Planes Collide in Air Show Rehearsal

APRescue workers searching through debris after a Su-27 fighter, part of the elite Russian Knights, crashed Sunday in the Moscow region village of Sosny.

Two Su-27 fighter jets collided in midair above the Moscow region town of Zhukovsky during a rehearsal for the MAKS air show on Sunday, killing one pilot and injuring five people on the ground.

The crash occurred when jets with the elite Russian Knights flying team attempted a maneuver in which they lined up with only a distance of 2 meters separating the nose of one from the tail of the other, said Magomet Tolboyev, the honorary president of the air show.

The jets had taken off from the Zhukovsky airfield southeast of Moscow, where the biannual MAKS Aviation Salon will still open as scheduled despite the crash, organizers said. Sunday marked the Day of Russian Aviation holiday, with numerous government officials sending out congratulations before the crash.

All three pilots manning the planes, one of which was a two-seater, managed to eject. The pilot who died was Colonel Igor Tkachenko, 45, the squadron leader of the Russian Knights, air show organizers said.

One of the surviving pilots was hospitalized with a spinal fracture, RIA-Novosti reported. The third pilot was in satisfactory condition, the Air Force said.

The crash was likely caused by pilot error during the execution of a difficult maneuver, an Air Force spokesman said. “We will also investigate the possibility of a technical malfunction of one of the planes,” the spokesman told RIA-Novosti.

The flight data recorder from one of the planes has been found, RIA-Novosti reported. Debris from the crash was scattered across a distance of 1.5 kilometers.

Debris from one jet caused havoc on the ground, bursting into flames as it struck residential buildings in the Moscow region village of Sosny. Firemen battled to extinguish a blaze that had engulfed several houses and a nearby field as residents looked on in shock. The blast wave from one of the jets completely destroyed a three-story private house, sending bricks flying for hundreds of meters and damaging nearby houses, RIA-Novosti reported. At least five people from the village were hospitalized with serious burns, including a 51-year-old woman with burns covering 80 percent of her body, Interfax reported.

The other plane crashed in a field near the village of Tyazhlovo, and its blaze was quickly extinguished with no reports of injuries.

A commission comprised of top officials from the Defense Ministry and the Air Force has been formed to investigate the incident, Air Force spokesman Vladimir Drik said, Interfax reported. A criminal investigation will be opened, the Investigative Committee said.

Sergey Ponomarev / AP
Officials inspecting debris from a Su-27 fighter Sunday in a field near the Moscow region village of Tyazhlovo.

The Russian Knights, created in 1991, lost four pilots in December 1995 when three of its Su-27 jets crashed into a Vietnamese mountainside in rough weather as they flew back to Russia from an air show in Malaysia.

Tkachenko, the killed pilot, had more than 1,500 hours of flying experience in attack aircraft, according to the Russian Knights’ web site. He was married and had a son and daughter.

President Dmitry Medvedev offered his “deep and sincere” condolences to Tkachenko’s family, the Kremlin said.

The crash was not the first involving Su-27 jets, one of the most commercially successful military planes manufactured by Russia. In 2002, a Su-27 clipped the ground and mowed down spectators before exploding into a ball of flame at an air show near Lviv, Ukraine, killing 85 people in the world’s worst air show accident. The crash was blamed on pilot error, and the two pilots who bailed out received prison sentences.

In February, a report compiled after the crash of a MiG-29 on a training flight in southern Siberia found that at least a third of the nation’s fighter jets were unsafe and should be written off or repaired.

In June, officials grounded the air force’s entire fleet of Su-24 bombers after two crashes in three days.

MAKS 2009 will not be canceled due to the crash, organizers said.

Tkachenko, who died in the crash

“The format of the event will not be changed. The Air Force will take part in the event, although it’s not clear yet in what format,” said Vladimir Borisov, the head of Aviasalon, one of the event’s organizers.

Tolboyev, the air show’s honorary president, said this was in line with domestic and international norms.

“Never in the history of aviation salons — not ours, and not those in other countries — are flights ever stopped,” Tolboyev said, Interfax reported.

Even before the crash, the biannual air show, which will open Tuesday with an appearance by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was expected to be a lower profile event than in previous years. Although the number of spectators — about 600,000 — is expected to remain unchanged from 2007 when the air show opens to the public next Saturday and Sunday, sales are expected to drop this year in the face of less participation from businesses.

About 10 percent fewer participants are expected this year, which would result in 15 percent less profits for the show’s organizers, Aviasalon and Russian Technologies, Kommersant reported Friday. New contract signings are expected to be limited to an order from the Defense Ministry for 48 Sukhoi jets and the finalizing of a contract that the Atlant-Soyuz airline signed with Ilyushin Finance for 30 planes.

Separately, two people aboard a single-prop Yak-52 were killed Sunday when the aircraft crashed in the Kaluga region. The plane was piloted by flight instructor Svetlana Fedorenko, a European champion in airplane sports, and her student was Anton Khachkovsky from the Ulyanovsk Aviation Institute and the son of a former Russian Knights pilot, news reports said.