Since 2004, airplanes owned or registered to Armenian outfits -- and often flown by Armenian crews outside their native country -- have been involved in a number of dangerous and deadly incidents. Authorities in the countries involved, the airlines and even the manufacturer do not appear interested in looking too closely at the cause of the crashes. The disastrous crashes raise questions about the safety of aging Armenian planes, how they are regulated and improprieties in their registration.
By Vahe Sarukhanyan and Edik Baghdasaryan
Narineh Hayrapetyan leaned on the fireplace as she talked, red-eyed, near photographs of her husband, flight engineer Andranik Gevorgyan, displayed on the mantle.
On November 30, 2012, his Ilyushin Il-76 plane crashed in a residential area about 500 meters from the Maya-Maya Airport in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo. The 36-year-old plane, manufactured at a Soviet-era Ilyushin factory in Uzbekistan and registered as EK-76300, was on a short 400-kilometer cargo flight from the Atlantic Coast city of Pointe-Noire to the capital.
Five Armenian crew members -- including Gevorgyan -- died in the accident, according to the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Besides Gevorgyan, Captain Varazdat Balasanyan, former head of the Stepanakert airport, Ara Tovmasyan, Tadevos Hovhannisyan, and Edgar Avetyan all lost their lives. According to the Congolese Red Cross, 32 people included two Congolese police officers were killed and 20 were injured on the ground in the neighborhood where the plane struck.
The disastrous crash raises questions about the safety of aging Armenian planes, how they are regulated and improprieties in their registration that often cause family members grief long after the funerals. Since 2004, planes owned or registered to Armenian outfits -- and often flown by Armenian crews looking for work outside their native country -- have been involved in a number of dangerous and deadly incidents. Authorities in the countries involved, the airlines and even the manufacturer do not appear interested in looking too closely at the cause of the crashes. The real loss is by the families who lose loved ones and then are never compensated even for their loss, in part because of the irregularities in the registrations.
Narineh Hayrapetyan is one of those family members. “The last time we spoke was three hours before the flight,” the engineer’s widow said tearfully. “We spoke for some time and his attitude was normal. He was asking how everyone was. He was always like that; concerned about how friends and relatives were.” Hayrapetyan missed the original TV reports of the crash. Janik, Andranik’s older brother, told the family what had happened the next day. The widow said she held out hope about her husband. But that hope died out quickly.
The plane crashed in bad weather -- wind and heavy rain. Nelli Cherchinyan, Press Secretary of the General Department of Civil Aviation of Armenia, reported that according to preliminary information, lightning struck the plane's wing, causing the crash.
Airplane accidents are almost always caused by a number of factors including age, condition, weather, servicing and other issues that align in a deadly pattern. Typically, airplane crashes are investigated by the airline manufacturer, local authorities and sometimes the country of ownership of the plane. But neither Armenia nor the Congo wished to be considered the country of ownership.
Svetlana Suleymanova, head of the Public Affairs Department of the Ilyushin Aviation Complex, told OCCRP that her company had not serviced the plane before it crashed although it is possible other certified companies repaired the plane and renewed flight certificates.
Suleymanova said Ilyushin crash specialists did not go to the Congo. “Generally, our experts participate in investigations,” she said. “But as I understand, the company received no such request in this case.”
After the accident, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso raised speculation by saying that local authorities said the plane should not have taken off in such bad weather conditions. He attributed the blame to pilot error.
Armenian pilots and friends defended the crew. If the weather was so bad, they asked why the flight was cleared to take off from Pointe Noire, and why didn’t the Brazzaville airport divert the flight to a safer airport.
Armen Mnatsakanyan, another pilot who worked in Africa and knew the Armenian crew said, “I state this with 99 percent confidence that [the] crew was comprised of very experienced and very tough guys. There are crews with a weak link. This crew didn’t have one.”
Aero-Service , the company listed as the Congolese flight operator, has a poor history of aircraft accidents including eight serious crashes since 1979 in which mechanical, maintence and operational deficiencies may have been contributing factors.
