First Published: 2005-04-21

Crash underlines Iran aviation peril

Deaths of three people following fire, crash landing at Tehran airport highlights perilous state of Iran’s fleet.


Middle East Online

By Laurent Lozano - TEHRAN

Many witnesses accused rescuers of being slow to react

The deaths of three people following a fire and crash landing at Tehran airport on Wednesday have highlighted the perilous state of Iran's fleet, suffering under US sanctions on the Islamic republic.

Two people were confirmed killed, a child was missing and 80 people injured when a Boeing 707 operated by Saha Airlines veered off the runway as it landed at Mehrabad airport on Wednesday night, airport officials said.

Rescue teams were on Thursday still looking for the child who fell into the Kan river, where the plane ended its flight from the Iranian island of Kish with 157 passengers and crew on board, said the airport's deputy manager.

"All we know is that the plane wasn't able to brake," Mohammad Ali Hosseinzadeh said.

"It ran the length of the runway, then continued several hundred metres through the grass and up to the river, which lies on the airport's perimeter."

However, the managing director of Saha Airlines, which belongs to the Iranian military but offers a civilian service, blamed the tarmac.

"The landing gear fell into a hole at the end of the runway, causing the fire," said Mansour Nikookar.

Hosseinzadeh insisted that answers to why the plane caught fire lie in the plane's black box, but whatever the cause of the crash landing, passengers' testimony will send shivers down the spines of those using Iranian domestic flights.

"The plane landed at the same speed it was doing in the sky," one injured passenger told state television.

"The plane had problems right from take off. People rushed to the exits when the fire broke out and I saw a child fall in the river," said another.

When the cabin caught fire "we tried to push the doors", said a third passenger. But the emergency slides did not work.

"I jumped out and fell three metres. I saw several people with broken arms and legs," said another injured passenger.

Many witnesses accused rescuers of being slow to react, but given that Wednesday's crash is only the latest in a series of Iranian air accidents, the real culprit seems to be the dilapidated state of Iran's aging fleet.

"You are flying 200-year-old planes," mocked one passenger.

"The 707s are more than 30 years old and totally outdated," an aeronautical expert said on condition of anonymity.

National carrier Iran Air "has not used the 707 for years, only Saha uses them", said Hosseinzadeh.

Iran has a high demand for domestic flights combined with unilateral sanctions on the transfer of technology imposed by Washington. As a result, Iran can no longer buy US-made Boeings or European Airbuses which contain American components, nor US-made spare parts.

In the hope of finding a solution, Tehran turned to the former Soviet Union. Many Iranian passenger planes are now Tupolovs, Antonovs and Yaks bought or rented from Iran's one-time northern neighbour.

But from 2002 to 2003 three Soviet-made planes crashed in Iran, killing more than 400.

Last month, a Boeing and an Airbus both had to make emergency landings at Iranian airports on the same day.

Earlier this year, Washington said it would be prepared to lift the ban on selling spare parts for Iranian aircraft, but rescinding the ban is conditional on the outcome of delicate negotiations on Iran's suspect nuclear programme.

To add insult to injury, Tehran is still waiting for its new international airport to open and replace the dilapidated Mehrabad where Wednesday's crash occurred.

Opened in 2004 after years of delays, the airport was swiftly shut down by the hardline Revolutionary Guards who said that contractors who built the airport also had business dealings with arch-enemy Israel.


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