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Ukraine Arrests 4 in Air Show Crash

July 29, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Four top Ukrainian air force officers were arrested Sunday on suspicion of negligence in a disastrous air show accident in which an SU-27 fighter jet hurtled pilotless to the ground and killed 83 spectators.

The officers, including the commander of Ukraine's air force, Col. Gen. Viktor Strelnikov, were blamed for lax safety standards that permitted the jet to fly low over spectators during the air show Saturday in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma fired Strelnikov and another officer Saturday and sacked his military chief of staff Sunday. Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko offered to resign over the air show disaster, the deadliest on record.

The plane's two pilots, who ejected from the plane before it crashed but suffered spinal injuries, were interviewed by investigators, who said they found "serious deficiencies" in the organization of the air show.

The political fallout came as distraught relatives scoured hospitals and morgues for loved ones missing after the accident. Many searched in vain, as officials struggled to identify bodies slashed to pieces in the disaster, which also left 116 people injured.

Yevhen Marchuk, head of the government commission investigating the crash, said Sunday that the probe was taking two directions. "The first version is negligence on the part of the senior air force command. The second version is that the plane failed," Marchuk said.

Aviation analysts in Ukraine and Russia raised questions about inadequate servicing in Ukraine's impoverished air force and why the pilots were flying difficult stunts directly over spectators.

Interfax quoted a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman as saying the SU-27 had been in service 15 years and that spare parts for it had never been bought.

Underscoring the poor air safety record in the former Soviet Union, an IL-86 crashed on takeoff from Moscow's Sheremetyevo-1 Airport on Sunday, killing 14 of the 16 crew members aboard. The plane was not carrying passengers. Early reports suggested engine failure was the cause.

Two flight attendants survived, one with head injuries and the other with scratches and bruises.

The two planes involved in the weekend crashes were seen as among the safest of Soviet-designed aircraft. Until Sunday, the IL-86, which carries 350 passengers, had never crashed.

In Lviv, a criminal case was opened into the air show disaster. Air force commander Strelnikov and Sergei Onishchenko, commander of the 14th Air Corps, faced possible charges of military negligence, and two other officers faced possible charges of abusing aviation rules.

Witnesses said the SU-27 executed two low passes but, during a third pass, the engines stopped roaring and the plane floundered in eerie silence before hitting the ground and flipping along the tarmac.

Nikolai T. Antoshkin, former deputy commander of the Russian air force, used to organize dozens of air shows in the Soviet Union each year.

"There are rules and safety regulations. Whatever happened to the plane, it should not have landed in the middle of the crowd of people. It should have been flown to a safe area," he said.

"All pilots know that they must direct the plane away from the people even if they die. There is always a different place to crash than into a group of women and children."

Igor Votintsev, chief pilot with the Sukhoi Design Bureau, which designed the SU-27, ruled out any possibility that both engines stalled.

"There may be plenty of reasons why the pilots lost control of the plane and crashed, but engine failure is the least likely one," he said.

He said the spectators should not have been allowed to wander around the airfield.

"There would not have been any deaths if precautions had been properly taken, if special areas for spectators had been clearly marked and fenced off, if the flying zone had been defined properly," he said.

Russian test pilot Anatoly Kvochur speculated that something unexpected forced the pilots to veer over the heads of spectators, where they should not have been.

"It is clear that the pilots had to act in an emergency situation, descending at a very sharp angle. As a result, the pilots lost control of the plane and the jet crashed into the crowd," he said. "Maybe there was an emergency situation inside the cockpit."

Kvochur said the SU-27 is reliable, safe, simple to fly and easy to service, like a good Western car.

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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