KAZAN, Russia: The pilot of an airliner that crashed near the Russian city of Kazan killing 50 people had pushed the steering column to pitch it into a nosedive, crash investigators said on Tuesday, citing data recorder analysis.
The Interstate Aviation Committee, which oversees civil aviation in the former Soviet Union, offered no explanation why the pilot of the Boeing 737 jet might have performed the manoeuvre, at a height of 700 metres, after aborting a first attempt to land.
Aksan Giniyatullin, the CEO of Tatarstan airlines which operated the jet, told a news conference: "The lead pilot had never made a second landing attempt under real flight conditions."
Video of the crash showed the aircraft, approaching Kazan in the region of Tatarstan on a flight from Moscow, plummeting headlong into the tarmac and exploding.
"After a speed decrease from 150 to 125 knots (144 mph) the crew started manoeuvring activities with the steering column to put the plane into a nose-down pitch, which resulted in the end of altitude gain and the start of descent," the committee said in a statement.
Both engines were running and no malfunctions were detected by the flight data recorder. The tape from the voice recorder could not be recovered at the crash site, the committee said.
Sunday's crash raised new concerns about Russia's poor safety record as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics in the southern city of Sochi in February, an event on which President Vladimir Putin has staked much personal political prestige.
Russia and the Soviet republics combined have one of the world's worst air traffic safety records, with a total accident rate almost three times the world average in 2011, according to the International Air Transport Association.
"I know lots of people who don't fly with these small airlines in Russia anymore, they're scared..." said Leila Sibgatullina, a middle-aged woman who came to place flowers at the site of the crash.
"This kind of thing just shouldn't be happening. What a tragedy."
Mourners paid respects at a makeshift memorial set up at the gate to the runway. Candles burned around a table piled with red and white flowers and teddy bears.
The son of the president of the oil-rich province of Tatarstan and the regional head of the FSB intelligence service were named among those killed. The dead also included two foreigners, a Briton and a Ukrainian.
The committee said investigators were studying the level of crew training and technical condition of the jet among other aspects.
An independent aviation expert who did not want to be named suggested the decline in speed might itself have caused the plane to stall and nosedive.
"The abrupt transition from ascent to descent can signify that the crew, possibly, failed to keep track of the speed decrease, which resulted in the jet losing controllability and falling," he said.