'Flying Ladas' Crashes Threaten Russian Aerospace Revival
A series of plane crashes -- eight this year alone with the total loss of 119 lives -- is threatening to undermine Russia's ambitions to revive its once-proud aircraft industry. The country is pinning its hopes on a new regional jet, the Sukhoi Superjet 100 -- but each new disaster involving aging planes is dimming its prospects of success in the international market.
When the red carnations ran out, people started laying gladioli and chrysanthemums along the wall of the ice hockey rink in Yaroslavl, Russia.
Inside the building, President Dmitry Medvedev asked his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül and 300 other guests of honor to observe a minute of silence for the 44 victims of a Yak-42 plane crash. Twenty-seven of those who died were members of the celebrated Lokomotiv hockey team, which scored many of its greatest triumphs in this rink. German national hockey team member Robert Dietrich was among the victims.
One woman tacked a poster to the arena wall, on which Yaroslavl residents offered their condolences. "Forgive us," one person wrote in a messy scrawl, presumably meant to express the sense that something isn't right here, in this country that considers itself a world power, yet whose infrastructure often resembles that of a developing country.
This year alone, eight serious airplane crashes have claimed the lives of 119 people. In the same time period, leading Western airlines have maintained a crash-free record. The Yak-42 is considered particularly prone to accidents. More than 180 of this model were produced in Saratov and Smolensk from 1979 until 2002; nine of them have crashed and 569 people have died. The Yak-Service airline even spent time on the European Aviation Safety Agency blacklist and was forbidden for some time to fly its planes into the EU, due to shortcomings in safety and documentation.
More Dangerous Than Africa
Flying in Russia, the natural resource superpower with the world's third largest foreign currency reserves, has become more dangerous than in many crisis-ridden countries in Africa. "It's depressing for a nation proud of its aviation," says Jan Richter, a flight safety statistician in Hamburg.
Just this spring, President Medvedev declared a healthy aircraft industry a "key condition for recovering our economy's competitive position." Now, at the site of the crash, he said angrily: "Of course we should think of our own. But if they can't hack it, we'll have to buy our planes abroad."
The most powerful helicopter (the Mi-12), the largest cargo plane (the An-225) and the world's first commercial supersonic jet (the Tu-144) -- the Russian aviation industry has had a dazzling history. The country's factories once manufactured more than 350 commercial airplanes a year, producing over a thousand of the Yak-42's predecessor alone.
Today, Russia's share of the global market has shrunk to a mere 1.5 percent, and despite the Kremlin pumping billions of rubles into the country's aviation industry, it produced just seven large passenger airplanes last year.
Now the Kremlin is pinning its hopes on a new regional airplane, the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Already 170 orders for the plane have come in, including a few from the United States, and the first three planes have been delivered.
Rebirth of Air Industry in Soviet-Era City
The Superjet is meant to herald the rebirth of Russian commercial aviation. It's assembled in a facility about eight flying hours away from Moscow, near the Chinese border in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. This gray city, population 270,000, got its name because it was supposedly built by enthusiastic volunteers from the Communist youth organization Komsomol. In reality, forced laborers did most of the work.
Komsomolsk was a closed city until 1990. Foreigners weren't allowed to visit at all, and Soviet citizens were allowed only with official permission. That sense of secretiveness has survived to this day, though likely more out of shame than fear of industrial espionage. In some of the city's factories, which are over 50 years old, the roofs leak.
A statue of Lenin still stands in the schoolyard of Middle School No. 7. Out-of-town visitors get little sleep at night, unused to the drone of fighter jets taking off and landing every quarter of an hour. Komsomolsk was once a jewel in the crown of Moscow's defense industry, and Sukhoi fighter jets remain a hit on the export market. The factory compound for the new jet is so large that buses run between the various buildings. The facility's exact acreage is still considered a military secret.
It's a challenge to create a modern industry here. The entire country lacks modern equipment, scientists and qualified personnel. The average age of engineers in Russia's airplane factories is 56. A year ago, Komsomolsk's airplane factory made headlines when it emerged that over 70 specialists here had obtained their jobs fraudulently, having bought their academic degrees.
The factory directors don't like to talk about that scandal, far preferring to exhibit the production facilities for the new Superjet 100. Here, robots from Germany and France compress aluminum sheets. "It used to take a week to get them into the right shape, but today we can do it in less than 20 minutes," says one of the head engineers.
The planes' interiors, wheels and electronics come from the US, the control system from Germany, the pilots' seats from Britain and the engines from a Russian-French joint venture. The hope is that the new jet will conquer the export markets, as well as replacing not only Russia's Yaks, but its outdated Tu-134 planes, ridiculed by the public as "flying Ladas."
During the Soviet era, 852 of these planes were built, and of these, 72 have suffered total loss. The most recent occurrence was this June, when 47 people died.
In April 2010, a plane of the larger Tu-154 model smashed to pieces as it landed in Smolensk, with Poland's president on board. In December, a Tu-154 overshot the landing strip at one of Moscow's airports. In January, a plane's engine exploded as it was taxiing toward takeoff in the Siberian city of Surgut.
With each new disaster, the Superjet's prospects grow dimmer. "Actually, with proper maintenance, even the old Soviet planes are very reliable aircraft," says William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. Russian pilots, he adds, often have to work in extreme weather conditions, and Voss believes they can often fly better than their Western colleagues.
Still, along with shoddy maintenance and the existence of far too many cash-strapped small airlines, human error is one of the primary reasons for Russia's distressing crash record.
After an Airbus belonging to state-run airline Aeroflot crashed above Siberia in March 1994, the flight recorder revealed the presence of children in the cockpit. "Papa, can you turn this knob?" asked the voice of 13-year-old Yana, the pilot's daughter. Shortly afterward, the pilot turned over the controls to his 15-year-old son Eldar. Seventy-five people died.
In December 2008, Ksenia Sobchak, a famous Russian socialite and a friend of Putin's, refused to fly with a pilot who was clearly drunk as he babbled his pre-flight announcement over the loudspeaker before takeoff from Moscow to New York.
The causes behind the Yak-42 crash were still the subject of speculation late last week. Newspapers reported that the pilots were said to have circumvented medical tests, and may not have been entirely sober when they took off. Investigators in Yaroslavl revealed poor-quality kerosene as another possible cause. Russia, the world's largest oil producer, had suffered a fuel shortage.