But former EK-76300 flight engineer Armen Sayadyan, who left the crew in April of 2012, said: “I spoke to Andranik 20 days before the incident. He said the plane was in great shape. Flight frequency had already dropped to one, or at the most, two per week.”
Sayadyan and Ando would never get in a defective plane,” the veteran pilot Mnatsakanyan says. “We would cancel the flight or fix the problem ourselves. But we would never take off knowing the plane had some defect.”
However, older planes are required to go through detailed inspections to look for mechanical and structural fatigue problems not visible to the crew. But the tangled paperwork make it unclear whether that was ever done or even who the real owner of the plane is.
According to veteran pilot Ashot Manucharyan, the plane most likely hit a downdraft, a danger well known to pilots. He theorizes that two factors proved fatal – low altitude and lightning. Noting that lightning hit the wing just 60 meters from the ground, Sayadyan says that even if the engines cut out at 60 meters, it is possible to make a second pass or at least attempt to land a plane before it reaches the runway. But he says a lightning strike would have precluded that.
The real owners of the crashed Ilyshun are as doubtful and contradictory as the circumstances of the crash itself. Paperwork appears to point to an Armenian military official.
According to aerotransport.org, an international trade database, the Il-76 that crashed was manufactured in 1977 at a Tashkent factory in Uzbekistan. It was originally designed as the Il-76K military plane. The Soviet air force used the plane for two decades, and before it was sold, it was modified as an Il-76T civilian aircraft.
Its second owner was the Russian airline Iron Dragonfly. Eventually, the plane joined the fleet of Hungarian-Ukrainian Airlines before being sold to the Moldovan carrier Jet Line International. The Congolese company Heavylift Congo became its fifth owner, which then sold it to an Armenian company.
Tigran Balayan, spokesman for the Armenia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that, at the time of the crash, the plane belonged to the Armenian company Ridge Airways. According to Balayan, this information came from the Russian Embassy in the Congo after the Armenian Embassy in Egypt requested it.
But according to aerotransport.org, Aero-Service leased the aircraft from the Armenian company Air Highnesses Ltd., and the listed owner is Ridge Airways.
According to the Armenian State Registry of companies, Ridge Airways is owned by Sergey Kocharov who founded it on April 20, 2011.
But in a letter to the Armenian news site Hetq.am, Captain Valery Poghosyan, who also works in Africa and said he was friends with the crash victims, wrote that the plane belonged to the Deputy Head of the Armenian General Staff, Lieutenant-General Stepan Galstyan.
The registry documents list Natalia Galstyan as general manager. She is the wife of General Galstyan. Poghosyan claimed that four other planes (two An-12s and two Il-76s) owned byGalstyan also operate in Africa. Poghosyan estimates that the planes were worth about US$9 million. Hetq.am tried to speak with Galstyan, but Galstyan refused multiple interview requests.
According to the Armenian Ministry of Defense website, Galstyan has been an officer in the Soviet and Armenian air forces since 1983 and is deputy head of the Armenian General Staff.
Ministry of Defense spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan refuted the ownership, claiming it is an attempt to smear the good name of the military. Hovhannisyan told ilur.am that Ridge Airways no longer exists, and that the plane never belonged to that company. He claimed that Galstyan was only indirectly affiliated with the company for a time.
The company's operator's certificate -- issued by the General Department of Civil Aviation of Armenia -- expired on Sept. 8, 2012, and it is not authorized to operate any aircraft until a new certificate is issued, according to Nelli Cherchinyan, Press Secretary of the Civil Aviation Department.
From its founding until August 24, 2011, Shahen Hayrapetyan (no relation to the flight engineer killed in the crash) was the general manager of Ridge Airways before being replaced by General Galstyan's wife. The Defense Ministry spokesman says that the Il-76 had no connection with Ridge Airways. The plane was listed as operated by Air Highnesses Ltd. That company’s founder and director is also Shahen Hayrapetyan.
However, according to aerotransport.org, Ridge Airways registered the plane in Armenia in the spring of 2009, two years before Ridge Airways Ltd formed in April 2011. Air Highnesses was established in February 2008.
