A Russian plane headed to an air base in Syria and carrying 92 people, including members of a well-known military choir, crashed into the Black Sea on Sunday minutes after taking off from the resort city of Sochi, Russia's Defence Ministry said.
There were no survivors of Tu-154, which belonged to the Defence Ministry and was taking the Alexandrov Ensemble to a holiday concert at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. Crews found at least one body and ships, helicopters and drones were searching the area for more.
A total of 84 passengers and eight crew members were on the plane when it disappeared from radars two minutes after taking off in good weather. Emergency crews found fragments about 1.5 kilometres from shore.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 10 bodies had been recovered by Sunday afternoon.
"No survivors are seen," Konashenkov said.
At this point, it appears we did not receive data from the Russian Tu-154 that crashed after departure from Sochi.— @flightradar24
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defence affairs committee at the Upper House of Russian parliament, said the crash could have been caused by a technical malfunction or a crew error, but he believes it was not terrorism because the plane was operated by the military.
"I totally exclude" the idea of an attack bringing down the plane, he said in remarks carried by state RIA Novosti news agency.
The passenger list released by the Defence Ministry included 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, among them its leader, Valery Khalilov. The ensemble, also known as the Red Army Choir, is the official choir of the Russian military and also includes a band and a dance company.
Nine Russian journalists, including a TV crew from Channel One, were also among the passengers.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was personally co-ordinating the rescue efforts, and President Vladimir Putin has received official reports about the crash.
In televised comments, Putin declared Dec. 26 a national day of mourning.
"We will conduct a thorough investigation into the reasons and will do everything to support the victims' families," Putin said.
More than 3,000 people, including dozens of divers, worked from 27 ships and several helicopters to search the undersea crash site, according to the Defence Ministry. Drones were also flown over to help spot bodies and debris. About 100 more divers were being flown in from naval facilities across Russia, and officials brought in powerful spotlights so the search could continue round the clock.
Magomed Tolboyev, a decorated Russian test pilot, said the circumstances of the crash indicated that everyone on the plane had died.
"There is no chance to survive in such situation," he said, according to the Interfax news agency. "The plane gets instantly blown into pieces."
Designed in the late '60s
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively by carriers in Russia and worldwide.
In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced their Tu-154s with more modern planes, but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.
While noisy and fuel-guzzling by modern standards, the plane has been popular with crews that appreciate its maneuverability and ruggedness.
"It's an excellent plane, which has proven its reliability during decades of service," veteran pilot Oleg Smirnov said in televised remarks.
The plane that crashed was built in 1983, and underwent repairs in 2014, according to the Defence Ministry.
In April 2010, a Tu-154 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed while trying to land in bad weather at a sporadically used military airport in Smolensk in western Russia, killing everyone on board. Investigations by both Polish and Russian experts blamed pilot error in bad weather conditions, but Polish authorities have launched a new probe.