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.
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.
"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."
The Soviet Union produced a wide range of military and civilian aircraft, many of which are still flying today. When the USSR collapsed two decades ago, much of the industrial infrastructure, particularly small subcontractors, went out of business. A few factories, such as Sukhoi's complex at Komomolsk-na-Amur (where the SuperJet is built) survived by exporting Soviet-era planes to paying foreign customers.
"Our military aviation industry got through the 1990s only thanks to foreign orders. But no one was buying our civilian aircraft," says Alexander Golts, a military columnist with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "Military factories suffered badly from the disappearance of subcontractors. It was necessary to build entire planes, with all their components, in a single factory, which is incredibly expensive and time-consuming. Civilian production, with almost no orders, suffered much more."
Fake diplomas and technological culture
Russia's NTV reported two years ago that 70 engineers in Sukhoi's Komsomolsk-na-Amur plant, which builds the SuperJet and a range of military planes, had fake diplomas.The news sent shock waves through the aviation world.
"An engineer in Russia is not the same as the Western concept. These were mostly just worker team leaders who got the diplomas because it meant a wage hike," says Mr. Golts. "But still, it's a big problem. The level of technological culture just keeps sinking lower and lower."
Military production is rebounding, thanks in part to a massive rearmament program initiated by Putin which will see large-scale procurement by the Russian air force for the first time since the Soviet collapse.
The aviation industry has attractive military wares to sell, including several modernized versions of familiar old Soviet-era fighters, such as the MiG-35, the Sukhoi Su-30 – which has been sold to China, India, Venezuela, and Malaysia – and the exciting new Su-35.
There is also the brand new Sukhoi T-50, which is a prototype of a "fifth generation" fighter plane, a type of aircraft that's so advanced and complex that only the US has so far been able to field one in the form of the F-22 Raptor.
But in the field of civil aviation, Russia has only the SuperJet, a modern, mid-range passenger plane that could replace a range of old Soviet types on Russia's hundreds of far-flung outback routes and – it was fervently hoped – compete on international markets with similar-sized planes built by the Canadian Bombardier Inc. and the Brazilian Embraer SA.
When disaster struck yesterday, they had racked up about 170 orders, but the company's general market reputation was not looking good.
"This accident has been a serious loss for the company, but it doesn't mean the plane won't be sold," says Oleg Panteleyev, editor of Aviaport.ru, an online aviation news service in Russia. "Let's wait for the results of the investigation, and see what the causes of the accident were. If the plane is OK, then in a couple of years potential clients will look at it again, judge its reliability, price, and so on. If the plane proves to be worthy, its reputation may revive."