Shahen Hayrapetyan was also the founder and director of Miapet-Avia Ltd., which lists the same contact information as Air Highnesses. Miapet-Avia is listed as the owner of two aircraft that crashed: EK-12305 in Afghanistan on June 29, 2006, and EK-11660 in the Congo on January 25, 2008. Shahen Hayrapetyan died in early April, 2013.
In response to a Hetq.am query, the General Department of Civil Aviation of Armenia stated that the plane that crashed on November 30 had no Armenian registration. But the EK-76300 registration number remained on the body of the plane (EK is the national registration symbol for Armenia aircraft and the digits are the specific registration number). They should have been changed on the plane body if the aircraft had its registration legally changed.
Serob Karapetyan, who heads the Civil Aviation Department’s Flight Readiness Unit, said the plane had been removed from the Armenian airplane state registry a long time before the accident. He could not produce any documents showing this, nor would he say in what country the plane was registered after being removed from the Armenian registry. In a letter to Hetq.am he wrote: “The Il-76 airplane that had an accident in the Congo on Nov. 30, 2012, didn’t have Armenian registration on that day. Thus, in regards to the accident, the General Department of Civil Aviation attached to the (Armenian) government has no information in its possession.”
In the files of aerotransport.org, the last operator of this plane is shown as the Congolese company Aero-Service. It is noted that a lease arrangement that began in August of 2011 indicated that the owner was still regarded as Ridge Airways. Veteran pilot Poghosyan said that the EK-76300 had been in the Congo for 16 months.
Shahen Petrosyan, who headed Armenia’s Civil Aviation Department from 1993-1996, says that the existence of the EK-76300 number on the plane that crashed and the fact that it was removed from the Armenian airplane registry clearly contradict one another. According to Petrosyan , the existence of an Armenian number on a plane would be correct only if the rental lease was short-term and there was no change in the plane’s registration.
Former Il-76 flight engineer Sayadyan says the plane flew within the Republic of Congo, but also in the neighboring countries of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Each plane has a legal flight lifespan, which limits how many flight hours a plane can fly. The original flight limit for the Ilyushin model was 15,000 flight hours or 6,000 flights. As of 1994, the flight life for certain plane models was lengthened to 20,000 flight hours or 7,000 flights. After reaching these limits, a plane can only be operated if it has been completely overhauled and granted a new flight lifespan.
There is no record of any investigation that sought to determine how many hours the plane flew before the crash. It had been flying for 34 years, a very long time for the model. Most Il-76 planes use up their 20,000 flight hours in 20 years.
Poghosyan, a veteran pilot, said the process to requalify a plan that has reached the end of its lifespan is complex. It requires a detailed check and report on the plane by an authorized repair facility. Such a facility does not exist in the Congo region. Poghosyan said, however, that the planes documents might have been forged which may have allowed the plane to be illegally registered.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, everything collapsed. During the Soviet era, whatever the instructions from above, the servicing engineer would never in his life sign off on a plane’s paperwork, because there were a hundred types of supervision. The guy knew that if he were caught, he’d be sent to jail. But from the 1990s until today, the accepted practice is that if you can circumvent a law, they’ll do it,” said a fellow pilot who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job for sharing information about a common practice. “I have many friends who have flown in Africa and they all say the same thing – that broken down equipment is purchased, that the mechanical servicing is also wanting and sometimes stuff doesn’t work at all.”
Sayadyan and Mnatsakanyan, who have both worked in the Congo, disagree with Poghosyan and argue that monitoring by the Congolese Aviation Agency is strict. According to Sayadyan, an inspection team arrives at least once a month to check all the paperwork. Mnatsakanyan says the Congolese inspectors are graduates of the aviation institute in Kiev.
“When a new plane arrives, it doesn’t fly until it’s checked from head-to-toe. It takes several days before permission to operate is granted,” says Mnatsakanyan.
