Assessing the Superjet crash

It’s always dangerous jumping to conclusions about an airliner crash within hours or days after an accident, but the speculation began very quickly after the Sukhoi Superjet went missing yesterday in Indonesia.

Despite the demographic of the passengers on board, Russia floated the possibility the aircraft had been hijacked. This seemed an incredible possibility given the passengers were made up of airline executives, journalists and members of the Indonesian aerospace industry.

The facts, though sparse, seemed to parallel other accidents throughout aviation industry over the decades. The captain of the flight asked for clearance to descend to 6,000 ft from 10,000 ft in a mountainous area where peaks were 6,200 to 7,000 ft (reports varied). It wasn’t clear what the weather was at the time the airplane disappeared, but searches were suspended later in part because of fog.

Descending to an altitude below the mountain tops suggests that CFIT (and pilot error) might be involved. CFIT stands for Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

But the altitude of the crash site was reported to be around 5,800 feet, slightly below the clearance. Does this suggest equipment malfunction? Or did the pilot “break” altitude, a not unknown occurrence.

If weather was a factor, might there have been wind shears at play?

What does this accident do to Sukhoi’s reputation? This column concludes it is destroyed. We aren’t ready to agree with that.(Update, 9:30am PDT: The headline on the column has been changed to suggest there is now an “operational risk” to the program as opposed to the program being “destroyed.”) (Update, 3:30pm PDT: Now the headline is about “reputational risk….”)

If this turns out to be pilot error or a weather-driven accident, why should the plane’s reputation suffer? If it is an equipment failure, a lot of Western equipment is on the aircraft and perhaps the fault might lie there.

What do readers think?

31 Comments on “Assessing the Superjet crash

  1. Breaking into a global market dominated by Embraer, Bombardier and future entrants MRJ is already a very tall order irrespective of how good the superjet is or will be. This accident makes that opportunity 2x as tough as it already is just because of all the lingering question marks that this will keep generating in the next few years. yes they will sell some here and there on price, but dont believe this plane will become a global commercial sucess story.

  2. Really sad to hear about this and the loss of life. Early to guess, my bet would be pilot error. It was very low, and typically it is not a good idea to fly so low in this region.

  3. Hello Scot
    A very sad event

    Remember A320 and the less fatal but almost live Crash on demo at Habsheim. Less than 3 months after entry on service. Did it hurt the A320 sales ?
    And the SSJ has more than one year of service (not so bad reliability) and is EASA certified, with the same rules as Airbuses.
    I wish it won’t hurt the future of this plane. The recent delay of the MRJ could help.

    Not being an expert, but checking the picture of the event taken during the first flight and you have a clear view that these flight are specials, with a lot of joy / jokes / laughs…. and maybe less planning than usual one (commercial or test flights…).

    Here in France, the same day as Putin was back at the top of russia i’ve seen media laughing at the mighty russia with mighty airplanes (SSJ)
    For Putin I don’t know, but for the sukhoi crash I think it’s not a good reaction

    Have a good day

  4. Russia and Sukhoi’s only hope for selling this airplane now is to blame the accident on pilot error or an alleged hijacker. From what I understand, the Captain had some 10,000 hours of flying time, and this perticular airplane had about 800 hours and 500 cycles on the airframe. It was also the second flight of the day.

    But, whatever happened was unexpected, sudden, and catastrophic.

    My guess is, and this is only a guess, is that the pilot wanted the passengers to enjoy some site seeing in these beautiful mountains of the island. I have nothing to back that up, but I understand the weather at the time of the last radar hit, slighty SW of a 7,200′ mountain was good. But that does not rule out something like a mountain wave (violent and rapidly direction changing wind in both the vertical and horizontial directions) hitting the airplane. These type of winds are also called “rotor winds” and might have been a factor of the 3/3/1991 crash of UA-585, a B-737-200ADV.

    • So, what could be the reason for an experienced pilot like that to endanger his life and theirs?
      Dd he fly so low for the sake of impressing them? Well, they are totally impressed.

      • He would not be the first experienced pilot to deviate from the scheduled route to impress his passengers. Outwould appearences indicate a CFIT, or at the most a mountain wave wind. The black boxes have not been found yet, at least as of today. They will point the investigators into a direction when they are found. Other evidence could include the impact creater (if there is one), the debris field and its spread, larger pieces of the wreckage, engine turbine blades, etc. Even the condition of the human remains will have clues.

