One June 11, 2012, Sergei Frolov, a businessman in the Russian town of Serov, got a phone call from a friend with a tempting offer: did Sergei want to join him for a ride on a plane?
Why not? Sergei thought. After all, this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day in Serov, because the small town in the Ural Mountains doesn’t have what you’d call an airport. It's just a landing field.
“But when I told him I was outside the city, my friend said, Sorry, you’re not going to make it on time. We're taking off,” Sergei said.
So Sergei didn’t make the flight. His friend joked he’d wave as they passed overhead.
And that's where the story really begins, because that evening the plane, a small AN-2 single engine biplane (which looks like a crop-duster), took off from the airfield in Serov with 13 people on board.
Then -- it just disappeared.
The initial TV reports were almost like a stereotype of Russians: they said locals had gotten drunk, among them a ranking police officer, and gone for a joy ride.
But there was no ‘black box.’ The AN-2 had a manually operated beacon that hadn’t been deployed. Most of the people on board hadn’t notified anyone they were getting on the plane, and there was no official clearance for the flight. In fact, there was no flight log at all.
And so, the search began.
Leonid Kazantsev, the head of the local Emergency Situations Ministry, says rescue teams started patrolling the forest.
“But we didn’t even know in which direction they flew,” Kazantsev said. “North? South? We had to consider a radius of 500 km in every direction.”
Over the ensuing weeks, some 2,000 police, rescuers and volunteers combed the thick forests of the Ural Mountains. Planes flew dozens upon dozens of search missions in the surrounding area. And still no sight of the plane.
Nikolai Pozharuk, a retired local lawyer who helped in the search effort, says that’s when people began to look for other explanations.
“When you see all this effort going into something and there's zero result, what else can you do?” he says. “They’re searching using high-tech equipment. It's a plane, not a pin. So you had this feeling that something here wasn’t quite right.”
One theory was terrorism. Maybe the plane had been hijacked? Another theory had the missing plane involved in a drug deal gone wrong. Still another, that the plane had drifted into the airspace of a nearby military base and been shot down.
Tatiana Sharafieva, a journalist with the local newspaper, Globus, says for most people the only theory that seemed far-fetched was that the AN-2 – a small aviation favorite throughout the former Soviet Union – had simply crashed.
“Why? Because it was an AN-2. It’s old, but very reliable,” Sharafieva says. “Pilots will tell you it just doesn’t fall from the sky. It glides, so you can land it in the mountains, on water, even on the tops of trees. Even with engine trouble, it can make a soft landing like a paper airplane.”
So, where was the AN-2?
Shamans and seers began to contact authorities, claiming to know the exact coordinates of the missing plane. One man came forward with what he said were recordings of panicked transmissions from the crew. In the white noise and squelches, he said, you could make out calls for help, saying they were alive but injured and surrounded by bears.
The national media just fueled the wild speculation. Television programs interviewed psychics who claimed the plane was trapped in another dimensions -- the Ural’s own version of the Bermuda Triangle.
They pointed to the infamous ‘Dyatlov Pass’ incident – an unsolved mystery that led to the deaths of nine Soviet ski hikers in the northern Urals back in 1959.
Leonid Kazantsev, of the Serov Emergency Situations Ministry, says authorities say they checked out every theory, however bizarre. They came up empty and continued the ground search.
Then, in May of 2013, nearly a year later, several hunters in the woods near a swamp stumbled across the wreckage.
The plane was just 8 km from town. Somehow search crews just missed it.
Dmitriy Skryabin, a local journalist, was among the first on the scene.
“All our hopes that somehow they survived came to nothing. There was no grand conspiracy, no parallel universe. It was all much simpler. The plane had just crashed and burned,” he says.
The official investigation determined the plane’s wing clipped a treetop, driving the plane into the ground. It exploded on impact. Pilot error and, possibly, alcohol were cited in the report.
A criminal case was even launched against the pilot, though it was later dropped after the court noted the defendant was, in fact, deceased.
So what to make of all this?
Some locals say that in the crash, they see aspects of a typically Russian tragedy: Decaying infrastructure, and small town lives destroyed by liquor and a search for thrills. And in the rescue effort, says the retired lawyer, Nikolai, a showcase for misuse of state resources.
“Judging from everything we read and heard, it was a massive operation,” he says. “But then it turns out that half of that work wasn’t done. That’s the way it is here. You create the impression of active work and write the report so all the numbers add up.”
But it’s also a more universal story—one you see every time a plane goes missing. There’s the media overdrive, the embrace of theories that strain credulity, the hope against hope for survivors, and even after the wreck is discovered, answers that don’t really provide ‘answers.’
Even today, Serov is divided. Some believe the official account.
Others find it impossible to accept that searchers missed the plane when it was so close all along. Someone, they say, put it there.
Sergei Frolov, the guy who passed up a ride on the AN-2, says every morning on his drive to work, he still finds himself thinking about the plane, wondering what happened that evening in the sky.
He has his theories. But all he really knows is that he’ll never know.