Karepetyan from Armenia’s General Department of Civil Aviation refused to comment on Poghosyan’s allegations, saying that if Poghosyan would make his claims in person, the aviation agency would be ready to present counter-arguments. Poghosyan has not been available for further comment.
Meanwhile Armenian pilots continue to fly earning between $1200 and $3000 per month in a lucrative business for Armenia but one that takes them away from family for long periods. Still, for some it is the only option. As Mnatsakanyan says: “Maybe Andranik could have worked as a flight engineer on the only two Il-76 planes left in Armenia. Where else was Ando to work?”
By Vahe Sarukhanyan and Edik Baghdasaryan
Even though five Armenian citizens died in the November plane crash in the Congo, the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the General Department of Civil Aviation (GDCA) have offered only sketchy answers and no written reports about what happened. Officials refused to be interviewed and did not respond to Hetq.am questions.
Armenia did not send investigators to the crash site and neither did experts from the Ilyushin Design Bureau, which designed the aircraft. From Russia, Ilyushin filed a preliminary report which notes poor weather conditions but lists no potential cause for the crash.
Shahen Petrosyan, head of the General Department of Civil Aviation of Armenia from 1993 to 1996, said Armenian representatives go to crash sites only in relatively non-serious cases. According to Petrosyan, when there are victims and potential criminal charges, the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC), an organization made up of experts from Armenia and other former Soviet Union countries who now belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), travel to the crash site and investigate. But if the plane was no longer considered an Armenian-registered aircraft, the IAC would have no mandate to investigate. The IAC has not investigated or commented on the crash.
Eleven companies are registered with the General Department of Civil Aviation (GDCA). They are:
Many of these operate overseas, mostly in Africa and the United Arab Emirates. In 2009, Ishkhan Zakaryan, President of the Armenia Control Chamber, whose responsibility is to independently investigate government activity, said that both Armenian and foreign airline companies register in Armenia since it is free. In addition, Zakraryan said companies registered in Armenia but operating overseas pay low taxes to the Armenian government. According to figures from the Armenia State Revenue Committee, the only Armenia-based airline that made it onto the 2012 list of the 1,000 top taxpayers was Armavia, which came in 326th after paying $286 million in taxes.
As of January 2012, the UAE had prohibited planes bearing the EK (Armenian) national brand to land except for passenger airplanes Armavia operated. Armenia-based planes can only pass through UAE air space. Pilot Armen Mnatsakanyan says that this same UAE ban applies to Kazakh, Moldovan and Tajik planes. As of March 2012, 18 planes with EK coding appeared on http://talks.milkavkaz.net, a forum that discusses aviation topics. The information displayed on the forum was taken from Ilyushin official website. One year later, that number dropped to eight. When it became known that the UAE had banned Armenian planes, aviation-related forums were abuzz with talk that many airplanes would be registered in other countries in the near future. This seems to have happened.
The table below shows the registration changes that have been made since March 2012.
|Former Arm. Number||Former Arm. Owner||Current Number||Current Owner|
|EK-76425||Reliable Unique Services Aviation||YI-AQX||Al-Naser Airlines (Iraq)|
|EK-76485||Reliable Unique Services Aviation||EY-701||Khatlon Air (Tajikistan|
|EK-76111||Reliable Unique Services Aviation||ER-IAW||Aerotrans Cargo (Moldova)|
|EK-76808||Reliable Unique Services Aviation||EY-608||Par Air (Tajikistan)|
|EK-76464||Phoenix Avia||EY-609||Par Air (Tajikistan)|
|EK-76787||Phoenix Avia||RA-76416||Kosmos Airlines (Russia)|
|EK-76643||Taron-Avia||EY-703||Khatlon Air (Tajikistan)|
|EK-76603||Ark Airways||ER-IBZ||Aerotrans Cargo (Moldova|
|EK-76812||Veteran Avia||ER-IAL||ER-IAL Jet Star (Moldova)|
|EK-76401||Veteran Avia||ER-IAL||ER-IAK Jet Star (Moldova)|
Below is information from the State Registry on companies licensed to operate airplanes in Armenia. Airline companies periodically operate, shut down or reorganize.
