It is now the second day in a row that the hapless SU-33 pilot who ended up in he soup after failure of the Svetlana-2 recovery system on the Russian aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetzov is being maligned by the Russian media as having been the cause of the accident by performing an “off axis” approach. This comes on the heel of the new light shed on the inadequacies of the Russian naval aviation program by the loss of two aircraft from the carrier in the space of a few weeks.
The western media, these pages included, provided unflattering commentary on the state of technological and tactical readiness of Russian naval aviation as exposed by these incidents. The first failed recovery could not be blamed on the pilot who was told to circle until the recovery system, which was damaged in the previous recovery could be fixed and had to ditch in the Mediterranean after exhausting his fuel supplies. In the second case, the recovery was initially made and the aircraft was lost after the cable broke.
Initial Russian media reports of the incident correctly blamed a poorly designed, poorly tested, and poorly maintained recovery system. This clearly displeased someone at the Kremlin, since starting yesterday all Russian media outlets did a coordinated about face, blaming the pilot and exonerating the recovery system.
Alexandr Tzyganov provided what appears to be the officially sanctioned version of events in a lengthy piece for the nationalist Russian media outlet tsargrad.tv. In his piece Mr. Tzyganov claims that the pilot exceeded the “maximum allowed deviation from the recovery axis” by “in excess of 50 cm”, which led to the failure of the cable. He furthermore stated that the recovery system produced at the “Proletariat” factory was reliable and that the cables were tested at three times their stated work loads.
As someone who is knowledgeable in both structural mechanics and flight operations, I regrettably must reject Mr. Tzyganov’s analysis in its entirety. Naval aviation recovery operations do not have “recovery axes”. Recovery of aircraft on aircraft carriers must be undertaken under all conditions with rough weather causing major deck motion and the recovered aircraft being damaged by enemy fire and thus having limited maneuvering capability being only two of the many reasons that the recovery system must hold under any and all conditions. The pilots job is only one (and it is a damn hard one in the best of circumstances): get hooked. The rest is the responsibility of the recovery system.
Additionally, 3X load testing is clearly insufficient for an aircraft recovery system. Considering the bevy of extraordinarily undesirable results that ensue from a failed recovery, which include deterioration of tactical capability in a theater of war, loss of tens of millions of dollars of equipment, potential recovery of ditched aircraft by enemy forces, and finally the potential loss of life, the recovery system is considered a critical system that is not allowed to fail. These systems are subject to testing under static, dynamic, shock, and cyclical loads that can easily be ten times in excess of the highest possible recovery load under the most unusual of conditions.
Perhaps understanding the weakness of his own analysis, Mr. Tzyganov proceeded to mention that Russia is not the only country in which naval aviation incidents have been known to happen. To illustrate his point Mr. Tzyganov mentioned the rather less than amusing incident in which US Senator McCain, when serving on the USS Forestall accidentally fired an air to air missile on the ship’s conning tower during the recovery of his aircraft.
Finally, Mr. Tzyganov proceeded to explain that while in this case it was pilot error, that does not mean that Russia cannot and should not improve its naval aviation capabilities and better utilize its available resources to that end. This last conclusion can hardly be argued with.
It is difficult not to note here that the Russian media, just as the nostalgically named “Proletariat” factory have not left their Soviet past behind. Blindly toeing the Kremlin line rather than trying to root out the poor practices that are prevalent in many areas of Russian life, both civilian and military, is not the recipe for success. Critique of the West, as well-justified as it may be, is also hardly useful. Particularly inexcusable is the hanging out to dry of an officer of the Russian military who did his job flying into harm’s way and successfully performed his part in the recovery operations. Russia, as we often need to remind ourselves, is one of the great countries of the world – it can and should do better.