Superjet Crash To Overshadow Russia's Farnborough

July 5, 2012

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Russia will remind the world of its air power history at the Farnborough Air Show next week as it battles to shift attention from the fatal crash of a new Superjet 100 plane, a disaster that could stall efforts to revive its aviation industry.

Crowds at the major industry event are expected to be wowed by a display from a pair of Russian Su-27 'Flanker' fighter jets - planes that came to symbolise the might of the Soviet Union and remain a favourite of enthusiasts for their spectacular stunts.

Yakovlev Yak-130 fighters will also be flying and on static display, despite controversial reports that nearly 40 are bound for civil war-torn Syria, while a pavilion will be dedicated to Russia's in-development MS-21 passenger aircraft.

Yet interest is bound to centre on the fate of the Superjet 100 - the first civil plane to be built by Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and the subject of an ongoing investigation following a crash in Indonesia that killed 45 people.

Indonesian authorities are looking into the causes of the crash and particularly if it was down to pilot error or technical failures. If the latter, it could wipe out demand for the mid-size Superjet and perhaps the MS-21 as well, due to come on to the market in 2017.


Russia's state aviation holding company United Aviation Corporation (UAC) is desperate for the incident to be blamed on pilot error, taking the heat off Russian plane manufacturing.

That verdict would echo a report published on Thursday into the Air France Rio-Paris crash that killed 228 people in 2009. Investigators blamed the incident on a combination of pilot error and faulty speed sensors.

"They (Superjet) will be very diplomatic about the accident and say they cannot say anything while the investigation is underway," said David Learmount, safety and operations editor at Flight Global, commenting on how parent group Superjet International would conduct business at Farnborough.

"They (the investigators) have not at this point found anything wrong with it - it was a new aeroplane and modern aeroplanes have never been safer... When aeroplanes crash it is people that do it," he added.

Superjet International - a joint venture between Russia's Sukhoi and a division of Italy's Finmeccanica - is considering displaying a grounded Superjet 100 at Farnborough and will continue the task of drumming up orders for the plane - which has yet to be picked up by mainstream Western carriers.

"You move forward aggressively, that's all you can do. The investigation will show that it is not the product - it was properly certified. They will say (to potential buyers) 'carry on and buy the plane'," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at US-based Teal Group.

The Superjet 100 is at the heart of Russian plans to revive its aviation industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union starved it of cash in the early 1990s. Its military aircraft and helicopters have also received a sharp upturn in investment alongside the civil arm.

President Vladimir Putin witnessed a demonstration of the Superjet 100 at the Paris Air Show last year, while the MS-21 is hoped to beat the next generation of Boeing and Airbus planes in terms of timing and price.

But this would count for little if customers and flyers did not trust the Russian plane to remain in the sky. Russian aircraft have been involved in a spate of commercial accidents in recent years, though most have involved older Soviet models.


Wreckage of the Superjet 100 was found strewn across a mountain slope in West Java, Indonesia, having lost contact with air traffic control during a demonstration flight on May 9.

Russian fears about the outcome of the investigation have been evident in its early stages, with local media in south-east Asia reporting the Indonesian government turned down a request to send the Flight Data Recorder - also known as the black box - back to Russia.

Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda then reported the United States had brought down the aircraft in an act of industrial sabotage - the latest in a series of recent claims and counter-claims that have soured US-Russia relations.

Initial findings published by Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) have included recommendations for improved preparation and training for demonstration flights, but stopped short of telling operators of the Superjet such as Russian airline Aeroflot to ground aircraft.

"It is too early to pass judgement (on the causes of the crash). The investigation is ongoing. (But) the recommendations give a hint that everything was OK with the aeroplane," said a spokeswoman for Russia's UAC, which includes Superjet manufacturer Sukhoi.

The doomed Superjet flight was one of a series of demonstrations across Asia intended to seek new buyers for the plane, which has won orders from Indonesia's Kartika airlines and Sky Aviation.

Neither carrier has yet delayed or cancelled its order, according to local media reports.

"(The Superjet) had not planned to fly in a mountainous zone - the flight was supposed to be performed in 20 miles near the airport. The pilot exceeded the zone... 'Why' is for the investigation to look into," the UAC spokeswoman said.

The captain of the plane was Alexander Yablontsev, who was the pilot for the first Superjet test flight in May 2008, according to Russian agency Inter-Tass.