Why did the plane reportedly carrying Prigozhin crash?

Aviation experts broadly agreed Thursday that the business jet reportedly carrying Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin and other top members of the mercenary outfit experienced a catastrophic structural failure when it crashed Wednesday and evidence points away from a simple mechanical problem or human error.

But experts also cautioned that it’s too early and evidence is too limited to conclusively explain what happened. The crash’s cause might not ever be conclusively known.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary findings, told The Washington Post on Thursday that early intelligence pointed to the possibility of an onboard explosion. They said there is no indication so far that the aircraft was downed by a missile.

All 10 people onboard the private Embraer jet were killed after it crashed northwest of Moscow, Russian aviation officials said. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said it’s “likely” that Prigozhin was one of those killed. Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to eulogize the mercenary leader on Thursday, referring to him in the third person and calling him a “talented person” who “made serious mistakes.”

Jeff Guzzetti, a former accident investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, said it’s clear that there was a “catastrophic, in-flight, structural failure — during cruise flight — of a modern business jet.”

“And that just does not happen unless there’s some sort of trigger to it,” Guzzetti said. “The aircraft is not flying in those videos. It is just falling like a Coke bottle.”

After reviewing video of the falling aircraft, photos of the wreckage and public flight tracking data, he said the evidence shows “all the earmarks of an explosion on board.”

Several things could have caused the sudden and violent end to a flight cruising otherwise at a consistent speed and altitude, he said: a bomb aboard, preflight sabotage to weaken the plane’s structure, or some kind of structural failure leading the wings or tail to pull apart from the rest of the plane, causing the fuel tanks to explode.

Sidney Dekker, a director of the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, said it is unlikely the plane crashed due to mechanical failure, because the wing seemed ripped from the craft’s main body. There are two ways to do that, he said: strike the plane with a projectile or bomb it from the inside.

“It would be exceedingly unlikely for a mechanical event to disable a jet like this that a wing would actually fall off,” Dekker said. “I can’t even recall the last time that that happened to a certified airplane. Even if you stop maintaining it, the wings do not fall off.”

Individuals posting on Telegram channels supportive of Wagner noted what appeared to be holes in a wing of the plane, speculating that they could have been caused by blast fragments, shrapnel or submunitions — but aviation analysts warned that it’s difficult to conclusively say what caused them.

Photos of the crash scene and satellite imagery showed that debris from the plane fell in at least two distinct areas, with the cockpit section and the tail section separated by about 1½ miles. While the plane spiraled to the ground, its fuselage tore apart in midair, videos of the crash showed.

CS “Raghu” Raghuraman, a senior analyst from Janes All the World’s Aircraft and a fast-jet pilot, said that, based on the available evidence, the catastrophic damage was probably not caused by a missile. He cited the tail section separation and the lack of apparent damage marks from a missile explosion near that section.

Russia’s elite draws one lesson from downed plane: Cross Putin and die

Several other experts also said they did not see evidence of either a surface-to-air missile launch or a missile impact.

Tom Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the possible holes in one of the plane’s wings could have been caused by an explosion but that there was not enough evidence to say what kind. He noted the lack of any missile trail in the videos showing the plane’s fall from the sky.

Guzzetti noted that Russia has excellent accident-investigation capabilities. He said it would be easy to tell from the physical evidence if a bomb had gone off, noting the unique signatures left by explosives. After a bomb, jagged pieces of metal can open up like roses, he said, and conclusions can be drawn from the way the metal melts near the point of an explosion.

“We’ll see how transparent and informative Russia will be with describing the findings of their investigation and with providing descriptions of the evidence,” Guzzetti said.

Jan Ludwig Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima and Missy Ryan contributed reporting.

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