    • I doubt it-especially at the altitude it had descended to. I wonder what object/land avoidance technical specs this plane had built into it? Did it have radar that would have warned of an impending collision-low altitude?

    • No, as the max altitude was only 10,000′. That is the altitude you decend to when you have a decompression at cruising altitude (above FL150).

  5. I too find the initial pronouncements of a potential hijacking extremely unbelievable. That seems to me to be the cold war relic of “blame someone else” right out of the gate. It reminds me of the Kursk incident in which a collision with another sub had to have happened, or the recent failure of the Phobos Grunt mission, in which there was a strong assertion that American radar must have had something to do with the fact that it never got out of low Earth orbit. It’s a striking cultural curiosity to me.

    The bigger question to me is; at the altitude they were at, and in the terrain they were in, shouldn’t the TCAS have been blaring at the pilots? I’d be curious to know if the pilots were distracted by the presence of others on the flight deck and just lost situational awareness.

    Looking at the initial photos of the scene, the destruction looks total and complete. Hopefully recovery of the CVR and FDR will be possible and will shed some light.

    • “It’s a striking cultural curiosity to me.”

      To me it shows a very dangerous tendency to lie about safety, that is almost as bad as an accident becuase the fear is they will not fix the problem (if there is one).

      In regard the accident, a local pilot described these mountains as scary, with downdrafts and fog. I wouldn’t rule out a sudden technical issue requiring a immediate descent, however.

  6. This is a very tragic accident, I personally suspect it is a combination of a CFIT and wind shear / downdrafts. With the steep slopes the rolling turbulence at the lip can cause vertical winds on the same order as the wind speed. A 60 MPH wind then can approach 100 FPS downdrafts. Instead of clearing the saddle by 500 feet, 7 seconds puts the plane 200 feet below. The picture of the site indicates it hit just below the ridge.

    This accident will really hurt the SSJ getting its sales stride, possibly the death of the program. Intuitively, I worry about the quality of products from either China or Russia. But I am unsure about the technical ‘Reviews’ of the SSJ at to whether it is of the same QA level as Airbus or Boeing.

  7. I think the Superjet will be difficult to sell in Indonesia now, which is a blow for them, as that country is ripe for small planes with big ranges.

    Aeroflot have had some issues with the plane and have asked for their early models to be replaced. It looks like Sukhoi may have rushed it out while still immature.

    Having said that, I expect pilot error will be at least partially blamed. Why did the pilot ask to descend in a mountainous area in fog?

    Very sad for the relatives of the dead.

  8. People always look for their pre-occupations to be confirmed.

    It seems unprofesional and subjective to link perceived quality of the aircraft / the old enemy to this accident at this stage.

    The aircraft might have been 100% OK. Maybe it was cumulus granite.

    When a C-17 is flown into the ground nobody questions the quality of Boeing Aircraft.

    The cause will be clear soon enough. No need to pre empt spouting personal preferences.

    • All of these comments are totally subjective at this point, but that is what Scott asked for, so that’s what you see. I believe your suggestion of CFIT/Cumulus Granite will ultimately prove to be the cause…at least that’s what the pictures clearly show so far. Undoubtedly, this is an oversimplification, and there will eventually be proven to exist a series of events (non-sterile cockpit environment, weather/wind-shear, pilot error, etc…) that led to the final outcome.

      I think that John Galt’s comment above about worries over Russian and Chinese product quality hold a grain of truth in much of the western world (no hard and fast data to support this…just my opinion), and an event like this, regardless of whether the quality of the AC is at fault or not, does nothing to help those perceptions.

      My thoughts are with the families of the victims right now. I hate to see the pictures of people looking at lists of names hanging on a wall…hoping it’s not their loved one. Knowing someone lost on Alaska 261, I can say it is a very surreal punch in the gut. It’s hard to believe when something so advanced (and the people on it) meets an end like this.

    • This tragady could very well impact future sales of the SSJ, and I’m sure that Sukhoi and the Russians might be thinking about that. This accident could well find an investigation with all the controversy of the AF-296 accident. What we don’t need in the investigation is that kind of finger pointing as to who is at fault. I say who in the sense of the pilots, OEM, Russian government, or EASA certification process. The intent of an accident investigation is to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. But with billions of dollars/euros/rubals at stack will we be able to get a fair and unbiased investigation into the cause(s) no matter who does the investigation?

  9. A tragic event. Everything hinges on the perception of impartiality of the crash report. Indonesa should get, say, the US’ NTSC involved for blue ribbon credibility.

