Friday, 21 October 2011

Russia’s air safety record – awaiting the turnaround

Russia’s air safety record has been dreadful in recent years, and a government programme to address the reasons for the high accident rate, announced earlier in 2011, has been slow to show positive results.

In 2006, Russia had the world's worst air accident rate, 13 times the international average. A total of 318 people died, a substantial proportion of the world total of 755 fatalities. Two Airbus crashes resulted in the accidents with the highest number of fatalities. On 3rd May, 113 people were killed when an Airbus A320, attempted climb out after an aborted approach to Sochi, rain and low cloud with poor visibility. The plane broke up in the water, off the coast of the Black Sea, near the border with Georgia. There were another 125 fatalities at Irkutsk on 9th July. An Airbus A310 took off from Moscow, Domodeovo with six equipment defects. The plane collided with a concrete perimeter fence and brick garages and burst into flames.

All 88 crew and passengers on board a Boeing 737 were killed in the worst accident of 2008. The jet crashed on approach to Perm, landing on the outskirts of the city, only a few hundred metres away from apartments and houses. The pilot lost control of the plane in ‘difficult’ weather conditions, and alcohol was detected in his body.

In 2009, Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of International Air Transport Association (IATA), said that Russia's safety record was still ' well below international standards '.  CBC reports that IATA figures showed that the 2010 accident rate in Russia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, was 7.15 hull losses per million sectors. A 'hull loss' is when a plane is damaged beyond repair. This is almost three times the world rate. There were 15 air accident occurrences in 2010, four of them fatal, and a death toll of 122.

2010’s worst accident was on 10th April. All 96 crew and passengers were killed when a Tupolev, operated by the Polish Air Force, crashed on approach to Smolenk Air Base, in poor visibility due to rain and heavy cloud. Passengers included Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Chief of General Staff Franciszek Gagor, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrzej Kremer, several Members of Parliament, and Slawomir Skrzypek, President of the National Bank of Poland. The flight failed to divert flight to an alternative airdrome, and the door to cockpit was open with two passengers on the flight deck. Accident investigators speculated that the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Air Forces exerted pressure on the crew to continue to descent to Smolensk in spite of the risky conditions. The plane broke into pieces after crash landing over a kilometre from the runway, colliding with a large tree. IATA figures showed that the 2010 accident rate in Russia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, was 7.15 hull losses per million sectors. This is almost three times the world rate.

The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) is the best website for air accidents. There are detailed incident reports, photographs and maps showing the location of crashes, and interlinked database enable compariosn between the satefy recrods of different aircraft models, airlines, countries and airports. So far, for 2011, ASN has documented 14 air safety ‘occurences’ so far in Russia. Eight of these incidents resulted in fatalities, with a total of 119 people killed, and the information about the accidents listed below is from the ASN website. The country’s largest carriers have a good safety record. Critics blame the high accident rate on a proliferation of small airlines, inexperienced, flying old Soviet era aircraft, and second-hand Western models, and it is the case that old, Russian made Antonov, Ilyushin-76, Yakovlev and Tupolev planes account for the majority of accidents.

Another factor is lax enforcement of safety regulations, and, indeed, the tally of accidents even includes at least one incidence of an unregistered plane, and instances of crew being intoxicated by alcohol. Poor weather, predominantly heavy rain and dense cloud reducing visibility, is a factor in many of the accidents. But the underlying reason is that planes’ navigation systems and air traffic control are unable to deal with these conditions. Poor plane maintenance is another reason behind the high accident rate, with incidences of fires breaking out on board, and faulty navigation equipment.

Russia’s lamentable air safety record for 2011 began with a serious accident on New Year’s Day. Three passengers on board a Tupolev passenger jet died when a fire ignited in the rear of the plane and spread to the cabin, after it was towed to the runway for engine start-up. Then, on 20th June, there was another Tupolev accident, which reculsted in an accident with the most fatalities so far this year. The plane struck trees and crash landed on a highway on its approach to Petrozavodsk, killing 47 of the 52 occupants. Investigations revealed that the flight navigator had been drinking, with ‘a light level of alcoholic intoxication’, and the weather forecast was incorrect, impeding the ability to deal with severe fog.

In April, the Russian government committed to improving air safety standards, with an overhaul of air traffic control, new flight management technology to help air traffic controllers, a minimum of five new centres for analysis of air crashes, and new monitoring equipment on runways. But the following months have seen a catalogue of accidents. On 11th July a Antonov An-12 passenger plane, en route between Bogashevo and Surgut, reported an engine fire, and six of the 37 passengers were killed when the plane crashed into the Ob River.

On 9th August another Antonov An-12, the oldest plane in the Russian commercial fleet, a cargo plane, flying from Magadan to Keperveem reported a fuel leak and an engine fire and made an unsuccessful attempt to return to Magadan. The wreckage was found in Omsukchan the following day, all 11 were occupants killed.

On 22nd August one person was killed, and three seriously injured, when an unregistered Antonov An-2, a single engine bi-plane, operated by a private woodcutting company, was damaged in an accident on an island near Lake Choigan-Hol. Just six days later, on 28th August, an Antonov An-2 crash landed in the Krasnodar district when. The plane was on an illegal crop spraying flight, and one of two crew members was killed.

Forty-four people were killed in another serious accident on 7th September. A Yakovlev crashed 2 kilometres from the runway, on the bank of the Volga River on the climb out from Yaroslavl-Tunoshna Airport. The fatalities included several members of the Yaroslavl ice-hockey team, and the flight was destined for Minsk for a match. After this disaster, President Medvedev stated he would expedite the overhaul of the aviation industry, and move swiftly to reduce the number of small airlines operating in the country.

Time will tell if the improvements will be implemented as thoroughly and quickly as Medvedev promised. Since his statement, there has already been an incident. On 9th October, another Antonov An-2, carrying out agricultural work, crashed to the ground, again in Krasnodar. The pilot narrowly escaped. This was the third Antonov An-2 accident in the space of a few weeks.


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