Questions about the U.S. Tanker Plane Crash in Kyrgyzstan

06 May 2013

A U.S. Air Force tanker plane crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan on Friday, May 3, less than ten minutes after take-off from the Manas Transit Center near Bishkek. The KC-135 plane was bound to Afghanistan with reportedly about 60 (possibly 90) tons of fuel to support operations in Afghanistan. Little is known yet what caused the crash except that the last message from the plane was the crew’s plan to “get round of a thunderhead.”

As witnesses from villages in the area reported to local media, the plane exploded and fell apart in the air. Pieces of the plane were scattered in the mountains hundreds of meters from each other. On May 4 the Kyrgyz authorities reported the remains of two pilots had been found, but not the third pilot and the “black box” of the plane.

The Manas Transit Center US Airbase is now one of the hottest topics in Kyrgyzstan. For some time President Almazbek Atambayev has claimed that the military base would be removed by summer 2014 when the U.S.-Kyrgyzstan 2009 agreement expires, though U.S. officials keep patiently insisting the discussion of the issue is yet to be finalized.

The tanker crash was a tragic incident, but a quick look at web-discussions suggests it may become part of the debate on the future of the Transit Center. One Russian analyst wrote that Americans had ignored the sovereignty of Kyrgyzstan, trying to “hide the initial picture of the catastrophe.” Some other messages in social networks claimed the American soldiers cordoned the crash area, not allowing relevant Kyrgyz agencies to take part in the search and investigation. The head of the Kyrgyzstan’s transport prosecutor’s office confirmed the “American side” had been not cooperative in the beginning, but said now they were open for cooperation. Later Kyrgyz authorities repeatedly claimed they were investigating the case, with the prime minister even establishing a special governmental commission for this purpose under the chairmanship of the transport and communications minister.

In the meantime, a little piece of the puzzle appears to be the fate of the flight recorder, the so-called black box. On May 3 the Kyrgyz Emergency Minister Kubatbek Boronov said the black box was found and is being examined by experts. The next day he reversed the information saying the flight recorders were still to be found. Later Kyrgyz officials claimed Kyrgyzstan does not have the necessary equipment to “read” the flight recorder, and if found, the black box might have to be sent to Moscow. The chances are high, though, that the confusion about the flight recorder represents a mere miscommunication, not geopolitics.

Shairbek Juraev is the deputy director of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. He blogs for PONARS Eurasia on Central Asian issues. The comments made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.