  10. I doubt this will adversely affect SSJ sales, unless it is found that a mechanical problem caused the accident. If it was pilot error, nobody is going to blame the plane itself.

  11. Let the pros do the accident investigation and wait for their report.

  12. Russian civil aircraft already had huge problems with wide scale acceptance in the western world, and for good reason; manufacturing infrastructure that was 20-40 years behind the west.
    They have made good progress by wholesale importation of western technology, avionics, powerplants, manufacturing, production control and quality control methodology; that puts them maybe only 10-20 years behind today.
    One vital area in which they show no progress at all is spare parts/customer support.
    Until that improves I see little future for any Russian aircraft in western fleets.
    Even the Chinese, as primitive as their aircraft have been until recently, appear far more practical, adaptive and receptive to solving the problems that will make their aircraft acceptable to the west, though not any time soon.
    So this crash will not doom the Sukhoi of itself – but it sure doesn’t help any.
    I agree it was probably unwise VFR in an area where there were taller concrete clouds.
    Having flown a light aircraft into a mountain wave I would not put myself in that position again without some several thousands of feet of clearance under me to the highest obstacle.
    It was like driving a truck off a cliff.

  13. Don’t rush the conclusion, let us wait to see the outcome of investigation.
    Hope things will be clear to all soon.

  14. Guru Josh :
    Let the pros do the accident investigation and wait for their report.

    Wisdom words that should nullify all previous and future comments

  15. To answer Scott’s questions:

    If it does prove to be a case of pilot error or a weather driven incident, then I don’t see the sales of the aircraft threatened in of itself.

    The Russion Governments reaction, however does not help the situation. To call it a hijacking without any shred of evidence to indicate such a scenario seems to be a panic reaction and couls cause some people to wonder what they are trying to cover up or hide.

    If it does prove to be a case of equipment failure, the waters could become quite muddied. Even though, as Scott pointed out, much of the equipment comes from the west, I could see it becoming a battle royale between any equipment manufacturer and Sukhoi as to who is at fault. Was it the equipment itself or was it incorrectly installed, programmed etc? Unless such a scenario, were it to go that far, were to be 100% decisively concluded by the investigators (how often does that really happen), it could result in much infighting and that could hurt sales of the aircraft.

    It just might be, depending on the circumstances, that short term sales of the aircraft might be held up for the next couple of months. How damaging that would be is dependent on how urgent some customers need their aircraft and how urgently Sukhoi needs the sales.

  16. The crash is tragic and probably will have an effect on the sales campaign. However, the cause of the crash is most likely pilot error. The crew either flew wrong way (turning right too soon, ending up in a valley and not entirely circling the mountain) or lost orientation. Any meaningful malfunction in the aircraft seems unlikely.

    The accident sheds a negative light on Russian test pilots and Russian safety mentality. Russia always had excellent pilots, but the general attitude concerning safety is not yet fully developed (compared to Western standards). Too many risks are taken. Remember the AN148 crash last year. The underdog-position of Russian manufacturers probably influences this risk-taking.

    On the long run, the crash will not affect the success or non-success of the aircraft model. It is not the strongest contender in the 80-120 seats market, and only a stretch to 120-130 PAX might allow the aircraft a real advantage over the E-Series.

  17. Kinda makes you wonder what MOCA was programmed into the flight director

  18. I was on a 707 demo flight in S. African 1959, with all kinds of “bigwigs” in the
    cockpit on a rotion basis, while I was sitting in the observer seat behind the
    One of the guest challenged the captain that he was not going to get over the
    Drakensburg mountain range East of us, without adding more thrust.
    We continued to lose speed, while the autopilot was trying to maintain level
    flight at an altitude above the mountain tops, but with an insufficient power
    setting, until the stall warning signal came on, forcing the captain to hurriedly
    add power, LOSING HIS BAT.
    I would be very surprised if the Sukhoi crash in Indonesia, was not the result
    of a very similar situation in their cockpit, as we were with the 707 over Africa!

  19. Sad loss for all, as Sukhoi were making a major effort to enter already a tight 80 – 100 seater market, plus the fact russian aircraft don’t have the best reputation. I assume demo flights in Indonesia don’t have the same strict criterias as they do here. From the reported air traffic coms, it sounds like plans were already being changed during the flight to give the customers on board a bit of awe of the mountains. My questions lie with ATC, why and how did they allow the jet to descend in unfamiliar terrain, and know of possible downdrafts effecting the flight profile. If this is a major factor in the investigation Indonisian authorities need to implement tougher criterias for demo flying??

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