Early on Jan. 8, a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. It was supposed to be a routine flight between the Iranian capital and Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport, a transit destination for most of the plane’s passengers.
The Boeing 737–800 jet airliner departed at 6:12 a. m. Kyiv time. It gained about 2,400 meters in altitude. Then, at 6:14, it sent its last signal, according to the FlightRadar24 plane tracking website.
Less than four minutes after takeoff, UIA flight PS752 crashed roughly 20 kilometers from its point of departure, killing all 176 people on board — 167 passengers and nine crew members.
The crash occurred against a backdrop of soaring tensions between the United States and Iran. Just hours earlier, the Iranian government had fired up to 30 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq — an act of retaliation for Washington’s targeted killing f a top Iranian general.
In the wake of the plane catastrophe, Iran blamed engine issues. The Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran initially concurred, ruling out terrorism or a missile strike as possible causes. Then it walked back that statement. Now, Ukrainian experts are on the ground in Iran, taking part in the country’s official investigation.
But as investigators worked, the consensus began to shift. That culminated on the night of Jan. 9 with Newsweek reporting, citing U.S. and Iraqi intelligence officials, that Iran had shot the plane down with an anti-aircraft system, likely by accident. Soon other U.S. officials and even President Donald Trump were echoing this claim, multiple media reported. Iran has denied downing the plane.
Before that, experts said that videos and images purporting to show the crash and the site of impact suggested the plane was on fire as it fell to ground. The wide distribution of debris from the plane may indicated it broke apart before impact.
All this evidence suggests that PS752 was downed intentionally, multiple experts said.
Even Ukrainian investigators began to admit as much. Earlier on Jan. 9, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, announced that Kyiv was considering a number of possible explanations, including a missile strike and a terrorist attack.
As news of the crash broke, public reaction was initially muted in Ukraine. People were waking up the morning after Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas, the end of the long winter holidays.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government and UIA were springing into action. President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he would return to Ukraine from Oman, where he had an official visit two days earlier. Meanwhile, UIA organized a press conference at Boryspil airport.
There, company president Yevhen Dykhne tearfully offered his condolences to the families of the victims. But he also denied that his airline had any reason to expect problems with the plane.
UIA, Ukraine’s privately-owned national carrier, has a stellar safety record. It purchased the Boeing airliner in 2016 new from the manufacturer. The plane had undergone an aircraft maintenance check on Jan. 6. The PS752 disaster was the first crash, let alone one involving fatalities, in more than 27 years of UIA’s history.
“I guarantee that all of our planes are fit to fly,” Dykhne said.
Beyond that, opinions on the cause of the crash have diverged. On the morning of Jan. 9, Iran’s civil aviation agency published a preliminary report on the crash. The Iranian specialists said the UIA airliner experienced technical issues on board, but did not inform air traffic control. However, it apparently attempted to turn around and return to the airport.
Meanwhile, Ukraine did not comment in detail on the reason for the crash. After recalling its initial statement, the Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran released another statement that no information about the cause can be considered official until the commission finishes its investigation.
In a Jan. 9 video message published on social media, Zelensky asked Ukrainians to refrain from speculation and premature conclusions.
“It’s clear we all want to learn the truth as quickly as possible. But in these kinds of cases, speed can stand in the way of truth,” he said. “This is not a subject for hype, (getting) likes on social media, sensations and conspiracy theories. We need patience, endurance and prudence.”
Indeed, the first day after the crash was characterized by speculation and conspiracy theories, sometimes fueled by news reports.
On Jan. 8, Al-Hadath, “The Event,” a Jordanian news site, reported that Iranian air defense forces mistakenly shot down the plane, according to UNIAN news agency in Kyiv. The Arabic-language outlet did not cite any sources.
Speculation that the plane was shot down or bombed was widespread in Ukrainian social media.
However, as time wore on, more aviation experts said there was reason to believe PS752 was not simply brought down by engine failure.
The Boeing 737–800 has two engines. Like many modern planes, it is designed so that an engine fire or the failure of one engine is not necessarily a catastrophic event.
Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst at AirSafe.com and former Boeing safety engineer, told the Washington Post that, based upon images of the crash site, the wreckage was “very consistent with a plane that was not intact when it hit the ground.”
While that does not prove the plane was intentionally downed, it could be the result of a missile strike, an explosion or a midair collision, among other possibilities.
Jeff Guzzetti, who formerly led the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration’s investigation of accidents, also told the Washington Post that the plane appeared to have been brought down deliberately.
Andriy Guck, a partner at the Ante law firm in Kyiv and an aviation expert, said investigating a possible missle strike or terrorist attack should be a top priority given the situation in Iran.
