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Russian, French, Italian jobs hang on Sukhoi Superjet crash probe

No survivors have been found at the crash site of the Russian Sukhoi Superjet in Indonesia. A key question: Was it pilot error or equipment malfunction?

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FIGHTER FACTORY RESTORED

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No industrial effort better symbolizes Moscow's push to restore national pride than Sukhoi's Superjet and its factory, which Reuters visited when the aircraft was inaugurated in 2007.

The eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia's Far East was once sealed off from the outside world as a nerve center of Soviet submarine and fighter production.

But its economy collapsed when orders and government cash dried up at the end of the Cold War and Sukhoi fighter engineers resorted to making children's bicycles, say local guides.

The Superjet restored jobs and commercial prospects to an abandoned corner of the plant as a jet designed for Westerners slowly took shape beneath peeling Soviet frescoes -- yards from the continued trickle of Sukhoi Su-27 combat jet production.

Its long-deserted civil airport terminal, a museum of mosaics and vintage weighing machines, was re-opened to allow investors and foreign media to witness the Superjet's rollout.

"The Superjet is more than a plane; it is a priority project," First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told Russian assembly workers at the Superjet's rollout ceremony in 2007.

Its future now lies in the hands of crash investigators. Moscow will hope the crash does not harm its aerospace sector.

A senior Russian official suggested the crash was caused by pilot error rather than a technical failure, but most safety analysts cautioned it was too early to say what caused the disaster.

The circumstances and potential loss of prestige echo the notorious crash of the Soviet Union's monster eight-engined Tupolev "Maxim Gorky" during a demonstration flight in 1935. The crash almost 77 years ago to the day was blamed on the pilot, but the exact circumstances have never been fully established.

The reputations of several Western companies are also tied up in the Superjet's future.

Boeing acted as a consultant on the project including for flight and maintenance crew training. But its role is mainly seen as a symbolic one, with the U.S. group keen to tap into Russian titanium supplies for its next generation of jetliners.

French and Italian firms, however, invested heavily and this has been a key selling point in Sukhoi's marketing efforts.

Alenia Aeronautica, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica, bought 25 percent of Sukhoi's civil division to back the project. It is responsible for the global marketing and after-sales support that are both crucial for winning contracts.

"The Russian aerospace industry collapsed after the Cold War and the Russians aim to work their way back to commercial market acceptance by working with Western suppliers to improve standards, manufacturing procedures and product support," said analyst Richard Aboulafia of Virginia-based Teal Group.

"This crash doesn't mean they can't do it but it is certainly a setback, and it will depend what is found in the investigation. There is a lot we don't know yet," he added.

Sukhoi has expressed hopes that the development dollars and technology of Western suppliers would attract Western airlines who may otherwise be reticent about buying Russian. It is also under-cutting rivals with a price of some $30 million per plane.

So far it has found buyers for 170 aircraft out of 1,000 it would like to sell but no mainstream Western airlines. Irish budget carrier Ryanair has expressed tentative interest.     (Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Matthew Bigg; Editing by Giles Elgood)

IN PICTURES: Russia's military might

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