Flying Dinosaurs Need Their Wings Clipped

Russia is officially the most dangerous places to fly. Its safety record is even worse that the Democratic Republic of Congo. But this statement shouldn’t come as a shock. Its been a long held view of the European and American authorities, both of whom have had their safety watchdogs ban multiple airlines and aircraft types from operation over European and American skies.

The latest Russian airline involved in a tragic crash, Yak Service, was blacklisted and  banned from flying anywhere in or over the EU back in 2009. Their maintenance, crew training and safety standards were considered far below EASA’s standards, resulting in their expulsion from EU skies. Sadly however, the Russian aviation authorities never thought to take note from EASA and continued to issue them with an AOC (Air Operators Certificate).

As both a pilot and a frequent flyer, and one who has flown umpteen times on various airlines across Russia and the CIS region, I know all too well how old and badly maintained these airlines and aircraft are. For a start, whilst most airlines in Europe, Asia and the Americas are upgrading their fleets to newer more fuel efficient variants, the cash strapped Russian airlines cannot afford such luxuries. With exorbitant import duties applied to any foreign aircraft purchased outside Russia, and the Russian domestic aircraft industry at a near stand still, producing only 7 or 8 planes last year, it’s no wonder that nobody can afford to replace their ageing fleets.

But ageing fleets can fly for a long time, so long as they are maintained properly. And the ageing Russian fleet is not the only problems with Russia’s aviation sector. The poor slap and dash maintenance practices have not helped either. With almost every accident in 2011 alone having had a link to recent maintenance being carried out on either the airframe or engines days or weeks prior to the event itself, it clearly highlights the airlines desires for bigger profits before higher safety. In fact, Russian airlines are frequently extending the times between mandated maintenance inspection periods, whilst bribing officials tasked with signing off the maintenance records and renewing each airplanes Airworthiness Certificates. The people tasked with ensuring safety are themselves contributing to the poor safety record.

The poor level of crew training and CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) have dealt a hand in various accidents over the years too. It’s quite common to have aircrew still intoxicated whilst at the controls of a Siberian bound Antonov 24. Add to that the old style culture of “the Captain knows best”, junior line-pilots often feel intimidated to speak up when they notice something amiss in the cockpit, scared shitless that the drunk captain sat next to them in the left hand seat will bark at them and have them kicked out of the airline for insubordination. In the West, they have stamped out this autocracy in the cockpit, but it still prevails to this day in Russia.

And finally there is that insurmountable Russian pride at stake too. The officials heading up the Russian aviation authority would have you believe that these Soviet era airlines are up to snuff and that there is no need to replace them because they are built solidly, as strong as the proverbial ox, perfectly safe, perfectly reliable. That may well have been true when Aeroflot was a government run affiliate of the Soviet airforce, with never ending deep pockets, but it’s now no longer the case with privately run regional airlines living hand to mouth servicing poor paying rural routes, haemorrhaging money.

The numbers speak for themselves.This latest accident is the third in two months, and all of them involved near 100% loss of life. Russian has one of the poorest aviation records in the world, almost exclusively involving Soviet built aircraft whose avionics are old and decrepit, which are maintained at an absolute minimum, almost criminal level and flown by a poorly trained crew. It’s high time they forced the removal of the AOC’s of the worst airlines, and the Airworthiness Certificates of the oldest and least safe aircraft. I’d start with the Antonov-24, Antonov-12 and the Yak-42 fleets for a start.

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