Friday, May 25, 2012

Russia's Paranoid Air Disaster Response

Three weeks ago the future of Russia's civil aviation industry took a major step back when their showpiece Sukhoi Superjet 100 slammed into a mountain in Indonesia while on a six-nation publicity tour of Asia to drum up sales.

The stakes couldn't be higher, and the accident more costly, for Russia's civil aviation industry.  The Superjet is the first civilian jetliner designed since the collapse of the Soviet Union; in addition to bringing a new product to market, Sukhoi also had to fight widespread perceptions that Russian aircraft are inherently unsafe, a reputation earned by Russia's generally lousy civilian aviation record, and not helped by the high-profile crash of a passenger jet last October, which killed the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team.

Perhaps it is for these reasons that the GRU, the intelligence wing of the Russian armed forces is offering up this explanation for the Superjet crash in Indonesia on May 9: it was an act of industrial sabotage on the part of the United States meant to cripple the Russian aviation industry.  The GRU is apparently serious about this story, explaining in the pages of Moscow's Komsomolskaya Pravda that the “most plausible” explanation for the crash was electronic jamming that interfered with the Superjet's onboard navigational equipment, jamming apparently done by the United States.

The problem is that this is not the “most plausible” explanation, what's more plausible is that the still unexplained crash of the Superjet was due to error on the part of the pilot Alexander Yablontsev. The doomed flight of the Superjet was suppose to be a simple flight departing and returning to Jakarta, flying over the mountainous interior of Indonesia. But roughly midway through the flight, the aircraft ran into thunderstorms.  Yablontsev, who is regard as one of Russia's most-experienced test pilots, for some reason requested permission to fly below the storm, where pilots are typically trained to try to fly above such adverse weather.  Because of his years of experience, Yablontsev's unusual request was granted by air traffic controllers, according to Time magazine.  The Superjet soon flew into the side of a mountain.

It is possible then, that flying over unfamiliar terrain, Yablontsev simply did not know there were tall mountains ahead of him when he made his request, and couldn't see them due to the stormy conditions.  But there should have been an audible alarm warning of a possible collision.  Crews recovered the Superjet's flight voice recorder but have heard no sounds of an alarm in the cockpit.  It is here that Time offers two possible explanations: one that Yablontsev deliberately flew into the heavy weather to show off the Superjet's handling to the planeload of dignitaries; and that the alarm systems may have been shut off because guests on these show flights were freely allowed to enter the cockpit to get a better view of the Superjet in action.  These allegations are based in large part on Russian travel blogger Sergei Dolya who reported on the Superjet's trip, but who missed the fateful flight.  Pictures from an earlier flight show Dolya dressed as Poseidon performing a mock ceremony with the flight crew as they flew over the Equator (an old naval tradition for sailors crossing the Equator for the first time).  It is a clear example that the typical regulations regarding guests in the cockpit were not being followed during the Superjet's tour.

Time's explanation is frankly far more plausible than what's being offered up by the GRU, which seems like nothing more than spin to cover up a very embarrassing accident.  It's worth noting that some in Russia also tried to offer American sabotage as the reason for the failure of their recent attempted Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars.
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