The Red Wings airlines Russian-made Tu-204 jet — empty of passengers and carrying just its eight crew on a return trip from the Czech Republic — caught fire after crashing through the perimeter fence of Vnukovo airport in the west of the city.
The plane’s impact with the highway embankment sent the severed nose sliding over the icy road while the rest of the jet rested just past the airport’s fence — its tail linked to the rest of the body by only a tangle of wreckage.
Russian state television showed live footage of rescuers climbing into the wreck with search lights as night fell over Moscow with the plane still blocking traffic on the busy Kiev Highway.
“According to updated information, four people were killed and four more were injured,” the interior ministry said in a statement.
A health ministry official said the four survivors were being treated for head injuries at various Moscow hospitals. The Interfax news agency said both pilots were among the dead.
It appeared that an even greater tragedy had been averted by the fact the plane was carrying just its crew on board.
Red Wings — which serves destinations in Russia and abroad as well as offering charter flights — is owned by Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev whose assets also include the London Evening Standard and The Independent in Britain.
“Condolences to the families of those who died at Vnukovo,” Lebedev wrote on Twitter, vowing that all those affected would receive financial and other help.
“The plane is new — (built in) 2008,” Lebedev said.
The tycoon had earlier decided to operate his airline relying exclusively on Tu-204 jets that were recently added to the Kremlin fleet.
Tu-204 is an modern offering from the Tupolev whose planes formed the backbone of Soviet civil aviation and whose older models are still in use to this day.
The plane was landing into a heavy snowstorm and swirling winds.
But Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said investigators were studying all possible causes, including pilot error, the weather or a technical malfunction.
Several state media outlets speculated only hours after the incident that something may be wrong with the brake system of the Tu-204 planes.
They cited a letter sent by the state aviation security watchdog Rosaviatsya to the jet’s Tupolev maker on Friday expressing concern over an incident last week in which the jet’s engines refused to fire into reverse on landing.
The manoeuvre is required for the plane to slow down quickly upon touchdown.
Czech officials stressed that the plane was in fine working order when it landed at an airport 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Prague earlier in the day.
“The plane brought passengers to Pardubice, then returned empty. When taking off, the plane was absolutely okay,” the Czech News Agency quoted Pardubice airport director Vit Malek as saying
State television had initially reported that the plane made several circles around Vnukovo airport in the bad weather and had even studied the option of landing at a different airport before deciding to make its final approach.
Air safety in Russia is a major headache for the authorities following a severe deterioration in the quality of domestic services following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Officials blame most problems on pilot inexperience as well as poor maintenance by small and poorly-regulated airlines that sprouted up across Russia in the past two decades.
The images of the stricken plane stranded on the motorway are a major embarrassment for Russia as it seeks to promote an image as a safe country ahead of its hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had been personally informed about the accident while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation into its causes.
The incident also risks causing travel chaos as Russians depart the capital in hordes for the country’s lengthy New Year holidays.
Flights were diverted for several hours to Moscow’s two other major airports after the crash.
The accident came days after all 27 people on board a Kazakh military jet were killed in a crash in the south of the ex-Soviet Central Asian state.