The fact that the pilot reportedly did not inform air traffic control about an emergency on board the plane raises particular concerns for Guck.
“Even if the engine overheated or caught fire, the radio silence is strange by all means,” he said.
The OPS Group, an aviation risk management group formed after Russia and its proxies downed Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, also opined.
“Purely from the perspective of making a risk assessment for operations to Tehran, and Iran in general, however, 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,” it wrote in a statement.
However, drawing conclusions from photos of the crash site can be challenging.
Along with its statement, the OPS Group shared photos that “show obvious projective holes in the fuselage and a wing section.”
“Whether that projectile was an engine part, or a missile fragment is still conjecture…,” the organization added.
But, in other cases, what appeared to be holes in plane fragments at the crash site “actually appear to be small rocks or other debris in high-resolution images,” Nick Waters, an analyst at Bellingcat, an online open-source investigations unit that worked extensively on MH17, wrote on Twitter.
And others still rejected the idea that PS752 was intentionally downed.
Western intelligence agencies initially concluded that the plane crashed due to a technical malfunction, the Reuters news agency reported, citing five unnamed Western security sources.
And Janne Uusmaa, an Estonian advisor to the NATO air forces and an experienced Boeing pilot, said he believed it was too early to draw conclusions. The number of possible reasons why planes crash is too large and the images from the impact site are too blurry to create a clear picture of the incident, he said.
“An aircraft accident is a very complex matter. There is no single cause,” Uusmaa told the Kyiv Post in a message. “An accident is a result of multiple active and latent failures that end with a catastrophic result.”
Sometimes images online — even unconfirmed ones — can overlap with the official investigation.
On Jan. 9, National Security Secretary Danilov told Radio Liberty that Ukrainian specialists in Tehran were investigating seven potential versions of the crash, of which three were secret.
Earlier, he had named the public ones in a comment to the Censor.Net news site: a missile strike, a collision with a drone or other flying object, an engine explosion caused by technical problems or a terrorist bombing.
Most surprisingly, Danilov said the Ukrainian commission wanted to visit the crash site to look for fragments of a Russian-produced Tor surface-to-air missile system, after a photo purporting to show such a missile was published online.
According to Bellingcat, which has extensive experience proving and disproving the veracity of photos published online, these images have not been confirmed to depict the crash site.
Now, according to Newsweek, that is the weapons system that likely downed the plane.
Ukraine is currently working with Tehran to fully investigate the catastrophe. But that may prove more difficult than expected — particularly if Tehran shot down PS752.
Ukraine saw how difficult Russia and the Kremlin-backed militants controlling part of the Donbas region made it to investigate MH17.
There are also other challenges. Iran has no diplomatic relations with the United States and Canada — the country where Boeing is headquartered and the country that lost 63 citizens in the crash, respectively.
Initially, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, told Iranian media that Iran would not give the plane’s black box flight recorders to Boeing or the United States, raising concerns that geopolitics could hinder the investigation.
Later, however, Abedzadeh backtracked. He said that Iran had invited the United States, Ukraine, Canada and Sweden to take part in the investigation in line with the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the Ukrainska Pravda news site reported.
Previously, Ukraine expressed no concerns about working with Iran. In his Jan. 9 video message, Zelensky said 45 Ukrainian specialists had been dispatched to Tehran and would be involved in inspecting the flight’s black boxes.
Both of the plane’s black boxes sustained damage in the crash and lost some data, the Iranian preliminary report claimed, the Associated Press reported.
What’s in an investigation?
According to Oleksiy Demyanenko, a partner at Asters law firm in Kyiv and an aviation expert, international airline crash investigations are often large affairs that can involve seven or eight countries. They are usually led by the country where the plane crashed, but also involve investigators from the airline’s country, the country of the aircraft’s registration and the country where the aircraft was assembled. They can also involve investigators from countries that lost citizens in the crash and specialists on certain parts of the airplane.
“The lead country can restrict physical access (for) other countries’ investigators to its sovereign territory and aircraft crash site, but it is not normal practice,” Demyanenko told the Kyiv Post in a statement. “Investigators from Iran can seek technical assistance from Boeing, but they are not obliged (to do so).”
Should Iran not hand over the black boxes to the U.S. or Boeing, that would be “nothing extraordinary,” says aviation expert Guck.
In a Facebook post, he noted that the black box from MH17 was also never handed over to Boeing. Instead, a group of experts from the countries involved in the investigation examined it in a laboratory.
“If Iran doesn’t let anyone take part in the study of the (black) boxes, then that will cast doubt on the investigation,” he wrote.
Kyiv Post staff writer Oleksiy Sorokin contributed to this story.