Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) was a scheduled international passenger flight from Tehran to Kiev operated by Ukraine International Airlines (UIA). On 8 January 2020, the Boeing 737-800 operating the route was shot down shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. All 176 passengers and crew were killed; it was the first fatal air accident for Ukraine International Airlines.
It was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, which attributed it to human error, with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani describing the accident as an “unforgivable mistake”, although initially, Iranian aviation authorities denied the airplane was hit by a missile and said a technical error was responsible, while Ukrainian authorities, after initially deferring to Iran’s explanation, said a shoot-down of the flight was one of their main working theories. Investigation by western intelligence agencies and the general public had revealed the aircraft had been shot down by a Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile launched by Iran, then three days later, on 11 January, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said they had shot down the aircraft after mistaking it for a cruise missile.
The incident occurred during the 2019–20 Persian Gulf crisis, at a time of heightened tensions five days after U.S. president Donald Trump ordered a drone strike (which killed Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani) in Iraq in retaliation for the breaching of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by Iranian Militia Group Kataib Hezbollah and hours after Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile attacks. It was preceded by an order from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that all American civilian aircraft avoid Iranian airspace and was followed by similar orders by several other nations and airlines including Ukraine. Experts have questioned Iran’s decision to not close its airspace after launching missiles; General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said a request had been made for a no-fly zone before the incident but for reasons that are unclear this request was rejected. As a result of the aircraft shoot down and government deception, mass protests broke out in Iran calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
UR-PSR, the incident aircraft, photographed during takeoff in October 2019
The aircraft was a Boeing 737-8KV, serial number 38124, registration UR-PSR. It was 3 1⁄2 years old at the time of the crash, having first flown on 21 June 2016. It was delivered to the airline on 19 July 2016 and it was the first 737 Next Generation aircraft purchased by the airline.
The flight was operated by Ukraine International Airlines, the flag carrier and the largest airline of Ukraine, on a scheduled flight from the Iranian capital Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport to Boryspil International Airport in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Emergency officials confirmed that the aircraft was carrying 176 people on board, including nine crew members. Fifteen of the passengers were children.
Flight 752 was scheduled to take off at 05:15 local time (UTC+3:30), but was delayed. It departed Stand 116 and took off from Runway 29R at 06:12:47 local time and was expected to land in Kiev at 08:00 local time (UTC+2:00). The final ADS-B data received was at 06:14:45, less than two minutes after departure.
Between 06:14:20 and 06:14:45 the airplane turned right 24° (from the take-off heading of 289° to 313°), according to flight data.
According to the data, the last recorded altitude was at 2,416 metres (7,925 ft) above mean sea level with a ground speed of 275 knots (509 km/h). The airport is 1,007 metres (3,305 ft) above mean sea level, which gives an altitude of 1,410 metres (4,620 ft) above ground level. The flight was climbing at just under 3000 ft/min when the flight data record abruptly ended over the open ground near the northern end of Enqelab Eslami Boulevard in Parand, after the airplane was hit by two short-range missiles launched thirty seconds apart by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The aircraft crashed on a park and fields on the edge of the village of Khalajabad 15 kilometres (9.3 mi; 8.1 nmi) north-west of the airport, but did not cause any casualties on the ground. Shortly after the crash, emergency responders arrived with 22 ambulances, four bus ambulances, and a helicopter, but intense fires prevented a rescue attempt. The wreckage was strewn over a wide area, with no survivors found at the crash site. The aircraft was destroyed on impact.
Iran Civil Aviation Organization (Iran CAO) spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh reported shortly after the incident that a team of investigators had been sent to the crash site. On the same day, the Ukrainian government said that it would send experts to Tehran to assist with the investigation. President Zelensky instructed the Ukrainian General Prosecutor to open a criminal investigation into the crash. The Ukrainian government had sent 53 representatives to Iran to assist with the investigation, among them were government officials, investigators and representatives from UIA.
Under standard International Civil Aviation Organization rules, according to Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention, America’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would participate in the investigation, as they represented the state of the manufacturer of the aircraft. France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA) would participate as representatives of the state of manufacture of the aircraft’s engines and Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure would participate as representatives of the state in which the aircraft was registered. Given the 2019–20 Persian Gulf crisis, it is not known how these organizations would be involved, although it was reported that Iran had stated that American, French and Ukrainian authorities would be involved.
