startled awake by the sensation of turning, would begin to stir, take notice, and maybe even begin to panic. The plane is now almost on its side. At this point, flight attendants, too, would obviously have realized the aircraft is in danger.
Unable to maintain this angle, the plane automatically pushes the nose up and increases thrust. The passengers would feel twice their weight and find themselves pushed back into their seats, barely able to move. They would also undoubtedly have felt heavy buffeting as the plane begins to rapidly descend, now in a stall. Flight 593 is sailing back down toward the earth, nose-first. As the plane dives, it is racing at 460 mph (or 740 kph) and falling 40,000 feet per minute (or 12,200 m) per minute. This moment would have felt like being on an elevator that suddenly dropped out from beneath you and you would have felt almost weightless. Anything not secured down would have become projectiles, including anyone not buckled into their seats.
But now, unexpectedly, the plane begins to climb again, and with the climb comes the return of intense g-forces, pushing passengers back into their seats, making it impossible to lift arms and legs or even turn their heads. And this is worse than the first positive g-force – this time, they feel four times their weight. A ten-pound head would feel like 40 pounds (or 18 kg). It would have felt like being crushed. From a g-force standpoint, many passengers would have started to lose color vision, or lose vision all together. Then the plane encounters another stall, and this time, as the plane points nose down, it begins to corkscrew. The cabin would have been in complete chaos, with everyone rightfully fearing for their own lives, probably screaming, crying out, holding on to one another. But it is too late for everyone onboard. At 8:57 PM local time, on this calm and clear night, Aeroflot 593, falling at an extreme vertical speed, losing 14,000 feet per minute (or 4200 meters per minute), smashes into the quiet, snowy hillside below.
When controllers don’t hear from the pilots of Flight 593 during the next scheduled air traffic control (or ATC) check in, they initiate a search for the missing plane. Less than two hours later, the smoldering wreckage of Flight 593 is found on a remote hillside in the Kuznetsk Alatau Mountain chain. It was clear that the plane had smashed into a 1300-foot (or 400-m) tall hillside during the night. Quickly, rescuers can discern there will be no survivors. All 63 passengers, 3 pilots, and 9 flight attendants have perished.
Russian Investigators, Victims’ Families Arrive at Aeroflot 593 Crash Site
Aeroflot flies the families of the victims to the crash site, where many Western families leave flowers, while families of Chinese victims scattered pieces of paper with messages written on them around the crash site. Later, at least twenty-two bodies of crash victims are found to be so badly mutilated that they could not be identified visually, so authorities match personal belongings to each victim. Those bodies were later cremated together because no one could tell who they were anymore, the ashes split among the victims’ families.
Russia’s Ministry of Transport appoints a special investigative team to unearth what made a brand-new Airbus fall out of the sky and kill 75 people– and if what happened to this aircraft indicated a hidden defect that could put other flights at risk.
While bodies of the victims aren’t recognizable, it is clear to investigators that most everyone was seated with their seatbelts fastened, as if preparing for an emergency, and one flight attendant even wore an oxygen mask. Curiously, investigators find that the body of a child seems to have been thrown into the cockpit.
Aeroflot 593 CVR Reveals Pilot’s Children Were in the Cockpit and at Controls
When investigators listen to the cockpit voice recorder (or CVR), they are shocked at what they hear. There are five separate voices in the cockpit. Not two. The relief captain and first officer were not alone when the crisis unfolded. As they listen to the recording, an increasingly chilling picture begins to form surrounding the ultimate fate of Flight 593.
At about four hours into the flight, when most passengers would have been trying to get some sleep, Vladimir Makarov, who is a pilot and family friend to Captain Kudrinsky and his family, escorts the children of Captain Kurdrinsky up to the cockpit, where the captain and first officer welcome all three of them inside. Remember, this was before the lessons learned from the September 11th attacks, and it was not unusual for pilots to invite guests into the cockpit. In fact, many countries let pilots decide who they wanted to invite to the cockpit. However, it was never a part of any standard to allow untrained and unauthorized guests to sit at the controls.
Despite this reality, that’s exactly what Captain Kudrinsky does next. And to be clear, one of the Russian investigators interviewed for the Mayday series said he knew that others had done the same thing as this pilot.
Captain Kudrinsky asks Yana, “Come and sit here now, in my seat, would you like that?" Of course, as any 12-year-old child would do, Yana says yes and takes a seat in his chair. It is important to note that Kudrinsky did not transfer his control over the aircraft to the first officer at this moment, which is a violation.
The children are awestruck at the display screens glowing before their eyes. The captain switches the heading, which keeps the plane in autopilot but allows a pilot to make turns. Next, he lets Yana turn the plane to the left.
Then, the Captain readjusts the heading to bring them back on course, while he takes the time to explain to Yana what he did and how it all works – something that simply was unnecessary to the safe operation of the flight and created a distraction for the captain. At this point, while First Officer Piskaryov handles air traffic control communications, Yana moves out of the captain’s seat to allow her 15-year-old brother, Eldar, to have a turn behind the controls.
