The Sukhoi SuperJet 100 (SSJ-100). Source: AP
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
The Sukhoi SuperJet 100 aircraft that crashed into a mountain, killing all 45 people on board, was on its second demo flight in Indonesia. Its first flight in the South East Asian nation was carried out perfectly.
The SSJ-100 is not even an experimental plane but is in fact fully operational with Aeroflot and Armenia’s Armavia, and the Russian company has over 300 orders for these ultra-modern passenger aircraft. So doubts about its airworthiness and reliability are safely grounded.
Secondly, human error seems extremely unlikely to have been the cause because Alexander Yablontsev, who was flying the SSJ-100, was according to United Aircraft Corporation, their best test pilot. He had taken part in the jet’s full development cycle from design to certification.
The other human element involved is the Indonesian air traffic controller. But hampered by the tricky mountainous terrain, they had asked Yablontsev to use his own judgement when he strangely asked permission to descend from 10,000 ft to 6,000 ft. So you can’t accuse them of having mistakenly guided him straight into the mountain.
That leaves just two possibilities. One, a spontaneous attack of Murphy’s Law, but today’s jets equipped with modern navigation and safety systems don’t allow Murphy to come into play. So in the end, going by Arthur Conan Doyle’s dictum, we have reason to suspect foul play because in the past it has happened.
Concorde vs Konkordski
On June 3, 1973, more than 200,000 spectators at the Paris Air Show were witness to one of the most awesome spectacles in aviation history – a supersonic faceoff between the French-British Concorde and the Russian built Tupolev-144, dubbed the Konkordski by the Western media.
After the Concorde wowed the crowds, it was the Tu-144’s turn. In some respects it was a better aircraft than its rival, and its intriguing canards, a product of Russian ingenuity, made a striking impression on everyone.
It was a battle for a supersonic supremacy and the Europeans, who hoped to corner the market for faster than sound travel, were now worried the Russians would get there first.
Alexander Poukhov, one of the Tu-144 design engineers, explained the challenges faced, in a documentary produced by the Public Broadcasting Service of the US: “For the Soviet Union to allow the West to get ahead and leave it behind at that time was quite unthinkable. We not only had to prevent the West from getting ahead, but had to compete and leapfrog them, if necessary. This was the task Khruschev set us.”
The Tupolev Bureau was up to the task. The Russians had come up with a design feature called canards, two little insect wings behind the cockpit. Extended, the canards improved low-speed flying by adding 20 percent more lift, allowing the jet to make softer, slower landings. During supersonic flight, they were retracted. The Russians claimed their plane was faster, cleaner and quieter.
Predictably, there was panic in the West. “Are the Russians going to run away with the supersonic transport market?” was the question being asked in Washington.
As the TU-144 taxied for takeoff, the Russian pilot, Koslov, was told by the French air traffic controllers that his display time had been cut in half.
PBS comments: “The French intervened into a scientific, technical spectacle for political reasons. This was a major piece of French prestige and honour. I think they simply wanted to showcase their bird. They wanted to show it off to the world and to push the Russians in the background.”
Even in the limited time he was given the Russian pilot performed brilliantly. French and British pilots who were watching were impressed by the sheer rate of the plane’s climb as well as its 360-degree turns.
But then suddenly the TU-144 pitched violently, stalled at 4000 ft, and then began to dive. It then started to break up and caught fire before plunging into the crowd below. Six Russian crew members and eight French viewers died. One little boy playing in front of his home was decapitated by a piece of flying debris. Two other children were also killed. Sixty people were seriously injured and 15 houses totally destroyed.
Both Russian and French authorities blamed pilot error for the crash. But in reality something really devious was to blame for the crash.
Minutes before the Concorde and the TU-144 were scheduled to fly, a French Army Mirage jet took off. “It was a surprising departure, since at international air shows, competing pilots expect to have the skies to themselves,” says PBS. “Regulations state that a five-mile column of airspace must be kept free for their display. The Concorde was warned the Mirage would be flying, but Koslov’s crew was not informed.”
There is speculation that the French neglected to admit this breach of regulations because the Mirage was on a clandestine mission to photograph the TU-144 in flight. In particular, the French wanted detailed pictures and films of the canards.
To avoid colliding with the Mirage, Koslov was forced to pitch the plane violently downwards, thus setting in a chain of mechanical failures that culminated in a fiery crash.
The crash ended whatever hopes Tupolev had of selling the supersonic TU-144 in Western markets. The Concorde didn’t have much luck either and failed to land a single buyer except for Britain and France, who to save face forced British Airways and Air France to buy the expensive aircraft.
It was a classic case of industrial rivalry. British pilot John Farley told PBS: “Competition between the two airplanes was very well-founded. They were both hoping to go into service, both hoping to carry passengers in large numbers. The TU-144 was a larger airplane, carried more. And the world at that time didn't know which was going to be the better one.”
Nuclear team down
Last year in another unsolved crash, a key Russian scientist was killed. On the night of June 20, 2011 a Tupolev-134 jetliner with 43 passengers and a crew of nine took off from Moscow for Petrozavodsk, about 950 km to the north. Midway through the flight, the plane lost altitude and crashed onto a highway in the northern republic of Karelia.
The passengers killed included Sergei Ryzhov, who was the chief designer of the light water nuclear reactors built by Russia in various countries, including Kudankulam in India. In fact, the entire leadership of the reactor design unit of Russia’s state nuclear corporation was wiped out.
If you connect the dots you’ll find the same set of nations as in the supersonic competition – Russians, Americans and the French – who are today scrambling for India’s multi-billion dollar nuclear power industry.
Airpower: Last Western stronghold
The SuperJet medium-haul regional aircraft, which has been in development since 2000, is the first new Russian passenger airliner design since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is one of Moscow’s key projects and is aimed at grabbing a big chunk of the commercial aviation market. It aims to sell $250 billion worth of aircraft by 2025 and overtake even Soviet-era output records to compete with the US and European giants.
This is where Russia starts hitting the bottomline of the Western aircraft majors. While the SSJ-100 does not directly compete with Boeing or Airbus, stretch versions and newer models will definitely follow, which will finally end the duopoly that has existed in global aviation.
It is good for airlines worldwide to see Russia, which already produces the world’s largest cargo aircraft, get back into passenger aviation. Besides being a superbly engineered aircraft, the SSJ-100 is also $30 million cheaper than its Embraer and Bombardier rivals. In a recession-hit economy, at that price the SuperJet can shoot down its Western rivals in any market.
South East Asia with its short hops is the ideal market for the SuperJet and it why Russia is pitching it strongly there. Plus, Russia has had considerable success selling advanced fighter aircraft and other weapons to a number of countries in the region.
Aircraft manufacturing is one of the last few Western industries with few rivals in emerging nations. So right now the West has a captive market, which Russia is trying to crack.
So as long as there is a Russian presence in this high technology sector, its Western rivals will fight to preserve their share of the market. And sometimes the fight will turn ugly.