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Plane crash in Indonesia upends strategy to put Russian aviation on stronger path (+video)

The Russian Sukhoi SuperJet 100 that went down over Indonesia is seen as the struggling aviation industry's greatest hope. The crash will cast a shadow, even if human error is the cause.

By Correspondent / May 10, 2012

In this photo, a Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 takes off from Halim Perdanakusuma airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 9, on it's second demonstration flight of the day.

Sergey Dolya/AP

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Moscow

Russians are reeling today from a plane crash that seems likely to stall, or even thwart, a revival of its aviation industry, which has been plagued by high-profile disasters in recent years, including one that killed the Polish president and his entire entourage and another that wiped out an entire Russian hockey team.

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This time it was not an aging Soviet-era plane that crashed, but a Sukhoi SuperJet 100, Russia's newest commercial aircraft upon which the hopes of its aviation industry are riding. With the SuperJet, Sukhoi believes it did everything right, including cooperating with many key foreign firms in the plane's design, construction (about 70 percent of its components are foreign-made) and marketing. 

The plane crashed into a volcanic mountainside during a demonstration flight in Indonesia yesterday. All 45 people aboard the craft, including crew, journalists, airline representatives and Russian diplomats, are believed to be dead.

Though causes of the accident will only become known after a full investigation, and it's not unheard of for a new aircraft to crash during its breaking-in period – an early Airbus 320 hit the ground in a spectacular fireball during a flight at a French air show in 1988 that was supposed to show off its advanced computer-driven controls – the SuperJet is Russia's only all-new civil jetliner and its loss will be a major embarrassment for an industry that is trying to recover from a prolonged post-Soviet depression. 

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"Our aviation industry has put all its stakes on this plane, and now just when we've begun to produce it this catastrophe happens," says Roman Gusarov, editor of Avia.ru, an online aviation journal. "No matter how you cut it, this is a hard blow for the image of our aviation industry. Even if the investigation shows that the plane is not to blame, and that the causes were pilot error or adverse weather conditions, only specialists will pay attention. As far as the world is concerned, Russia's new airplane crashed."

Russia's struggling aviation industry

The accident is also likely to focus attention on Russia's struggling aviation industry, whose main design bureaus and factories were amalgamated into the mostly state-owned entity United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) by Mr. Putin in 2006 in an effort to create new synergies.

One of incoming  Putin's first acts as president was to sign a decree, following his inauguration on May 7, ordering a government investigation into the UAC and two other giant state corporations "in order to prepare proposals aimed at improving their management."

"Our aviation industry is, basically, in a coma," says Mr. Gusarov. "Some enterprises are doing better than others, but the majority of them are clearly doomed. We make a tremendous effort to produce a dozen or so civil planes each year, which is an awful result when you consider how many people are working in the industry. Labor standards are low, and technical equipment is worse. Not much has been done to improve things in the past 20 years, and it will require huge investments just to modernize some parts of the industry."

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