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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Whose 'Bravado' to Blame?

Russian helicopters have been falling out of the sky. Last week a Mi-8 helicopter crashed in the far eastern region of Kamchatka, killing the 20 people on board including the governor of Sakhalin. This week, two Mi-24 helicopter gunships collided in midair and crashed in sight of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, killing six men.

The Mi-8 was mass produced in Soviet times more than any other chopper in world aviation history (more than 20,000 were made). It was used as a military and civilian transport plane and also, with some additional armor, as a gunship. Thousands of Mi-8s were exported to Soviet allies around the world.

Russian aviators like the Mi-8: It's a light, agile bird and easy to pilot. In much of Russia -- with its vast spaces and often nonexistent or very bad roads -- the Mi-8 is the vehicle of choice.

The Mi-24 has a checkered reputation. It is a heavily armored helicopter gunship, not easy to fly, especially when fully loaded with munitions. But having armor makes one feel a bit safer in war zones.

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A Kalashnikov bullet can easily pierce the Mi-8 -- into the side, through the cabin and out again. Mi-8 pilots wear flak jackets and put special armor plates under their backsides when flying in Chechnya. Passengers do as they please.

The Mi-8s and Mi-24s have served well in many local wars in Asia, Africa and the former Yugoslavia. But after the demise of the Soviet Union, helicopter production virtually stopped and most of the choppers now in service are old, having done 20 or more years of service.

Production of many spare parts has also stopped, making effective maintenance difficult. As Soviet stocks of helicopter components dwindled, cannibalizing very old choppers to extract spare parts to service not-so-old ones became standard procedure. But the parts from dismantled helicopters are also worn-out and can malfunction at any time.

This crumbling fleet of helicopters is extensively used in Chechnya, the north of Russia, Siberia and the Far East. The military and small commercial air transport companies more or less fly their choppers until they drop out of the sky -- lacking sufficient funds to replace them, in a country where there is no system of leasing or buying new choppers on credit to replace old ones.

The rapid demise of the helicopter fleet will surely become an acute national problem in the coming years, with almost half the country becoming inaccessible by any modern means of transport. Helicopter crashes are already taking an ever growing toll of lives, including members of the ruling elite who are major users of transport helicopters.

This problem is exacerbated by the lack of properly trained pilots. Most of the Mi-8 and other transport helicopter pilots fly frequently, earning money for their bosses. But since a growing number of choppers are in disrepair at any given time, flying patterns can be irregular, with some pilots worn out and others not fully ready because of lack of practice.

There is also the growing problem of replacing aging Soviet-trained pilots with younger men. The profession has lost its Soviet-era prestige and the number of flying schools has dwindled.

The pilots of Mi-24 gunships (which are much more difficult to pilot than the Mi-8) have much less flying practice as it is impossible to use this helicopter for commercial or transport errands.

Ivanov announced that the midair collision this week was the result of pilot "bravado." A desire to impress the defense minister by flying in close formation may have indeed caused the crash, but the underlying problem may also be inadequate professional preparation.

The Mi-24 collision happened during massive Soviet-style military exercises in the Far East, involving some 70,000 navy, army and air force personnel. When in 2000 the Kursk nuclear submarine sunk in the Barents Sea -- also during massive Soviet-style exercises -- retired Admiral Eduard Baltin told journalists that it was a crime to send crews not fully ready for the task out on semicombat missions.

By running ambitious military exercises, using old ships and planes with badly trained crews, military chiefs and Ivanov are asking for new disasters to happen and are risking hundreds of lives.

This is indeed "frivolity" and "bravado," criminal in nature.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.