There is a puff of white and then a plane can be seen falling, a trail of smoke or vapor stretching behind it, descending rapidly against a bright blue sky. The person filming the video zooms in as the aircraft spirals downwards out of control, revealing that it is missing a wing.
The footage, published by Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti, appears to show the moments before a private plane purportedly carrying mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed in a field northwest of Moscow, while en route to St. Petersburg.
Credit: Ria Novosti
CNN has reviewed flight data and videos, and interviewed aviation and explosive experts, to piece together what happened in the minutes leading up to the crash. The analysis suggests that the private aircraft experienced at least one “catastrophic inflight incident” before it dropped out of the sky. Available video does not show that catastrophic event.
A passenger manifest released by Russia’s civil aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, on Wednesday showed that Prigozhin’s name and that of Wagner’s top commander, Dmitry Utkin, were among the seven passengers and three crew members, all of whom Russia’s emergency services ministry said were killed.
Russian authorities have yet to officially confirm Prigozhin’s death but, acknowledging the crash in public comments on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to him in the past tense.
Rosaviatsia said it had launched an investigation into “the circumstances and causes of the accident.” The Investigative Committee has also launched a criminal probe.
The crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin launched a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, posing an unprecedented challenge to Putin’s authority.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that Prigozhin was “likely” killed in the crash. US and western intelligence officials that CNN has spoken to believe it was deliberate. Officials said that it was too early to determine what brought the plane down, but that one possibility being explored was an on-board explosion.
There’s been plenty of speculation. But no evidence has been presented pointing to the involvement of the Kremlin or Russian security services in the crash.
Experts interviewed by CNN say that available evidence indicates that the crash was unlikely to have been caused by a mechanical failure. The dramatic descent of the plane, the way that it broke apart in the air and the extent of the debris field point to an explosion, they said.
Flight data shows a ‘dramatic descent’
The private Embraer Legacy 600 (RA-02795) linked to Prigozhin, which took off from Moscow shortly before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, showed no sign of any problems before a precipitous drop, flight-tracking data shows.
Flightradar24, a site that tracks real-time aircraft information, 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 590 miles per hour.
Then, at 6:19 p.m. local time, the plane made erratic climbs and descents, at one point soaring to over 30,000 feet before suddenly falling 8,000 feet in about 30 seconds. When the plane transmitted the last data, it had fallen to an altitude of 19,725 feet. According to CNN’s analysis of available flight data, the plane traveled another 30 miles before it crashed.
“Even though the aircraft was not transmitting position information, other data like altitude, speed, vertical rate, and autopilot settings were broadcast. It is this data that provides some insight into the final moments of the flight,” Flightradar24 said in the report, noting that the data showed a “dramatic descent.”
The flight’s final fluctuations in altitude are highly unusual, one aviation expert told CNN, and suggest that the pilot was trying to stabilize the plane before the crash.
“Explosive decompression, like if a door blew off or if they had the explosion underneath a wheeled carriage … They would need to be able to keep control of the plane sufficiently to keep that altitude and not just drop like a stone,” said Steffan Watkins, an open-source research consultant who tracks aircraft and ships.
The ill-fated luxury jet was identified by Flightradar24 with registration RA-02795, the same plane previously believed to have carried Prigozhin to Belarus after a deal brokered to end the mutiny required the Wagner chief and his fighters to relocate to the country. Over the last two months, Russia observers and aviation experts have tracked the Embraer jet flying back and forth between Russia and Belarus, often turning off its transponder to obscure its location.
CNN has previously reported that US and European intelligence officials had been tracking the plane’s movements but could not say for sure at the time whether Prigozhin was on board.
“He uses it as a deception tactic,” a US official told CNN then about why Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts were hard to track by plane.
Experts say videos point to explosion midair
Two videos, geolocated by CNN near the crash site, show the plane, with a distinctive blue tail, dropping out of the sky. Its fuselage – the aircraft’s main body section – appears to be in one piece, but it is missing a wing.
Footage from the crash site, shared on Telegram by an activist monitoring group, the Belarusian Hajun Project, showed the plane’s fuselage. In the clip, the last four digits of the plane’s registration number can be seen on what remained of the engine, as the wreckage burned: 2795.
Credit: Belarusian Hajun project
Other videos and photos shared on Telegram, a messaging app, show debris from the plane scattered in four locations across a roughly 2-mile radius just outside the village of Kuzhenkino, in the Tver region. The aircraft’s fuselage was found in a field, its tail section discovered nearby. Some smaller debris landed in a residential area, and the wing was found in a river, according to CNN’s analysis of the visual evidence and Planet Labs satellite imagery.
Markus Schiller, a Europe-based missile expert who has worked on analysis for NATO and the European Union, told CNN that the available videos and the fact that multiple debris fields were spread over a wide area point to a “forceful explosion.”
“The plane’s tail and wing can only have been separated from the plane by an explosion. It remains unclear whether this was a bomb on the plane or a missile, but the tail and wing can’t have fallen off any other way,” Schiller said.
CNN could not confirm how the plane was downed, but Schiller and several other experts suggested that the crash was caused by at least one cataclysmic event that occurred midair.
Robert Schmucker, a rocket expert who advises NATO and the United Nations, said that while the crash requires a thorough, on-the-ground investigation and analysis of the black box, or flight data recorders, to determine the cause, available evidence indicates that the plane was likely downed by an explosion rather than mechanical failure.
“Planes such as this one don’t just fall out of the sky. Neither bad servicing nor pilot error would have the effect we’ve seen, namely the wing falling off and there appearing to be an explosion in the sky. This plane definitely didn’t fall apart due to mechanical or weather issues,” Schmucker told CNN.
He added that, based on the footage and appearance of the debris, it didn’t appear that the plane was hit by a rocket or air defense missile.
The Embraer Legacy 600 model that crashed had, as of 2021, only recorded one accident in over two decades of service, and it was not a result of mechanical failure, according to the website International Aviation HQ. Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer said in a statement to CNN that it has complied with international sanctions imposed on Russia, and suspended its support service, which includes maintenance, to the aircraft linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2019.
Several residents who lived near the crash site described hearing explosions before seeing the plane plummet to the ground.
A woman from Kuzhenkino told RIA Novosti that she heard an airplane near her house, which is located about 1,000 feet from the place where the tail part of the Embraer is now lying.
“Then came something like a bang, like a shot. Then suddenly an explosion, I look up and heard a sound above me - it was like pops, like several explosions,” she said. “The plane started to swerve. Then a plume of smoke emerged, and the plane began to descend, to dive.”
Given the safety record of the modern Embraer Legacy 600 aircraft, Daniel Kwasi Adjekum, an aviation expert, and professor at the University of North Dakota, said that there were only three realistic options for how the crash occurred: an explosive device on the plane, a missile, or an in-air collision.
But he indicated that the latter two were less likely, given the degree of damage that you would expect to see from a missile impact, and that air traffic control would have likely picked up a collision on its radar, unless it was with a drone.
“It is very difficult to understand what happened without a proper investigation,” he said, adding: “The aircraft has suffered serious catastrophic inflight break up.”
CNN’s Paul P. Murphy, Eve Brennan and Allegra Goodwin contributed to this report. Visuals by Lou Robinson, Yukari Schrickel, Marco Chacón and Renée Rigdon.