Aeroflot 593 Captain’s Son Ends up with Partial Control Over the Plane
Like before, the captain changes the heading, and Eldar is now able to turn left, just as Yana did. Soon after, the captain switches back to the regular heading. But, Eldar continues to hold the control column to the left, and then he turns the control column to the right. Meanwhile, Captain Kudrinsky chats with Yana about their plans for Hong Kong and has Makarov take pictures of his children flying the plane.
Suddenly, and just three minutes since he has sat down, Eldar is troubled by something he has noticed. He asks his father, “why is it turning?” To which the captain responds, “Is it turning?” Eldar confirms that, yes, it is. Captain Kudrinksy says he has no idea why. The first officer believes they have gone into a holding pattern command, such as when a plane is circling around an airport waiting to land. But Kudrinksy does not seem certain of this. What is clear is that neither pilot knows why the plane is turning, a movement that is clearly shown on the glowing flight display panels in front of them.
Then, Makarov, who is standing behind the controls says in a worried, warning tone, “Guys…” and at this point, the plane begins to tilt right, until it exceeds a 45-degree right bank angle. As the plane tilts on its side, g-forces inside the cockpit grow. The forces feel like a sudden turn in a fast-driving sports car and makes it impossible for Kudrinsky to get back into his seat as everyone is being pushed down. The A310 cannot turn this steeply while maintaining altitude, which makes the plane begin descending quickly. The plane’s systems know this is unsustainable, so it compensates by pitching the nose up and increasing thrust; as a result, however, the plane begins to stall. The g-forces hold both pilots into their current positions; First Officer Piskaryov, still seated beside of Eldar, cannot reach his controls. Eldar is the only person with both hands on the controls in this cockpit.
Aeroflot 593 Pilots Struggle to Regain Control while Plane Stalls and Dives
Now frantic, Kudrinsky cries out, “Hold it! Hold the control column!” (BTW, this is an instruction being issued to the first officer and a 15-year-old boy.) But Eldar has no idea what he is supposed to do. And the pilots seem to be confused, too. They shout to Eldar to the turn to the left, and Eldar says, I am turning left. Then they tell him, no, no, to the right!
Captain Kudrinsky pleads with Eldar to get out of his seat, but Eldar has no control over whether he stands or remains seated. The g-forces press him down hard with no possibility of him overcoming the force because his body is twice its weight. And all the while, the aircraft is plunging toward earth in a stall, almost vertical and nose up. To recover from the stall, an automatic system lowers the nose and puts the plane into a nosedive dropping at a heart-stopping rate of 40,000 feet (or 12,200 m) per minute, reversing the g-force at once. There is one good outcome to this mayhem: the reduced g-forces enabled Captain Kudrinsky to re-take his seat.
First Officer Piskaryov then manages to pull out of the dive, but he over-corrects, and the engine is climbing too quickly now with the plane being pushed up almost vertically, which is too much on the engines. The plane is once again put into an almost vertical ascent, again stalling the plane, which falls nose first back toward the earth, beginning a second and equally terrifying death-defying corkscrew dive toward earth. Both pilots fight desperately to level out the wings and break out of the downward spiral, which they finally do.
But the pilots, who focus all their concentration on leveling the plane, lost track of their altitude, which was by then, too low to recover, and so, as we know, Flight 593 crashes at high vertical speed into the mountainside, killing everyone onboard.
Aeroflot Flight 593 Crash Caused by Children Flying the Plane and the Pilots’ Lack of Upset Recovery Training and Knowledge of A310 Autopilot Functionality
Clearly, the probable cause of the crash of Flight 593 has been determined. But investigators must also piece together how the situation in the cockpit got this far, where the plane is in multiple stalls and corkscrew dives before the pilots were able to level out. Investigators next examine the flight data recorder (or FDR) and match up every command given to the aircraft with the CVR.
Here is what they discover. When Captain Kudrinsky’s son, Eldar, is at the controls, he applied much more force than Yana had to the control column just moments before. This is key because investigators find that this added pressure disengaged autopilot control of the aircraft ailerons (which controls how the plane turns), leaving Eldar partially in control of the actual aircraft unbeknownst to the pilots.
And so when Eldar turned to the right, he was really controlling the plane, and this is what caused the aircraft to bank right. The pilots failed to notice warning lights (which were silent) and became confused as the flight path depiction shown on the screen changed to show a 180-degree turn. In the time it took to realize the problem, which was nine seconds, the aircraft bank angle had steepened past 45 degrees to almost 90 degrees. Investigators believe that a strong signal indicating that the airplane had exceeded the allowable operating bank angle could have attracted the crew's attention and enabled them to detect the bank at an earlier stage.
The Airbus A310, like most commercial aircraft, could not handle such a steep bank angle, and consequently, the aircraft started to descend rapidly. With the autopilot disengaged from aileron control, it tried to compensate by pitching up and increasing thrust. The aircraft began to stall and automatically switched into a dive to recover. The pilots then regained control and attempted to pull out of the dive. They succeeded but over-compensated and again stalled the aircraft. This time, the steep angle caused the aircraft to spin. Again, the pilots managed to recover, but by this time, sadly, the aircraft had lost too much altitude and crashed.
