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Vladimir Komarov dies on landing

The landing of the Soyuz-1 spacecraft on April 24, 1967, appeared to be normal until search and rescue teams reached the touchdown site. To their horror, they found the capsule crashed and engulfed in flames. It was immediately clear that the cosmonaut had never had a chance.

Previous chapter: Soyuz-1 reentry

crash

One of eyewitness accounts of the Soyuz-1 landing is provided by Oleg Bychkov and Viktor Artamoshin, who were flight surgeons at the Operational Tactical Search and Rescue Group, OTG, deployed at the airfield near Orsk (245):

At six o'clock (in the morning), the entire search and rescue team was brought to Level 1 of readiness. Planes and helicopters took off into the air. Soon a helicopter carrying the Operational Tactical Group, OTG, arrived at the landing area. The commander of one of the Antonov-12 search aircraft reported that it had seen Soyuz-1 in the air. Immediately, everybody onboard the helicopter rushed to the windows, however we could not see the spacecraft for themselves. The pilot of the helicopter started a fast descent, followed by a sharp right turn, when many members of the group saw the descent module landed on the green field. It was lying on its side, with the parachute visible next to it. And immediately soft-landing engines fired. That alarmed the specialists onboard the helicopter, as the engines should've been activated before the touchdown, just above the ground.

The helicopter, carrying Bychkov and Artamoshin, landed between 70 and 100 meters from the reentry capsule, above which towered a cloud of black smoke. Everybody rushed to the capsule, but only upon reaching it, rescuers realized that the pilot would no longer need any help. The fire inside the spacecraft was spreading and its bottom completely burned through with streams of molten metal dripping down. (245)

wreckage

In the meantime, another search team, including TsKBEM specialists, departed Orenburg onboard the Ilyushin-14 aircraft. They detected the reentry capsule on the ground, not far from the village of Karabulak (sometimes identified as Kara-Butag or Kara-Bogaz) in the Orenburg Region. The parachute was spread next to the capsule, and signs of fire were visible from the plane.

A group of parachutists was dropped at the site where rescuers discovered the reentry capsule crashed and burning. Rescuers used portable fire extinguishers to suppress the flames. (52)

Soviet space journalist Yaroslav Golovanov later wrote that rescue teams had been equipped with sets of colored flares, which could instantly provide code signal to the search and rescue aircraft overhead about the situation on the ground. However, there was no flare code for the "death of cosmonaut," therefore rescuers fired a flare, which stood for "Cosmonaut requests urgent medical assistance." (246) This code signal apparently led to a wide-spread confusion and the unfounded hope among space officials that Komarov had survived the crash.

According to Bychkov and Artamoshin, foam fire extinguishers were not enough to kill the flames, forcing rescuers to shovel dirt onto the vehicle. While they were battling the flames, the descent module had completely collapsed, leaving behind just a pile of dirt topped with the entry hatch.

As soon as the fire ended, doctors from the OTG started the recovery effort -- using shovels they removed dirt from the entry hatch to get access to the remnants of the interior. After removing more dirt and some fragments of instruments and avionics, rescuers discovered Komarov's remains in the central seat of the capsule. They went through a grim task of cleaning the dirt from the head, still with remnants of a burned headphone. They formally pronounced the cosmonaut dead from multiple injuries to the skull, spinal cord and bones. (245)

Back at TsKBEM design bureau near Moscow, engineers were able to listen to the communications of the recovery and rescue teams. However the link went dead, apparently sometimes before the projected landing. As the tension at the bureau was mounting, the terrible news came that Komarov had died.

recovery

A number of high-ranking officials then headed to the crash site. At 16:00 local time (14:00 Moscow) they flew to Orsk. From Orsk, they departed by a helicopter around 18:00 local (16:00 Moscow) toward the village of Kara-Butag, where they reviewed the crash site.

Among them were Georgy Tyulin, the Chairman of the State Commission overseeing flight testing of the Soyuz spacecraft, Vasily Mishin, Mstislav Keldysh, F. D. Tkachev and Gai Severin, along with ever-present KGB security officers.

Komarov's remains were removed from the capsule and a team led Nikolai Kamanin delivered them to Moscow. The postmortem examination confirmed preliminary conclusions by the field doctors that Komarov's death had been caused by the impact on the ground. (245)

April 25-28

Next morning, around 7:00 local time, a fast-reaction investigation team departed for the crash site. It included leading engineers at TsKBEM: Pavel Tsybin, S. N. Anokhin, Aleksei F. Topol, I. E. Yurasov, V. I. Ryzhikov, A. G. Reshetin, A. S. Barber. (52)

At 10:00 local time the State Commission had its formal meeting, which discussed the official report about the tragedy to the Central Committee and the Soviet of Ministers. The commission also discussed how to deactivate and preserve the Soyuz-2 spacecraft ready for launch in Tyuratam.

At 17:00 local time, Mishin, Kerimov, Tyulin, Pravetsky and Kirillov flew back to Moscow. Next day, they participated in official funeral ceremonies, which included an honor guard at the Central Hall of the Soviet Army, TsDSA, where Komarov was lying in state, followed by a memorial at the Red Square, where the urn with Komarov's ashes was entombed into the Kremlin's Wall.

On April 27, at noon, Dmitry Ustinov chaired the first meeting of the governmental commission into the accident. A separate technical sub-commission was also set up to prepare a probe into the catastrophe. Its first meeting was scheduled for April 28. (774)

Next chapter: Investigation into the Soyuz-1 accident

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The article by Anatoly Zak

Last update: April 27, 2017

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soyuz

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Burning remains of the Soyuz-1 descent module at the crash site.


shoveling

Members of the search and rescue personnel work at the Soyuz-1 crash site.


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An improvised memorial ceremony at the site of Komarov's death. Credit: RKK Energia


death_announcement

The official announcement of Komarov's death.


post-mortem

Kamanin (right) and other Air Force officers examine remains of Komarov.


burial

Family members and colleagues including his Voskhod crewmates, Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Egorov, say last good bye to Komarov at his burial in the Kremlin's Wall.


wall

Komarov's burial site in the Kremlin's Wall in Moscow.