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June 23, 2011

Russia's Dancing Tupelovs

No — this has nothing to do with the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

Long story short from Andrew Kramer's article in yesterday's New York Times: Russia's favorite airplane, the Tupelov jet, is encountering turbulence that's increasing by the day — and crash.

Long the mainstay of the country's passenger fleet, more and more countries have banned it from their airspace as the planes increasingly are involved in events of a bizarre and oftimes fatal nature.

Caption for the video above: "The footage posted on YouTube shows a Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-154B-2 in a condition known as Dutch roll, at a very low altitude, minutes after taking off from the Chkalovsky airfield near Moscow on April 29. The pilots managed to land the plane on their second attempt, despite the aircraft banking and pitching wildly."

Excerpts from the Times piece follow.

In April an amateur video [top] of a distressed Tupelov Tu-154 jet flying low over Moscow circulated on the Internet and the craft became known as the Dancing Airplane, as it appeared to waltz in the air — because of equipment failure, officials said. The plane, which the pilots astonishingly managed to land safely, was being flown to a repair shop and was not carrying passengers.

It provided yet another chapter — and, for once, a happy ending — to a long, horrifying chronicle of disaster involving Russia's Tupolev jets in which the crash of a Tupolev on Monday [below, the scene]


was a more typical example.

The cramped, needle-nosed and noisy machines — sometimes referred to as flying Ladas, after the notoriously unreliable Russian cars — are a mainstay of the former Soviet skies even today, 27 years after the last Tupolev-134 rolled off the assembly line. Yet if the planes had not been banned throughout most of Europe for their noise, they would almost certainly be banned for their safety record.

Landing gear parts have fallen off after takeoff. The electrical system on one Tupolev cut out in midflight over the Arctic last summer, compelling the pilot to land at an abandoned airfield in a remote forest. On two occasions, the planes' windshields have cracked during take-off. Legend has it that one time a windshield simply fell out.

In December, a vintage Tupolev making a gliding approach at a Moscow airport after total engine failure skidded off the runway and broke up, killing three passengers. A month later, a Tu-154 failed even to make it to the runway from the gate; the engines exploded right on the tarmac in the city of Surgut, killing another three people.

Aeroflot, though it is Russia’s national flag airline, voluntarily retired its Tupolev fleet after three Tupolev crashes at other airlines killed 400 people in Russia and Ukraine in 2006. Iran permanently grounded its Tupolev-154 fleet in February this year after one caught fire on the runway after an emergency landing and another crashed on a flight to Armenia.

Still, aviation authorities in former Soviet nations insist their civilian airliners are as safe as Western counterparts, despite the feeling that the planes, with their cramped and often dingy interiors with bad upholstery, are little more than flying death traps. And until recently, aviation officials have been able to point to statistics proving a comparable safety record. But a series of terrifying close calls and deadly accidents, including Monday’s in northern Russia in which 44 of 52 people aboard were killed, has changed that.

The government has frequently blamed pilot error for the crashes rather than mechanical failure, but experts say it is a distinction without a difference. The age and obsolescence of the aircraft, which have always been notoriously finicky to fly, greatly increase the frequency and severity of errors.

A total of 1,728 Tupolev 134s and 154s came into the Soviet fleet, mostly in the 1970s and 80s. Of these, 94 were destroyed in accidents, according to Ascend, a London-based aviation consultancy that advises the insurance industry — a little over 5 percent. By comparison, only about 3 percent of the about 7,280 Boeing 737 midrange planes tracked by the agency were lost in accidents.

Many of the Tupolevs are reaching the end of their service lives. The Tu-134 that crashed Monday was made in 1980. And the entire Tu-134 line, which entered service in 1966, ceased production in 1984.

After the Dancing Airplane incident, a Russian air force general, Aleksandr Zelin, explained that "the plane behaved in such a manner because its control system failed in the air," the RIA news agency reported.

He added, apparently by way of assurance, that "everything was all right before takeoff."

Another video of the April 29 Tupelov flight from hell below.

Wait a minute... what's that music I'm hearing?



June 23, 2011 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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