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Friday, 16 September 2011

Yak-42: A stunning Russian view at the plane crash that killed the entire ice hockey team of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

Last week at 7 September, a whole Russian ice hockey team of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl perished during a plane crash with a Yakovlev Yak-42 passenger plane. There were initially two survivors, but one ice hockey player, that was burnt over more than 90% of his body, died a few days later.

The team that consisted of trainers, young and talented Russian players and some very experienced internationals from the Czech Republic, Sweden and a number of other countries, was on its way to Minsk to play the first game of the Kontinental hockey competition. 

And unfortunately, it wasn’t the first plane crash since 2010 that struck Russia.

The list of plane crashes and accidents in 2010 (according to Wikipedia) in the Russian area is mindboggling:

Plane Type
March 22
Tupolev Tu-204
April 10
Polish Presidential Plane
August 3 
September 7
December 4
January 1
June 20
July 11
August 8
August 9
Avis Amur 
September 7
YAK Service Flight  9634

Earlier plane crashes in Russia were always settled with the typical Russian fatalism (‘This is Russia… Nothing will change, ever…’) and some obligatory jawing and a lackluster going-through-the-motions investigation of the Russian apparatchiks.

The Yak-42 plane crash, however, sent shockwaves through the sports-loving Russian society and led to emotional reactions on Russian television. Especially when an investigation pointed out that the plane probably crashed, due to kerosene that was mixed with water.

The Russian online newspaper Smena writes a must-read article on the plane crash and Russian aviation in common. While the (left out) introduction is an epic on the perished ice hockey-team, the second part puts the finger on the weak spot of aviation in Russia. Here is an almost integral version of the second part of this article, translated to English by Google Translate and edited by me:

Russian aviation has become one of the most dangerous in the world It seems that Russia has reached a point, where the airplane is no longer seen as an ordinary means of transport, which is used daily by millions of people around the world, but as "flying coffins". The plane crash in Yaroslavl, that took the life of a hockey club, was not the first and will not be the last in a chain of tragedies that have recently struck Russian airplanes. Airplane crashes in Russia were settled, following well-established patterns:
  •  the rescue operation;
  • the Russian Search-and-Rescue team (МЧС) being flown in;
  • searching and decoding of the black boxes;
  • identification of the victims;
  • compensation to relatives;
  • the investigation of the Russian National Transport Safety Board (IAC)
The current tragedy, however, has one feature that distinguishes it from previous plane crashes: the fact that a famous hockey team is almost totally wiped out in this crash.

This makes it virtually impossible to close our eyes, like we did with previous crashes.
This crash forces us to take decisive action to restore trust in Russian aviation. Or at least, to mimic that we took decisive action. The worst thing is that here also the investigation has been done following the same worn-out rules. 
When the Yak-42 crashed, it was followed by safety checks at all the airliners that operate this type of aircraft. The usage of this plane type is temporarily suspended, but it´s unlikely to be banned. 
There is a pattern here: the same happened with our favorite Tupolev airplanes, Tu-134 and Tu-154. It also happened with the Antonov AN-24-148. But all these planes still fly!
And none of the findings of previous tragedies led to substantial changes to these plane types? Not one. Even the work itself of the Mezhaviatsionnogo Committee (Russian NTSB) has long been a mere formality: the disaster is being addressed, but nothing changes.
And everybody knows: planes in Russia are falling from the sky, because the air fleet that we inherited from the mighty Soviet Union, and that since then has hardly been updated, is preposterously obsolete. The average age of an aircraft in Russia is 18 years. But this is only an average! Some planes are more than 30 years old; they are like flying dinosaurs. 
And the only thing that Dmitry Medvedev has proposed, is to reduce the number of Russian airlines. After what happened in Yaroslavl, the implementation of this policy seems to be accelerated. But does this do anything about the age of the fleet? Will this send these overaged airplanes to the scrapyard? No, the planes will probably be sold to other aviation companies that are more interested in their profits than in passenger safety. 
"The education and training of pilots has collapsed!"
Valery Shelkovnikov, a board member of the Flight Safety Foundation and working for over 40 years in the aviation industry:
“Speaking of the composition of our country´s fleet, it is mainly represented by the old and aging aircrafts. The only company that flies modern airplanes is "Aeroflot". 
But I want to emphasize that almost all recent plane crashes were not related to technical faults, but to the human factor! Let us remember the tragedy in Petrozavodsk. There, the aircraft was in good condition and fully serviced. Sadly, the crash was caused by errors of the pilot. Or the crash with the AN-24 at Blagoveshshensk. Here also the human factor played its roll: all systems were operational again, was a typical "human factor". 
Or the tragedy with the Tu-134 at Samara - this was a flawless aircraft, there were no failures in the equipment. But the pilot did not take timely decisions while trying to land for the second time. The crew was trying to fix the situation, but it was too late ...
In general, I do not advise to prohibit aircraft types. Aircrafts can fly for a very long time, when properly maintained and upgraded in time.  
We should not ignore all problems, but we must develop a coherent, effective program of modernization of our aging vessels, restore our aviation industry and, of course, raise the level of the current pilots!”  
Mikhail Markov, honored as the best pilot of the Russian Federation, states: “Today, the Soviet system of training pilots for civil aviation collapsed. Former flight schools were closed and others were turned into a college. These schools don´t know what to teach, currently. 
First of all, the future pilots do not receive enough training: only about 150 hours, which is too little. Graduates of these schools receive a diploma of higher education, but they are no real pilots! Only if you learnt everything about aerodynamics, meteorology, air navigation, radio communications and English, then you are fit to be called a pilot. But this doesn´t happen sufficiently.
I think the state has made a big mistake by closing many flight schools. Unfortunately, the system began to produce managers, instead of true pilots”. 

Whether it are the old airplanes, badly educated pilots or kerosene that is tampered with, fact is that Russian aviation is in deep trouble and fact is that the true political will is missing to change this negative spiral. The Russian fatalism, wide-spread corruption, clientelistic government and the exaggerated respect of Russians for failing authorities, make it almost impossible to change this trend.

To be clear on it: I have flown a number of times with Russian air companies in the challenged Tupolev Tu-154m and I have no negative experiences with it. But the noise, fuel efficiency and interior remember of airplanes of the past, when compared to European and American airplanes. It is time that Russia changes its air fleet and changes its attitude towards aviation in general. Otherwise new accidents will be a question of months, not years.

Update September 19th

My first conclusion that the plane crashed due to kerosene mixed with water. A later simulation showed that the flap configuration of the plane had been faulty during take-off. The plane gained too little height (less than 10 meters) and crashed therefore into a warning light pole just after the end of the runway.

Fatally damaged, the plane tumbled back to earth where it hit the ground, rolled and desintegrated, while losing its kerosene. The kerosene in the large, separate parts of the plane caught fire and burnt the passengers. Only one 'lucky' steward survived to tell the tale. This seems to be a clear human error of the pilots and adds to the complaint of former Russian ace pilot 'Valery Shelkovnikov.

There is a slim hope that this crash might achieve what numerous other crashes in Russia couldn't: to change the attitude of the Russian government towards flying, airplanes and education of pilots. In that case, the death of so many talented hockey players was not totally in vain.

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