|Name||Year Founded||Stockholders||Shares||Executive Body director|
|Atlantis European Airways LLC||1999||Atlantis Group Ltd,|
Saturn Reisebureau Ltd (Austria)
|Ark Airways LLC||2009||Robert Baghdasaryan,|
Yevgeny Lavretski (Russia)
|Air Armenia CJSC||2003||Ruzanna Tovmasyan,|
|Armenia Airways Air Company CJSC||2013||Main Aviation Technics,|
|Ayk Avia Air Company CJSC||2002||Shahen Aghababyan,|
|Reliable Unique Services Aviation LLC||2009||Hrachya Hovhannisyan,|
Sergey Astionov (Kyrgyzstan)
|South Airlines LLC||2000||Zanik Simonyan,|
|Skiva Air LLC||2011||Lusineh Khachatryan,|
|Sky Net Airline LLC||2011||National Aviation Coalition, NGO||100 %||Grigori Vardanyan|
|Veteran Avia LLC||2010||Sona Gevorgyan,|
Bilal Malik (Russia),
Amir Mouhammad (Russia)
|Taron-Avia LLC||2007||Garnik Papikyan||100 %||Garnik Papikyan|
Armenian pilots have been involved in a number of accidents and controversies outside the country in recent years.
On Oct. 19, 2012, an An-12BP delivering mail for the U.S. military crashed while trying to land in Shindand, Afghanistan. None of the six crew members was hurt. The plane was operated by Airmark Aviation of Singapore, although it had belonged to Air Armenia (numbered EK-12112).
On Nov. 3, 2008, an An-12BP (registered as EK-11997, operated by the Sudanese Sarit Air Lines) crashed while landing at the airport in Wau, South Sudan. Thirteen people, including four Armenian pilots, were killed. According to witnesses, the plane, transporting food and money, exploded in mid-air. Sudanese separatists, suspected of shooting down the plane, denied it.
On July 2, 2008, an Il-76TD (EK-76400) operated by Click Airways International in Kyrgyzstan was damaged when flying from Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates. A fire in one of the engines spread, forcing the nine-member crew to land at Zahedan Airport in Iran.
On June 29, 2006, an An-12BP (EK-12305) belonging to Miapet-Avia burned immediately after landing in Bagram, Afghanistan. The cause was attributed to an electrical system damaged by long exposure to hot climate. There were no casualties.
The most serious incident in Armenian aviation happened May 3, 2006, when an Airbus A320-211 (EK-32009) owned by Armavia crashed in the Black Sea while trying to land at Adler airport, Sochi. Eight crew members and 105 passengers were killed. The Interstate Aviation Committee investigated and reported "pilot error" as the cause of the crash.
Two days after that disaster, a fire broke out in a hangar at Brussels Airport. Four airplanes including an Airbus A320-211 (EK-32010) belonging to Armavia and another plane (EK-32001) owned by Armenian International Airlines operated by Air Arabia were damaged. No one was killed.
On March 28, 2006, an An-12BK (registered as EK-46741) belonging to the Armenian airline Phoenix Avia, tried to make an emergency landing immediately after takeoff from Payam airport in Sharjah, UAE. Three out of four engines failed when the plane flew into a flock of birds. The plane broke up and caught fire after landing in a field five kilometers from the airport. No one was killed.
On Jan. 25, 2008, Miapet-Avia's military aircraft, an An-12BP (EK-11660) rented by Aéro-Service, collided with a parked plane at Pointe-Noire Airport in the Congo due to brake failure. Both aircraft were damaged beyond repair. Two people were injured.
In March of 2004, six Armenian pilots were detained in Equatorial Guinea on suspicion of being complicit in a coup d'état attempt. The pilots strongly denied the accusation. They were sentenced to 14-24 years imprisonment but were pardoned by the Equatorial Guinean president and released in November 2005.
Airplane crashes and disasters are common for Aéro-Service. Eight are reported on the web site Aviation-safety.net, which is an independent organization formed in 1996 that has a database with detailed descriptions of over 10,000 air incidents.