A heartbreaking realization comes out of the analysis of Flight 593. The investigation finds that, despite the struggles of both pilots to save the aircraft, if they had just let go of the control column when they entered the first dive, the flight protections within the autopilot that were still connected would have automatically taken action to prevent stalling, and it would have leveled off the plane.
Ultimately investigators believe that Captain Kudrinsky, and many other A310 pilots around the world, were never told about the fact that the autopilot would partially disconnect, nor were the flight crew prepared to recognize such a thing amidst the kind of emergency they were faced with. Pilots were also not given specific and thorough upset recovery training, and following this crash, that changed for all A310 pilots around the world.
Russian Public More Sympathetic to Aeroflot 593 Pilots than Victims’ Families
When news about the pilot’s kids being in the cockpit first began to surface, Aeroflot did not initially admit to that being the case – that is, until, the CVR was leaked to several global media news outlets, who published it in full. This revelation caused shockwaves around the world and caused Aeroflot to recant its initial statement.
While many in Russia view the pilots as heroes who fought to the end during a freak accident, to many more in the aviation industry, they find the action of the flight crew onboard Flight 593 to be a dangerous and gross breach of professionalism.
One statement in the final report perhaps sums up how many professionals view this crash: “This and preceding decisions and actions by PlC Kudrinsky and co-pilot Piskarev showed an utterly careless and irresponsible disregard of flight safety, the result of poor discipline and a blatant ignorance of the general rules of flight contained.”
Every-day-Russians were far more sympathetic about what happened to the flight. They accept that Captain Kudrinsky is buried in a hero’s grave alongside his children and have confidence and belief in the fact that he died trying desperately to save everyone onboard.
A friend and fellow pilot of Kudrinsky’s seems to be able to justify the entire crash when he said, “Yes it was a violation, yes, he did it. But how it all happened, it was just a freak accident.”
Many Flight 593 Victims’ Families Discovered Plane Had Crashed From Watching the News
It’s not a sentiment shared with every family impacted by this disaster. This is an excerpt from an article on the South China Morning Post. It goes,
“Imagine you are waiting for a loved one to call from the airport. The phone hasn't rung, their flight is over 12 hours late. You call the airline, all they are saying is that the flight's been cancelled. You're frantic. You're resigned to waiting. The phone's not ringing. You switch on the television to pass the time. The lead item on the seven o'clock news is a horrific air crash. Gina Newport was not even given the courtesy of a phone call to ease her into the shattering confirmation that her husband Mark was one of the victims. Gina and her family gazed at the television screen as reports came in that the plane had burned for hours before rescue workers made it through metre-high snowdrifts to the wreckage.
Pauline Kan remembers speaking to her husband David Wong Wai-ming, 32, a few days before he was due to fly back from Moscow, where he had been on a business trip. He was worried about flying with Aeroflot; he had heard less than favorable reports of their safety record. The night he died Pauline suddenly woke up in a cold sweat even though she still had not yet heard the news. The next day, her father phoned her in the early evening to break the news.
Nancy Ng was at work when she received her phone call. Her brother, Ng Hoi-yeung was supposed to be flying back to Hong Kong that day after a year of studying in London. He was only 23, a civil engineering student with a future. It was the first time he had been away from his family for that long. By the time the newsreaders moved on to the next item on the seven o'clock news, three other families were devastated.”
Aeroflot Initially Denies Children at Flight 593 Cockpit Controls, Then Recants, Angering Victims’ Families
When these and other families of Flight 593 victims were flown above the crash site, this was a trip that first sparked the relatives' outrage when reports emerged that a child had been at the controls of the ill-fated jet. During the trip, the airline flatly denied the accusations. One possible explanation they did receive, according to one family member, was farcical: Aeroflot said a cow may have been in the cockpit. And it was the way that it was said by the Aeroflot flight director: “If anyone was in there, it was a cow.”
This outrage led to the families asking more and more questions, insisting on the truth, which eventually did come. And it was the stuff of nightmares. An attorney, who represented many Flight 593 families in court against Aeroflot, provides a very clear stance about how those families view this disaster: “We say this disaster was caused by some of the most egregious conduct ever in civil aviation crashes. It is scarcely believable what went on. It's the most extreme set of facts I have ever come across. It's astonishing.”
Many relatives cannot believe that people still board Aeroflot's planes every day. Moreover, they cannot understand how such a breach of basic safety rules could simply be 'shrugged off'.
Once total strangers, six of the Flight 593 families now meet on a regular basis and have been doing so for years in the hopes that their stories can continue to prevent future accidents like this from happening, even if their advocacy is not well-received by the airline.
As one family member said, “I would say the negligence of the people, the pilot or the company, besides that, no matter what had happened in the past, to Aeroflot, it seemed as if it was nothing to them.”
And THAT is the outrageous and frustrating tragedy of Aeroflot Flight 593.