reviewed data and videos of the flight, and interviewed aviation and explosives experts, to reconstruct what happened in the minutes before it crashed. The analysis suggests that the private plane suffered at least one “catastrophic in-flight incident” before falling out of the sky. The available video does not show that catastrophic incident.
A passenger manifest released Wednesday by Russia’s Rosaviatsia civil aviation agency showed that the name of Prigozhin and Wagner’s commanding officer, Dmitry Utkin, were among the seven passengers and three crew members, all of whom were which, according to the Russian Ministry of Emergency Services, died.
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Russian authorities have yet to officially confirm Prigozhin’s death, but Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to him in the past tense when acknowledging the accident in public statements on Thursday.
Rosaviatsia said she had launched an investigation into “the circumstances and causes of the accident.” The Investigative Committee also opened a criminal investigation.
The accident came two months after Prigozhin launched a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, an unprecedented challenge to Putin’s authority.
The Pentagon said Thursday that Prigozhin “probably” died in the crash. US and Western intelligence officials with whom CNN has spoken believe it was deliberate. Officials said it was too early to determine what brought the plane down, but one possibility being explored was an onboard explosion.
There have been many speculations. But no evidence has been produced pointing to the involvement of the Kremlin or Russian security services in the accident.
The experts interviewed by CNN affirm that the available evidence indicates that it is unlikely that the accident was due to a mechanical failure. The plane’s shocking descent, the way it disintegrated in midair and the extent of the debris field all point to an explosion, they said.
Flight data shows ‘shocking decline’
The private Embraer Legacy 600 (RA-02795) linked to Prigozhin, which took off from Moscow shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday, showed no signs of any trouble before a precipitous descent, the flight’s tracking data shows.
Flightradar24, a site that tracks aircraft information in real time, said in a report on Wednesday that the plane reached a cruising altitude of 28,000 feet at 6:11 p.m. Moscow time, moving at a speed of 950 km/h.
Then, at 18:19 local time, the aircraft made erratic climbs and descents, at one point climbing to over 30,000 feet before suddenly descending 8,000 feet in about 30 seconds. When the plane last transmitted data, it had descended to an altitude of 19,725 feet. According to CNN’s analysis of available flight data, the aircraft traveled approximately 50 more kilometers before crashing.
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“Although the plane did not transmit information about its position, other data such as altitude, speed, vertical speed and autopilot settings were broadcast. It is this data that provides some information about the final moments of the flight,” he said. Flightradar24 in the report, noting that the data showed a “shocking decline.”
The final altitude fluctuations of the flight are highly unusual, an aviation expert told CNN, and suggest that the pilot was trying to stabilize the plane before the crash.
“Explosive decompression, like a door blown out or there was an explosion under the wagon… They would have to be able to maintain control of the plane long enough to maintain that altitude and not drop like a stone,” Steffan said. Watkins, an open source research consultant who tracks planes and ships.
Flightradar24 identified the stricken luxury jet as the registration RA-02795, the same plane that was believed to have transported Prigozhin to Belarus after a negotiated deal to end the insurrection required Wagner’s boss and his fighters will move to the country. For the past two months, Russian observers and aviation experts have been tracking the Embraer plane, which shuttled back and forth between Russia and Belarus, often turning off its transponder to hide its location.
CNN previously reported that US and European intelligence services had followed the plane’s movements but could not say at the time whether Prigozhin was on board.
“He uses it as a deception tactic,” a US official told CNN at the time about why it was difficult to trace Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts.