A Boeing 737-800 crashed shortly after taking off from the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran early Wednesday morning local time, killing all 176 people on board. The country’s aviation agency The Civil Aviation Organization of Islamic Republic of Iran (CAO.IRI) is investigating to determine the cause. The crash occurred against the backdrop of heightening tensions between Iran and the U.S., including a series of missile attacks launched hours before the crash by Iranian military against U.S. military bases in Iraq.
The plane was a Ukrainian passenger jet operated by Ukrainian International Airlines. Flight PS 752 had ascended to nearly 8,000 feet and was heading to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, when it suddenly lost contact with ground control.
The Iranian government quickly attributed the likely cause to “technical” problems and while the Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran initially agreed, it later removed its statement that suggested engine failure and ruled out terrorism. It offered no explanation for removing the initial statement and said that anything is possible. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has instructed prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into the crash. His country is not ruling out the potential cause could be external such as a missile or mistaken military strike given the events surrounding the crash.
An unsubstantiated video clip of the crash made its way around social media hours following the crash. It appears to show a bright ball identified in the video as PS 752 falling rapidly to the earth in the predawn sky. Aviation experts explain that the video, if substantiated, along with charred and mangled remains of the plane could give proof that it was not fully intact when it impacted the earth – suggesting an inflight breakup caused by some type of explosion.
The aircraft, also known as a 737 Next Generation or NG is a predecessor to the 737 MAX, which has been grounded since March 2019 following the second of two fatal crashes. The NG aircraft does not include the defective flight control software, the MCAS, that is at the heart of the MAX problems. However, the NG has experienced its share of problems.
In April 2018, a 737 NG experienced an uncontained engine failure in mid-air when a cracked fan blade detached and broke part of the engine casing. Shrapnel from the engine struck the outside of the aircraft near a passenger’s window, breaking the window and depressurizing the cabin. The passenger was partially pulled through the window and later died. The plane diverted and landed safely in Philadelphia with no other fatalities.
In November, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates all commercial and private civilian airplane crashes in the U.S., recommended Boeing redesign the engine cover on the aircraft to prevent similar incidents if a fan blade detaches in the future. The agency did not blame Boeing or Southwest for the incident, noting that the crack in the fan blade was not likely detectable during the plane’s last routine inspection. Since the 2018 incident, regulators have required airlines to conduct more thorough inspections, specifically looking to identify fan blade cracks. Boeing responded by commending the NTSB for its investigation and saying the company had started introducing enhancements to strengthen the engine cover.
The protocol for investigating an air crash like the one in Iran typically involves investigative authorities from the manufacturer and the country where the aircraft was manufactured. Considering the tensions between the two countries, it is not clear whether the NTSB will take part in the investigation. Iran has not said where it will send the cockpit voice and data recorders (black boxes) for analysis but, according to Mehr news agency, the agency’s head, Ali Abedzadeh, has refused to make the data available to Boeing or the U.S.
Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.