What Caused The Crash Of A Bulgarian Tu-154 44 Years Ago?

44 years ago, on 2nd December 1977, a Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft crashed while operating a charter flight for Libyan Arab Airlines. Let’s take a look at the details.

What Caused The Crash Of A Bulgarian Tu-154 44 Years Ago?
The aircraft involved in the incident was damaged beyond repair. Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia

The worst crash in Libya’s history at the time

The accident, at the time Libya’s most fatal, happened on Friday 2nd December 1977 near the coastal city of Tobruk in Libya. The aircraft was a Tupolev Tu-154, a Russian aircraft manufactured between 1968 and 2013 that had its final civil commercial flight in its home country last year.

The aircraft belonged to Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, the state-owned flag carrier of Bulgaria between 1947 and 2002, which has since been succeeded by Bulgaria Air. At the time of this flight, Balkan Bulgarian Airlines had leased this Tu-154 aircraft to Libyan Arab Airlines. The aircraft carried the registration LZ-BTN.

The incident occurred when the aircraft was operating a night charter flight from Jeddah (JED) in Saudi Arabia to Tripoli (TIP – the old airport) in Libya. The charter flight was transporting Hajj pilgrims to Mecca.

Remarkably, the entire crew of six personnel operating the flight survived the crash, but only 100 out of the 159 passengers did.

What Caused The Crash Of A Bulgarian Tu-154 44 Years Ago?
Balkan Bulgarian Airlines had dozens of Tupolev aircraft in its fleet because Andrei Tupolev was the President of the Soviet-Bulgarian Society. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

What caused the crash?

The aircraft was damaged beyond repair when it crashed during landing because it ran out of fuel. As the aircraft approached Benghazi, it could not land in TIP (the old airport serving Tripoli). This was due to heavy fog.

The aircraft could not land at any other airport either because it ran out of fuel in the process of locating one. Thus, a forced landing had to take place. There wasn’t sufficient fuel because the Egyptian airspace was closed for aircraft flying to Libya, so the flight path was extended significantly.

After losing visual contact with the airport in Tripoli due to heavy fog, the crew of this Tupolev aircraft decided to fly instead to the airport in Tobruk, according to Flight Zone. Tobruk was penciled in by the crew as the reserve airport from the start.

What Caused The Crash Of A Bulgarian Tu-154 44 Years Ago?
The Balkan Bulgarian Airlines aircraft had to take an extended route on this occasion, causing it to run out of fuel. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

However, the crew had only enough fuel for another 40 minutes of flying, and the airport in Tobruk was not reachable. As a military base, it was changing radio frequencies on a periodic basis, and so the crew could not contact it on this occasion.

At the same time, they lost contact with Tripoli because they were flying at a low altitude under the belief that this would enable them to make a forced landing more safely than they could once they eventually ran out of fuel.

By the time the crew found the airport in Tobruk, they had already run out of fuel and so they decided to make a forced landing in a field in front of it. They did so with a raised nose in order to reduce speed. This meant that the back of the aircraft hit the ground first, with the tail making the initial impact.

The Tu-154 then snapped in half. The front half glided horizontally for some 420 meters while the back did not. 59 passengers died, but there was no fire.

Do you think the crew was to blame for this accident? Let us know what you think of this story in the comments below.