Murder by airplane is a film and literary staple (See Hijacked or T.J. Newman’s Falling). On occasion, it is batted around as a theory in actual air disasters. The 1961 crash that killed UN chief Dag Hammarskjöld in what was then called Rhodesia, is one example. Another is the flight of United Airlines 553.
On December 8, 1972, a Boeing 737 crashed on approach to Chicago’s Midway Airport, killing 43 people on board including Dorothy Hunt, the wife of a Watergate ringleader and a controversial figure in her own right. I’ve written about these disasters in my book, The Crash Detectives.
Wednesday’s crash of the plane carrying Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, which has been fighting for Russia in the Ukraine, has the same murky backstory as the Hammarskjöld and Hunt episodes.
This summer, Prigozhin led an aborted, I don’t know, coup perhaps? Various newspapers have described it as a mutiny and a rebellion. President Vladimir Putin described it as treason. In any event, the challenge to his authority certainly ticked off the obstinate Putin. The news was full of speculation that Prigozhin’s days were numbered.
That number seems now seems to be 74. That is the number of days between June 4 when having gotten within 250 miles of the Russian capital he turned back and left Rostov-on-Don without being arrested or harmed, and August 23, the day his plane reportedly exploded near the city of Tver northwest of Moscow.
Getting away with murder by airplane is a concept more likely to succeed in crime fiction than in reality. A few factors are critical to success.
- Few participants
- Exquisite timing
- Remote location or control of eyewitnesses
- Control of the investigation
But if it was Putin who ordered the downing of Prigozhin’s Embraer Legacy 600, factors one and four have been met. With control of the military, only a few, trusted members would be needed to make it happen and likely, Russia’s air accident investigators will not have much independence. As President Biden told reporters, “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
Where it gets tricky is at the intersection where a “top secret plan” meets the public square and that means trouble checking off factors two and three. The timing and location of the act.
This plane did not crash in some remote area or out of sight of technology that allows a limited, but still useful view of the flight’s data. If this was an intentional act, why carry it out so close to a city with nearly half a million residents? A quick look at Google maps shows there is both forest and water between Tver and Moscow.
Instead, it happened in an area where people saw the plane, took video and reported hearing two explosions. Reuters reported, “Unnamed sources told Russian media they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles.”
Nine years ago, Malaysia Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over the Ukraine. After an investigation by the Dutch, the Council of Europe reported the most convincing scenario by far was that MH 17, was “shot down over Ukraine in 2014 by a Buk missile made available to military units controlled by the Russian Federation.”
Russia denied responsibility and that was that.
Fictional characters and ordinary bad guys trying to commit murder by airplane are burdened by the need to escape detection, to get away with it. For those who do not need to worry about the consequences, it is a whole other story.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.