Since mid-2022, the number of serious accidents in Russian aviation has skyrocketed. For example, throughout the first week of January there were incidents involving landing gear every day. The nature of the numerous breakdowns varies, but experts say they are caused by Russia’s complete unpreparedness for the sanctions and the absence of quality control of parts, which are now imported from African partners, India and other “friendly countries.” Such imported parts are not undergoing any certification.
Russian authorities claim the Western ban on the supply of parts will not affect domestic aviation, and they keep pointing out how Iran managed to successfully overcome the sanctions. They forget to mention that the restrictions in Iran have led to an increasing number of accidents and air crashes resulting in casualties.
Author: Nina Avdeenko. Title illustration created by Midjourney
Since mid-2022, Russian aviation has had a string of accidents: one plane “dropped” parts of its fuselage at Vnukovo Airport, preventing another plane from departing on time. That same month a NordStar Boeing 737-800 leaked jet fuel and the next day in Irkutsk a Urals Airlines Airbus had a landing gear malfunction while landing. The next day a Nordwind Boeing 737-800 cracked its windshield during a flight from Sochi to Ufa. On November 29 a Rossiya crew reported that the flaps had jammed on an Airbus during landing in Pulkovo. On December 1 a Nordwind Boeing, which was supposed to fly from St. Petersburg to Goa, had to perform an emergency landing in Sheremetyevo due to a gradual depressurization of the pressurized cabin.
Since the first days of January, incidents began to occur almost daily. And one of the most frequent problems was connected with the landing gear.
- On January 2, after takeoff from Sheremetyevo to Almaty, the commander of the Rossiya Boeing SSJ-100 RA-89017 reported a landing gear malfunction and decided to return to the departure airfield.
- On January 3, after takeoff from Vnukovo, the crew of the Pobeda Boeing 737-800 RA-73301 reported a false indication of the position of the left main landing gear strut.
- On January 6, after takeoff from Kazan airport to Yekaterinburg, the commander of the Red Wings SSJ-100 RA-89156 reported a non-retraction of the landing gear.
- On January 7, the commander of the Alrosa Airlines Boeing 737-800 RA-73264 arriving at Vnukovo reported the inability to control the front landing gear strut. On the same day, there were two more incidents related to the inability to control the front landing gear strut, as well as the indication of a non-retraction of the landing gear.
- January 8 - two more incidents involving the landing gear - in Tomachevo (Novosibirsk) and after takeoff from Yekaterinburg. The reasons: the overheating of the first hydraulic system, which caused the loss of control of the front landing gear strut after landing; a tractor had to be used, there was also a problem with the closing of the front landing gear strut.
In almost all cases, the decision was made to return to the airport of departure or to make an unscheduled landing.
Russia buys parts from Iran, India and Africa with no quality control
According to aviation experts, the number of accidents has indeed been increasing, and this is the beginning of the destruction of the industry due to the anti-war sanctions. Despite the fact that Russian authorities continue to give optimistic forecasts, stating that there are no critical problems, the quality of aircraft maintenance and repair has become much worse, the increased number of incidents is a logical consequence, an aviation expert told The Insider on conditions of anonymity.
“It will get worse – there will be ordinary incidents at first, then accidents, and then disasters. The groundwork that had been laid in Russia immediately after the sanctions were imposed is slowly running out, and now there is a very serious question about the need to urgently and thoroughly establish normal maintenance and repairs. What we have now is an attempt to find alternative access to spare parts and assemblies through third countries in an emergency mode.
And if, for example, cracks in the surface layer of the cockpit windshield are not caused by the sanctions, they appear all the time, then all the problems with the landing gear are the result of the fact that we’ve been installing parts purchased through third countries on our planes without the manufacturer’s quality control. If the aviation authorities in India have certified them, we can automatically install them on our planes, too. If the aviation authorities of certain countries in Africa have allowed parts with doubtful certification, then we can do the same.”
On February 1, the pro-government Telegram channel FrequentFlyers published a photo of a letter sent to the crew of an Airbus A321 (the flight number is blanked out), which says that a braking device from China has been installed on the plane. It has been licensed there, but not in Russia. No one knows how it will behave, so the crew have been instructed to constantly monitor and record the temperature of all braking devices in a separate table. The Insider was unable to confirm the authenticity of the letter.
Problems with landing gear and fuel filters
The series of problems with the landing gear is not a coincidence, but a direct consequence of the shortage of spare parts, says another aviation expert. It is the landing gear brakes that break first, because they are an “expendable” item. At first, they were obtained through grey/black imports from friendly countries, but soon those channels were gradually blocked - it is very easy for Western manufacturers of original parts to keep track of all the parts by their unique serial numbers.
Now gray imports are no longer able to cover all the needs, and the authorities are beginning to import the so-called will-fit parts. As mentioned earlier, there is no certification system for non-OEM parts in Russia - for more than 20 years, the Russian aviation authorities had been using imported parts and even failed to follow China’s example – to create their own certification system for non-OEM parts based on the American Part Manufacturing Approval (PMA).
“Due to the lack of such a certification system for non-OEM parts in Russia, not-so-honest representatives of “friendly countries” began selling counterfeit parts of poor quality at a higher price than the original ones. The poor quality of these parts leads to landing gear failures and more.
The lack of control by foreign aviation authorities over the safety of flights in Russia has already had an impact. Prior to the events of February 2022 in Russia, foreign aviation authorities were responsible for the safety of most Russian airlines' aircraft, and almost all the aircraft (including 100% of Aeroflot’s planes) were registered outside Russia. And the aviation authorities, which are responsible for these aircraft, are determined by the aircraft’s “place of registration”.
