Foreign Policy Blogs

Russian Hockey Plane Crash and Air Safety: Myths and Reality

“An irreparable loss for ice hockey”. That’s how Vyacheslav Fetisov, head of KHL, the Russian equivalent of the NHL, called today’s horrific plane crash that wiped out the Locomotiv ice-hockey team en route to Belarus, killing 43.

Only two people survived the crash as their 18 year old Russian Yak-42 jet failed to gain altitude, hit an antenna, and fireballed into a lake. A minute’s silence was observed in the nearby stadium where another hockey match had just been started and abandoned.

Less than 6 months ago, Medvedev launched an ambitious plan to bring Russian air safety to world standards. But the crash marks a spate of high profile recent accidents, including the death of the Polish PM and a miraculous emergency landing in a Siberian forest. So are we back to the dark days when the world made nervous Aerflop jokes and the US State Dept forbade its staff from flying domestic in Russia?

* Russian-built planes are unreliable


“What’s the difference between a SCUD missile and Aeroflot planes?” goes that famous joke. “SCUDS have killed fewer people”. Russian planes have always had an image problem in the West. However, typical for superficial, decadent Westerners, most of it stemmed from appearance rather than substance: their utilitarian decor, shot-putter stewardesses, cramped threadbare cabins, analogue equipment, noisy engines and reputation for hard landings. In fact, the actual safety records for the most famous Soviet jets, the TU-154, the TU-134, the AN-24, YAK-40 and the IL-76/86 are on par with their Western equivalents.

Yes, there have been a number of ‘cabin losses’ over the years, but that had much to do with the fact that Aeroflot was the world’s largest airline. Crashes also spiked in the first years after the Soviet collapse due to a breakdown in safety and maintenance standards: most were caused by human error. Several were later brought down by Chechen terrorists, Swiss air traffic controllers, and even a suspected Ukrainian missile. In addition, a significant number of planes were destroyed during wars in Africa and the Middle East, while many others crashed because former Soviet client states became too poor to conduct proper maintenance. As the Christian Science Monitor noted:

In the past few years, several Tu-154’s flown by post-Soviet airlines have gone down due to a tragic bouquet of unique reasons, including terrorist attack, a bizarre air traffic mistake that led to mid-air collision over Germany, and an accidental shootdown by Ukrainian air defenses.

The most recent crash, last April, was determined to have been caused by pilot error. The same was true of the crash that killed the Polish Prime Minister.Bottom line: in terms of engineering, the Soviet planes are sound. However…

* Russian planes are too old


All the main Russian airline companies – Aeroflot, Rossiya and S7 – have withdrawn their Soviet-built planes, which could no longer conform to European noise regulations. Parts were getting harder and harder to find, and the fuel efficiency was miserly compared to modern planes, and equipment failures have become increasingly frequent (the cause of the crash landing and fatal January fire). However, old Soviet planes continue to be operated by smaller, badly regulated and poorly equipped airlines operating in the more remote areas and in the former Soviet countries. This year, President Medvedev has proposed national legislation to phase out the last of the Soviet made planes, the youngest of which would be over 20 years old. The plane carrying the Locomotiv players was not Soviet, having been built in 1993.



Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs