By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A passenger plane crashed and burst into flames after takeoff in Siberia on Monday, killing 31 people and putting the spotlight on Russia's poor air-safety record before Vladimir Putin's return as president.
Thirteen survivors were pulled from the wreckage but one later died after being rushed by helicopter to hospital in the city of Tyumen, some 1,720 km (1,070 miles) east of Moscow, emergency officials said.
Television footage showed the UTair airlines ATR 72, which had snapped in two, lying in a snowy field with only the tail and rear visible. Emergency workers sifted through the wreckage and cleared away the snow.
An investigative committee said the most likely cause of the crash was a technical malfunction as the 21-year-old twin-engine, turbo-prop plane carried its four crew and 39 passengers on a flight to the oil town of Surgut.
"I went out on to my porch and heard a bang, saw a small flash and smoke came out. It turned, with smoke coming out, started to lose height and came down in the field. If it had turned a bit further, it would have hit us," a local resident, identified only as Alexei, told RIA news agency.
He said he often saw aircraft fly past, and the plane appeared not to be on the usual flight path: "It should have been behind my house but it was in front of it."
The investigative committee said the plane had notched up 35,000 flying hours since going into operation in 1992 and had not had a "serious" technical check since 2010.
Yuri Alekhin, head of the regional branch of the Emergencies Ministry, told Russian television at the scene of the crash that the "black box" flight recorder had been found and contact had been lost with the plane just over three minutes after take-off.
Surgutneftegas, Russia's fourth-largest oil company, said in a statement that it had lost some employees in the crash but did not say how many and did not name them.
RUSSIA'S POOR SAFETY RECORD
The crash was the worst in Russia since a passenger plane slammed into a riverbank near the city of Yaroslavl after takeoff on September 7, 2011, killing 44 people and wiping out the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team.
President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, who is prime minister until he takes over as president on May 7, called for moves to improve Russia's air safety after that crash, including better training and improved conditions on board.
But their opponents on Monday drew attention to the lack of action since then and the fact that Transport Minister Igor Levitan remains in office.
"It's typical that 'the minister of catastrophes' does not receive even a cosmetic reprimand for all the chaos on public transport. They cover for each other," opposition ecologist Yevgenia Chirikova said in a message on her Twitter account.
Putin said last September that airlines should put passengers' safety above commercial considerations and ordered the government to draft proposals for improving condition on planes and at airports, but ignored calls to dismiss Levitan.
Putin, 59, has seen off the biggest opposition protests since he rose to power 12 years ago but faces increasing criticism and is under pressure to do more to tackle chronic problems such as corruption and Russia's poor safety record.
Russia and the former Soviet republics combined for one of the world's worst air-traffic safety records last year, with a total accident rate almost three times the world average, according to the International Air Transport Association.
IATA said in December that global airline safety rates had improved in 2011 but that the rate had risen in Russia and the CIS group of former Soviet republics.
Gunther Matschnigg, IATA senior vice-president for safety, said a key problem in Russia was that pilots and ground technicians were having to adapt to a growing number of a highly sophisticated aircraft.
He said Russian aviation officials and political leaders had accepted that pilot training needed rapid improvement.
UTair has three ATR-72 craft made by the French-Italian manufacturer ATR, according to the Russian airline's website www.utair.ru.
ATR is an equal partnership between two major European aeronautics players, Alenia Aermacchi, a Finmeccanica company, and EADS.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Gleb Bryanski; editing by Elizabeth Piper)