Transport tragedy

Forty-three people died on Wednesday afternoon when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team crashed during take-off near Yaroslavl, some 250 km from Moscow. The Yak-42 plane was carrying the team to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, for the start of the new Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

Just two people survived in a crash that is once again reminding the government of the need to improve its dilapidated civilian fleet.

This is the fourth airplane crash since June in Russia, bring the country’s transport record down to one of the most dismal in the developed world. But the civil aviation industry is not the only one suffering from the troubles – for the past five months, Russia has seen tragedies happening on the waterways and the railroads. And experts said the problems lie not only in the old aircraft park, but also laws, rules and aviation standards.

The cause of the crash is being investigated, with the Russian Transport Ministry suggesting it might have been a technical malfunction or human error. Interfax reported that the plane, which had safety clearance to fly until October 1, 2011, failed to gain enough altitude during takeoff and clipped an antenna tower causing it to crash to the ground and burn.

The ministry’s deputy head Valery Okulov said the state aviation agency Rosaviatsia is considering grounding all Yak-42s following the accident.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who was due to take part in a political forum in Yaroslavl on Thursday, visited the scene of the crash and ordered an overhaul of the industry, telling officials that the lives of passengers need to take precedence over the interests of aviation companies.

He also ordered extensive checks at each of the nation’s airlines. “There are a lot of wonders there – the tales people tell,” Interfax quoted him as saying.

“We need to purge people who don’t want to work.” Companies that refuse to comply with new norms set by the Transport Ministry will be shut down.

The spate of crashes over the summer showed that the government must help renew aviation technology no matter what the cost. “Of course we need to think of our own [industry], but if they’re not able to succeed then we need to buy technology abroad,” Medvedev said, adding that he would order a new program that may be costly.

Though the aviation industry has stagnated, experts blame faulty organization rather than poor engine quality for crashes.

“The aviation system is very complex, in which the human factor is involved, as well as the surroundings, technology, etc. And there is always a hole in one of these, which leads to a tragedy like the one near Yaroslavl,” Rafail Aptukov, vice-president at the non-profit partnership Flight Safety, told The Moscow News in a phone interview.

Speaking about aircraft quality in Russia, Aptukov said that some domestic airplanes are even safer than modern western aircraft in certain aspects – such as chassis and gliding ability.

“Even though Russia is not super-advanced in aviation technology, we do have troubles in the organization of each flight. There is a lack of compliance with precise air travel rules, laws and instructions. The world is more advanced in this than we are,” Aptukov said.

According to Aptukov, the biggest problem in the civil aviation industry is that there is no unified flight safety system. “In the US, aviation rules are a part of state law, while in Russia this is not the case. We built our system back in the USSR – this includes the aviation code. We have said many times that we have to comply with international flight standards.”

And while former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Moldova have already adopted such standards, Russia has not done this yet.

“There is the air code of 1998, which has not been updated in 13 years! There have been big changes in the aviation industry such as the navigation system and radio-telephone system. But the air code has never been updated to reflect this,” Aptukov said, adding that there is also a need for federal aviation regulations. “There are rules, but no system.”

Other experts looking at the causes of the crash also pointed to failure to follow rules and the human factor as the likely causes. “This aircraft is very reliable and it’s difficult to say what exactly could have become the reason for the crash,” an aviation industry expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Moscow News.

The source said that there was certainly a lack of traction during take-off, but it was unclear what led to this. The YAK-42 aircraft, which was designed in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s was a substitute for the outdated TU-134.

“There have been no catastrophes with YAK planes for almost eight years now. This particular aircraft was built in 1993,” the source said. And with 80 percent of flight troubles attributed to human error, following the rules may just lead to fewer catastrophes, he concluded.

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #69”

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