The head of the commission for accidents in the Iran CAO said that they received no emergency message from the aircraft before the crash. It was reported that the aircraft’s black boxes (the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder) had been recovered, but spokesman Ali Abedzadeh said it was not clear to which country the box would be sent so that its data could be analysed. Iran CAO has said that it will not hand over the black boxes to Boeing or U.S. authorities. On 9 January the black boxes were reported, by Iranian investigators, to have been damaged and some parts of their memory lost. The plane is capable of sending automated messages to the airline, including engine failure. Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general, states that no automated problem messages from the plane were sent to or received by the airline.
On 9 January, the Swedish Accident Investigation Authority and Transportation Safety Board of Canada were officially invited by the investigation team to participate in the probe on the crash. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Ukraine, and Boeing were also invited to participate in the investigation. According to various news reports, however, “due to longstanding sanctions … U.S. investigators cannot simply fly into Tehran and meet with their Ukrainian counterparts … would need a special license granted by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in consultation with the State Department”.
On 9 January 2020, media reports showed bulldozers being used at the crash site. Some aircraft investigation experts expressed concerns about disturbing and damaging the crash site before a thorough investigation can be conducted. Iran denied bulldozing the evidence. As of 9 January 2020, Ukrainian investigators were still waiting for Iranian government permission to investigate the crash site. On 10 January, the Iranian government granted Ukrainian investigators permission to investigate the flight recorders. The recorders will be downloaded in Tehran.
Cause of the crash
On 8 January, Iran’s Road and Transportation Ministry released a statement that the aircraft burst into flames after a fire started in one of its engines, causing the pilot to lose control and crash into the ground. The airline opined that pilot error was impossible to be cited as the cause of the crash as the pilots had exclusively been trained for the Tehran flights for years, noting that Tehran Airport was “not a simple airport”. The ISNA and other Iranian state news agencies reported that the aircraft had experienced technical difficulties. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Ukraine’s Tehran embassy initially blamed engine failure but later retracted the statement, and said that anything was possible and refused to rule out that the aircraft was hit by a missile. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that there should not be any speculation about the cause of the crash.
According to the Iranian Disaster Mitigation and Management Organization, early investigation of the crash appears to show the cause was a technical issue in the engine. Iran CAO announced that the aircraft “turned right following a problem and was headed back to the airport” before it crashed. Investigators stated that, based on the abrupt cut off of the ADS-B data and that the pilot did not send a distress call, the plane may have suffered a sudden and violent catastrophic failure, regardless of the cause.
On 8 January, a U.S. congressman on condition of anonymity told Associated Press that U.S. officials – including Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and CIA Director Gina Haspel – “said there was no intelligence to indicate that the plane was shot down”, in a classified session to brief members of the United States Congress. A Canadian security source who declined to be identified told Reuters that ” the initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies is that the plane was not brought down by a missile. There is no evidence to suggest that”. The source added “the most likely cause of the crash was a malfunction” and “there was some evidence one of the plane’s engines had overheated”. According to Reuters, three American security officials and a European source confirmed the same report.
On 9 January, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine announced that it is examining possible causes, “including an anti-aircraft missile strike, a mid-air collision, an engine explosion or an explosion inside the plane carried out by a terrorist”; Ukrainian experts will look for fragments of a Russian-made Tor surface-to-air missile at the site of the crash, with experts who had been involved in the investigation into the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 being in the team. The Iranian military denied it was a shootdown event.
On 9 January 2020, United States intelligence and defense officials said that they believe the aircraft had been shot down by an Iranian Tor missile, based on evidence from reconnaissance satellite imagery and radar data. Ukrainian authorities have said a shootdown was one of the “main working theories”, while Iranian authorities denied this. U.K. defence officials agreed with the American assessment of a shootdown. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau said evidence from multiple sources, including Canadian intelligence, suggest the aircraft was shot down by an Iranian missile. New York Times obtained and released a video that appears to show the Ukrainian airliner being hit by a rocket.
