The pilot of a Russian passenger plane that erupted in a ball of fire on the runway of Moscow’s busiest airport, killing 41 people, said lightning led to the emergency landing.
Investigators were on Monday working to understand the causes of the blaze after the Sukhoi Superjet-100 had to return to Sheremetyevo airport shortly after take-off Sunday evening.
But pilot Denis Yevdokimov told Russian media the craft lost communication and needed to switch to emergency control mode “because of lightning” on the Aeroflot flight to the Arctic city of Murmansk.
He did not specify if the plane was struck directly.
“We managed to restore communication through the emergency frequency on our radio connection. But the link was only for a short time and kept cutting out… it was possible to say only a few words,” he told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Videos on social media showed the plane crash-landing and then speeding along the runway with flames pouring from its fuselage.
Passengers could be seen leaping onto an inflatable slide at the front and running from the blazing plane as columns of black smoke billowed into the sky.
Another video shot inside the cabin showed roaring flames outside the window and passengers crying out in panic.
Evdokimov said he believed the plane burst into flames on landing, most likely because of full fuel tanks.
At least two children were among the 41 dead and nine more people were in hospital, three of them seriously injured, authorities said.
The aircraft’s black boxes have been found and handed over to investigators, a source in the Russian emergency services told news agencies.
Several of the 78 people on board said they believed lightning was the cause of the tragedy, which came at the end of several days of public holidays following Workers’ Day on May 1.
“I saw a flash of white light,” Dmitry Khlebushkin told the state RIA news agency.
Pyotr Egorov, also on board, told media: “We had just taken off when the plane was hit by lightning… the landing was very hard, we almost passed out from fear.
“The plane bounced on the tarmac like a grasshopper and burst into flames on the ground.”
The jet — carrying 73 passengers and five crew members — left Sheremetyevo at 6:02pm (1502 GMT), and the crew issued a distress signal shortly afterwards, officials said.
Russia’s national carrier Aeroflot was once notorious for its poor safety record but in recent years its image has improved and it has not had a fatal accident in more than a decade.
The Russian Sukhoi Superjet-100 however has been dogged with problems since its launch in 2011.
In 2012, a Superjet performing at an Indonesian air show slammed into a volcano, killing all 45 people on board. Indonesia blamed the crash on pilot error.
Technical problems with the plane have been reported in recent years and Russia has struggled to convince foreign carriers to purchase it.
The government offered subsidies to encourage Russian airlines to buy the Superjet and Aeroflot has become its main operator.
In September 2018, it announced a record order of 100 Superjet-100s.
The Murmansk region — where many of those killed or injured are believed to be from — went into a three-day period of mourning from Monday.
Other Aeroflot flights are expected to be affected in the coming days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to the victims’ loved ones and said the investigation “should be as thorough as possible”, according to the Kremlin.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered a special committee to investigate the disaster.