Three Russian Air Force jets lost on training flights in one week
Text by Tatiana Britskaya
On January 22nd, A Tupolev Tu-22M “Backfire” jet crashed in the village of Vysoky in the Murmansk region, killing the ship’s commander, Alexei Guriev, and his assistant, Konstantin Mazunin, instantly. Navigator Victor Greif died in intensive care from extensive burns and the fourth crew member, navigator Maksim Rylkov, is in the hospital in serious condition with multiple fractures and internal injuries. He was first taken to the intensive care unit of the district hospital and then transported to Moscow.
The unarmed bomber was returning to base after a training flight with two other Tu-22Ms. Moving at about 300km/h, they miscalculated their approach, hitting the ground and falling into the strip between the runways and bursting into flames. The pilot and copilot were seated in the forward compartment and the navigators were aft. These supersonic bombers can be equipped with ultra-fast long-range missiles with both nuclear and conventional warheads. On this flight, they were carrying weighted models instead of live missiles but the fuel tanks were full. The other two planes landed safely. Before the crash, there were only 40 Tu-22Ms in the Russian arsenal.
Now the issue has been passed on to an investigation commission in Vysoky. They are waiting, according to our source, to hear from Sergey Shoygu, the Minister of Defence. Tu-22M flights are suspended until the completion of the investigation.
There are three major questions about what caused the crash. Obviously, the weather is the first to consider. There has been a lot of icy rain in the Murmansk region in January. It is usually followed by snow flurries. The sleet storms are brief, appearing and disappearing quickly. But according to eyewitnesses, just such a downpour accompanied by strong gusts of wind and almost zero visibility struck the Olenegorsk region between one and two o’clock on Tuesday. The crash, according to official data, occurred at 1:40. Cloud cover was at only about 70 or 80 meters, a critical mark for aircraft of this class.
The second possibility is pilot error. Capable of being in the air for up to 17 hours, “The killer of aircraft carriers” is a hulk with a four man crew and it is very difficult to land such an aircraft in extremely low cloud cover. The crew was experienced, and it was not the first time that they had flown in such weather, which is very common in the polar region. In Vysoky, where everyone knows each other, the locals point out that they do not give such planes to children. They remember the flyers as lieutenants and say it is too easy to write of the mistake as being the fault of the dead. But it is also true that even aces sometimes make mistakes.
The Air Force is not civil aviation where the captain has the right to abort a landing. On long-range aviation exercises, such an order must be given by the flight director on the ground or an assistant who is directly on the strip. Was an abort order given? Probably not. The official military report reads: “The landing took place without visual control by flight management.” However, reliable information about weather conditions is something the crew receives from ground control and ground control makes the decisions on the possibility of landing in extremely dangerous conditions.
And yes, there was enough fuel for a second attempt which probably would have saved their lives. The sleet ended after a few minutes and visibility was fully restored. It always seems as though moments decide everything in the north.
The third version is the technical conditions on board the aircraft. The plane was built in 1986 and had been overhauled in 2012 and some modernization had been planned in the near future. But the model has been reliable and the only similar accident in was when a TU-22M3 crashed near Novgorod 15 years ago. That crash had been due to a technical malfunction and the entire crew was killed. That had also been during training maneuvers.
The current catastrophe monstrously resembles an episode from Tom Clancy’s dystopian World War III drama “Red Storm Rising”. While away on a bombing mission in Norway, the Americans bomb the runway at Olenegorsk, so that our people cannot land and are forced to crash. Clancy is long gone but the plot of Red Storm, written in 1986, the same year the crashed airplane was built at Kazan Aviation Plant by the way, is similar except that no one had bombed the landing strip. On the contrary, the Olenya long-range aviation base is considered to have the best conditions in the country. Many bombers have flown to Syria from there and have always returned. The crews of long-range aviation are specialists and only those with the highest qualifications are accepted. These planes, like with aircraft carriers, are expensive and prestigious pleasures. Only Russia and the United States can afford such specialists and such machines for now.
And despite all of the saber-rattling between the two powers these days, instead of producing new and modern machines, Russia only loses the old ones.
There is only one aircraft carrier in Russia and there is nowhere to repair it after the flooding of the Roslyakovo dock. The carrier would be better off with the help of strategic air support and so the loss of four experienced and articulate aviators is not only a tragedy but also a blow to combat capability.
And this crash was the second such blow this week. On January 18, two Su-34s accidentally collided while flying over the Strait of Tartary in the Sea of Japan. Bad weather was also a factor there but pilot error is blamed in official news of the event. The news agencies say that the flight leader lost track of his subordinate in the clouds while attempting a risky maneuver. Two planes were involved and the two pilots of one of the jets ejected into the sea but both were found in good condition and the second plane managed to land safely despite a damaged engine. But multiple sources in the fleet inform that there were three aircraft, two collided and fell into the icy sea and the third landed with a bad engine. 4 pilots ejected but only one was pulled out alive. The helicopters that were looking for them were not equipped with winches to evacuate a person from the water. And the emergency radio beacons giving the coordinates apparently did not work.
The Russian military provides their staff with instructions, procedures and with the rescue equipment needed for almost any abnormal situation. But instructions and procedures are not always followed and the equipment sometimes fails. And in this case, a heavyweight supersonic bomber breaks in two after slamming into the ground while trying to land in an impenetrable blizzard and helicopters and ships spend hours looking for but never finding live pilots equipped with an emergency coordinate system 30 km from the coast. And none of these deaths came in combat situations. These were deadly mistakes during training exercises.
We bear the most serious losses in peacetime. In 2000, a warhead on the nuclear submarine “Kursk” exploded, sinking the ship in the Barents sea and killing all 118 crew members during a training exercise. Three years later, while being hauled away for disposal, the K-159 nuclear submarine sank with 9 sailors and 800 kilos of spent nuclear fuel on board. The Kola drilling platform went to the bottom in horrible weather while being pulled though the Sea of Okhotsk. 53 people died and a director and a chief engineer got sentenced for negligence for even attempting the move in such bad conditions. And the great fighter pilot Timur Apakidze crashed at an air show due to technical problems. He had not ejected until he had taken his crippled plane away from the populated area.
We are ready to threaten the whole world. We sanctify rockets and practice shooting them rather than budgeting for brand new hospitals. And our pilots and submariners are dying, not even in combat but in training maneuvers. And no one ever seems to be responsible for this.
This story is originally posted by Novaya Gazeta and translated and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between news organizations and bloggers in the Barents region