A video, circulated on social media, purportedly shows the moment of the crash. Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) released the same video on its report, and stated that the aircraft was burning prior to the crash.
On 9 January, an unconfirmed video surfaced on CNN showing a missile being launched from the ground and hitting the plane, causing an explosion. Later on, The New York Times stated it had verified the video’s authenticity.
Photos of a piece of a SA-15 missile are reported to have been taken in front of a home in the city of Parand, though, the photos have not been independently verified as of 10 January 2020. USA Today reported that the firm IHS Markit reviewed “photographs purportedly taken near the site of the crash to show the guidance section of an SA-15 Gauntlet” (SA-15 Gauntlet is the NATO reporting name for the 9K330 Tor missile system) and “assesses them to be credible”, although they could not confirm their authenticity.
Aviation monitoring group Opsgroup said that: “We would recommend the starting assumption to be that this was a shootdown event, similar to MH17 – until there is clear evidence to the contrary” asserting that photographs “show obvious projectile holes in the fuselage and a wing section”. Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute told The Guardian available video evidence does not support the shoot-down theory, adding that “there was no evidence of a rocket plume” and “It would also be very hard to conceal such a large rocket battery from the ground”. The New York Observer stated that video evidence strengthens the technical malfunction theory, because the airplane caught on fire and turned back around toward the Tehran airport, then “continued to maintain altitude, and then, exploded, rather than hitting the ground intact”.
The disaster occurred amid a heightened political crisis between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf, happening just hours after the Iranian military launched 15 missiles towards U.S military airbases in Iraq in response to the Baghdad International Airport airstrike by the United States on 3 January, which killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. In response, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, in a NOTAM, banned all American civil aircraft from overflying Iran, Iraq, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Although the U.S. FAA’s NOTAM is not binding on non-American airlines, many airlines take it into consideration when making safety decisions, especially after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. A number of airlines, including Austrian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, KLM, Air France, Air India and Qantas began to reroute their flights. Airlines in the region, such as Lufthansa, Emirates, and Flydubai have cancelled some flights to airports in Iran and Iraq and would make further operational changes as necessary.
Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) suspended flights to Tehran indefinitely shortly after the incident, with flights after the day of the crash no longer available. The suspension also complied a prohibition issued by State Aviation Administration of Ukraine for flights in Iran’s airspace for all Ukrainian registration aircraft. Since the crash, additional airlines, Air Astana and SCAT Airlines also re-routed flights that overflew Iran. This followed a recommendation by Kazakhstan Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development’s recommendation issued after the crash to Kazakhstani air companies to avoid flying over Iran airspace or cancelling flights to Iran. Air Canada rerouted its Toronto-Dubai flight to fly over Egypt and Saudi Arabia instead of Iraq.
Iran declared 9 January a national day of mourning for both the victims of Flight 752 and those killed in a stampede at Qasem Soleimani’s funeral.
Ukrainian President Zelensky expressed condolences to the relatives of the victims. Officials stated that he would cut his visit in Oman short due to the disaster. President Zelensky later added that several aircraft had been prepared in Kiev to travel to Tehran to transport the dead. He declared 9 January as a national day of mourning, with flags flying at half mast on government buildings. He also announced for unscheduled inspections on every airliner in the country and asked Ukrainians to refrain from visiting Iran and Iraq for the time being.
United States President Donald Trump publicly said that there was evidence that something “terrible” shot down the plane and rejected the assertion that a mechanical failure caused the crash. Trump also stated that the plane “was flying over a pretty rough neighbourhood”.
Given the large loss of Canadian life, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Transport Minister Marc Garneau both expressed sympathy for the victims. Champagne announced that he was in touch with the Ukrainian government and Garneau announced that Canada was offering assistance in the investigation.
The British Foreign Office said that they are deeply saddened by the loss of life and are urgently seeking confirmation about how many British nationals were on board. The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement stating that they are deeply saddened and expressed their condolences to the families who lost their lives, as well as to the “Governments and friendly peoples of Ukraine and Iran”. Russian President Vladimir Putin also sent condolences to the presidents of these two countries.