On a separate note, the sanctions hit the already “struggling” Russian plane, the Sukhoi Superjet 100, whose long-standing problems with fuel filters have now been greatly exacerbated. Since autumn Russian airlines flying the Superjet 100 have been left without new original French fuel filters. There are no spares on the market, and there are no alternatives yet.
As a result, dirty fuel filters are not being replaced at all - they are being reused after being rinsed with brake fluid, the Aviatorshchina Telegram channel reports.
In Iran, it all started with the landing gear, too
In March 2022, Russian Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev said that Russia would use the Iranian experience of circumventing sanctions to overcome difficulties related to the purchase of spare parts for the Russian aviation industry.
However, he did not mention that in Iran, the effects of the sanctions in the early years led to a gradual increase in the number of aviation accidents and, eventually, to a series of plane crashes with casualties among passengers.
After sanctions were imposed on Iran, the initial problems in its civil aviation were also due to landing gear malfunctions. Several incidents resulted in fatalities. On September 1, 2006, an Iran Airtour Tu-154M plane rolled off the runway and caught fire while landing due to a problem with the landing gear. Twenty-eight people were killed.
“Judging by today's increase in aviation accidents, the Russian aviation industry is quite naturally beginning to implement the Iranian scenario promised by Savelyev,” the aviation expert says.
There will be more accidents and disasters
According to The Insider's interlocutors, the number of failures, accidents, and disasters will increase. Since the spring of 2014, when it became clear that sanctions would soon be imposed, virtually nothing was done to prepare for them. No responsible developer was appointed to keep the planes airworthy and keep an eye on assemblies and spare parts.
When the first sanctions were imposed that year, no-one thought of a certification system for non-OEM assemblies, components, and parts, similar to the one available in Europe and the United States. The development of such a system did not start until May 2022, but even the documentation is still missing.
“The Rosaviatsia is lazy because most foreign planes are leased and registered in Ireland, Bermuda or the Virgin Islands. And according to the regulations, the responsibility for maintenance and repairs lies with the country where the aircraft is registered. But now we have to do everything ourselves, and there are not enough specialists.
The Federal Air Transport Agency recently reported that they inspected 600 planes and renewed the airworthiness certificates for six months. But it simply isn't possible - not enough people, not enough time, insufficient experience, and insufficient expertise. Airlines continue to go bankrupt, and the Federal Air Transport Agency's oversight doesn't work. Our wonderful United Aircraft Corporation repainted one IL-96-400T plane three times and sold it to three different airlines as three different planes.
Already in March of last year it was clear that if we were to fly, we would only be using planes of foreign airlines. In Russia, we will be traveling by car or by train, but not by airplane. First the safety reserves for aircraft maintenance will run out, then it will be necessary to look for new spare parts of doubtful quality, then there will be incidents causing damage to the aircraft, without casualties, and then there will be plane crashes”.
Russia has had the world’s highest plane crash death toll since 2000. Even since before the sanctions were imposed
In December 2022, Valery Shelkovnikov, President of the Aviation Safety – Consultancy and Analysis and Honorary Chairman of the Public Council of the Aeronautics Without Borders International Public Movement, published an article entitled “Everything is not so bad or everything is not so good?”, co-written by Aviation Safety’s General Director Sergey Melnichenko.
The authors note that as early as 2021, Russia, with only about 2% of the total number of world’s flights, was worse off than African countries, known for their long-standing problems with flight safety, in terms of the risk of death on a flight operated by turboprop aircraft. Overall, over the past 5 years, the performance of Russian aviation has been more than three times worse than that of African aviation.
In May 2022, Aviation Safety published a ranking of countries by plane crash death toll since the beginning of the 21st century. It has Russia in first place with 1,639 deaths and 46 aviation accidents. So, Russia has the worst safety in the world. The statistics includes accidents involving civil aircraft capable of carrying 19 or more people, with a takeoff weight exceeding 5.7 tons, which were not recoverable after the accidents. The locations of the accidents were taken into account, only the carriers’ countries of registration.
In 2021, flight safety in Russia became the worst in the world, Aviation Safety’s General Director Sergey Melnichenko reports. According to him, absolutely all accidents involving aircraft certified by ICAO to carry 14 or more people in the European and North Atlantic regions occurred in Russia. That’s 40% of the total number of tragedies with human casualties. For other regions the percentages are as follows: Asia - 20%, Africa - 30%, North America - 10%. “In civil aviation alone, we are almost twice ahead of Africa in the number of fatalities,” he says.
“Everything is fine”, head of Rosaviatsia says
On February 1, RBC published an interview with Alexander Neradko, the head of Rosaviatsiya. He claims that there is nothing wrong with maintaining the airworthiness of Russian aviation, and the fact that spare parts are now purchased from “friendly countries” does not matter.
“I have confidence that it has not become more dangerous to fly. And it has nothing to do with the presence or absence of original spare parts. There is such parameter as serviceability in aviation. An airplane is considered serviceable if it has a service life reserve, if all the onboard shortcomings have been eliminated and if appropriate documentation is available. <...> There has been a generational change in the industry, our specialists speak and read English, understand the technical literature and are able to maintain the airworthiness of foreign-made aircraft. But for a number of reasons, we had been persuaded we were unable to do this.”
Neradko evaded the question about his assessment of the aviation experience of Iran, which has been under sanctions for more than 40 years, by saying that Russia “maintains a constructive dialogue with all colleagues from friendly countries.”
No-one asked the head of Rosaviatsia about the lack of certification for parts from “friendly countries”.
According to one of The Insider's interlocutors, Neradko's statement to the effect that flight safety has nothing to do with the presence or absence of original spare parts is an admission of total incompetence by the head of the Russian aviation authority. Because flight safety is not only related to the timely maintenance and repair of aircraft, but also directly depends on the quality of spare parts, components and assemblies used. And flight safety is certainly affected by the presence of uncertified counterfeit parts.