Aéro-Service was established in 1967 and headquartered in Pointe-Noire Airport. It operates chartered cargo and business passenger flights within Congo and flies to neighboring countries. Since Nov. 26, 2009, Aéro-Service is banned from entering the European Union, along with all other airlines registered in the Congo.
On March 30, 1979, an Aérospatiale SN-601 Corvette belonging to Aéro-Service crashed at Nkayi Airport in the Congo and was damaged beyond repair.
In June 1981, an Aéro-Service BN-2A-8 Islander suffered a crash landing at a location that is not listed on the aviation-safety.net site and was subsequently written off.
On Dec. 13, 1985, a BN-2A-26 Islander crashed in Accra, Ghana.
On March 11, 1994, a SA226-AT Merlin IV flying from Gabon to Pointe-Noire with four passengers and two crew members was damaged beyond repair in a crash landing. The landing gear failed to deploy.
On Dec. 23, 2005, an An-24RV leased from Moldovian Pecotox Air was damaged when it ran off the runway upon landing, but was later repaired.
On Jan. 25, 2008, a Miapet-Avia military aircraft, An-12BP (EK-11660), rented by Aéro-Service, collided with a parked Boeing 727-247 belonging to Sierra Leone’s Teebah Airlines at Pointe-Noire Airport in the Congo. Brake failure was blamed. Both aircraft were damaged beyond repair. Two people were injured.
On June 19, 2010, a CASA C-212-CB Aviocar 100 military aircraft crashed in Cameroon, killing all nine passengers and the two pilots on board.
The last Aéro-Service incident involving the Il-76 that killed 39 people was the second instance involving Armenian aircraft and pilots.
By Vahe Sarukhanyan and Edik Baghdasaryan
Captain Valery Poghosyan, who flies in Africa and said five Armenians who died in a plane crash in the Congo last November were his friends, claims that insurance papers for the plane had to have been forged.
“Who is responsible for compensating the families and third parties? Why didn’t the General Department of Civil Aviation react in a timely fashion?” he asked. The department maintains that the plane had no Armenian registration, thus it has nothing to say about insurance or compensation to families of the killed and injured.
Samvel Gevorgyan, whose father died in the Congo crash, said that the family has received no information at all on compensation.
Poghosyan told Hetq.am that it cost $3,500 a quarter to insure the lives of the crew and that insurance was a requirement for getting a flight permit. But he said a rule requiring technical inspection of the aircraft before the issuance of life insurance was not enforced.
For older aircraft built at the Ilyushin Aviation factory, a design board conducts a technical inspection and gives flight permissions. But the aircraft that crashed is not listed here, even among planes whose licenses have expired.
Shahen Petrosyan, head of the General Department of Civil Aviation of Armenia from 1993 to 1996, said problems with forged insurance are nothing new.
Forging insurance paperwork in aviation is lucrative, he said, and recalled one time when representatives of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Armenia approached him with a simple scheme to make money. A portion of the fee from each ticket sold to customers would be given to local insurance representatives. These representatives, using their links in Russia, including Duma deputies, would then forge the insurance documents.
According to Serob Karapetyan, head of the Civil Aviation Department’s Flight Readiness Unit, the operator or the insurer assumes the liability for compensation -- in the case of this fatal flight, the Congolese company Aero-Service. But Aero-Service has not accepted any responsibility either.
Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan told Hetq.am that Armenia’s Embassy in Egypt contacted Aero-Service representatives, who said their company had only leased the plane and assumed no liability since it has no connection with the crew or any work contracts. They said Ridge Airways, listed as owners of the plane, should be held accountable.
It is possible that after the plane was removed from the Armenian registry, it simply wasn’t registered anywhere. Tigran Balayan, spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Armenian government wasn’t able to receive any documentation, including the original contract, from the Congo. The Congo government hasn’t officially contacted Armenia to resolve the matter. Balayan also said that the Foreign Ministry has nothing more to do in the matter and that the families of the dead crew members can take their compensation claims to the courts in Armenia.