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Popular choir on board Russian military jet that crashed into Black Sea

Posted at 7:12 AM, Dec 25, 2016

(CNN) -- A Russian military plane carrying members of the country's official choir traveling to perform in Syria has crashed in the Black Sea near Sochi. There are apparently no survivors, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

A Tupolev Tu-154 plane that was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew members disappeared from radar Sunday morning local time after taking off from the Adler airport near the Black Sea city, state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

The plane, which first took off from Moscow, was headed to the Russian Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria, where the country has a large military presence, for a concert ahead of New Year's Eve, a source told Russia's state news agency Tass.

Before arriving in Latakia, the plane landed in Sochi to refuel, the Defence Ministry's press service told Russia's Interfax news agency.

According to RIA Novosti, the Defense Ministry said it found debris from the missing Tu-154 in the Black Sea one mile from Sochi. Four ships and five helicopters have combed the crash site, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said, according to Russian state run news agency TASS.

It's likely not weather, nor terrorism

CNN Meteorologist Derek Van Dam said no major weather patterns were present at the time of the plane's disappearance.

The Russian Tu-154 could have crashed because of a technical malfunction or a pilot's error but not terrorism, the chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security Viktor Ozerov said, according to Russia's Sputnik news agency.

"I rule out version of the terror attack completely. It is the aircraft of the Ministry of Defense, the airspace of the Russian Federation, there cannot be such a version," Ozerov is quoted as saying. "The plane had to make a U-turn after takeoff over the sea, may took the wrong direction."

Sixty-four members of the renowned Alexandrov Ensemble, the Russian army's official choir,were on board the plane, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. Valery Kahlilov, the ensemble's conductor, was one of the passengers.

Since 1928, the Alexandrov Ensemble had grown into a immensely popular tradition due to its unending government support. It toured the world performing Russian folk songs, WWII anthems and patriotic music, and was dubbed "Russia's singing weapon."

The ensemble consists of between 100 and 120 members depending on the type of performance given. It includes a choir, a dance troupe and an orchestra. Since their performance at the airbase was going to be mostly a cappella, only the choir and a handful dancers were aboard the plane, Russian media reported.

"The orchestra did not fly because [the choir] was supposed to use pre-recorded music," a singer in the choir Sergei Khlopnikov, who didn't make the trip because his daughter was sick, told the Interfax news agency.

In addition to choir members, nine journalists -- including three reporters with Star TV -- and eight military members were on board as well, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry's official television network.

An investigation launched

Tass has reported that, according to the Defense Ministry, "all search and rescue services of aviation units on the Southern Military District in Krasnodar and neighboring regions are engaged in aircraft search."

According to Tass, the plane was built in 1983 and had 6,689 hours of flight. "The last repair was on December 29, 2014, and in September 2016 it underwent scheduled maintenance," the Defense Ministry said as quoted by Tass.

The Defense Ministry also said, according to Sputnik, that it had identified the pilot as Roman Volkov, describing him as a "class 2 pilot" with more than 3,000 hours of flying, Tass reported.

On Sunday, the temperature of the Black Sea was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes hypothermia inevitable after about an hour in the water, Russian media said.

One body, believed to be one of the crash victims, was found more than three miles of the Sochi shores, Konashenkov said, according to Sputnik. Four bodies in total have been retrieved, a source at the emergency services told Tass.

"The body has been lifted on board of the rescue vehicle," Konashenkov said.

The Russian Investigation Committee has launched a routine criminal investigation of the Tu-154 to examine potential "violation of rules of flight safety or preparation," the committee's official spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko told Tass. The committee plans to seize documents and interrogate those who prepared the plane for flight, she added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to launch and lead an investigation the Tu-154 crash, according to Russian news agency Sputnik.