The Indian Air Force (IAF) has released disturbing details of why a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter crashed on October 14 near Lohegaon Air Base in Pune, while coming in to land after an uneventful flight. According to IAF, the fighter's ejection seats fired without reason, leaving it without either of its two pilots.
IAF has now grounded its entire fleet of 193 Su-30MKI fighters, to allow a Court of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate the accident. That puts one-third of IAF's fighter fleet out of action, a blow for a force that makes do with just 34 squadrons, against an authorised establishment of 39.5 squadrons.
The ministry of defence (MoD) announced on Wednesday: "(A)s is the procedure in such cases, the flying of the Su-30 fleet has been temporarily suspended. CoI is in progress and certain specific checks are being conducted on the aircraft. As and when the checks are complete and the court is satisfied, the Su-30s will be put back into flying."
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This unprecedented incident has the potential to cause a serious loss of confidence in an unusually safe fighter that is considered the backbone of the air force. The aircraft that crashed - as evident from its tail number, SB 050 - was the last of the Su-30MKIs that Russia supplied to India, after building it in Sukhoi's Irkutsk plant. The IAF has named the pilots as Wing Commander Sidharth V Munje and Flying Officer Anup Kumar. Both pilots were from the Lohegaon-based 30 Squadron, which calls itself "The Rhinos".
"In my 40 years of flying, I have never heard of such an incident of automatic ejection. For the morale of the pilots who fly the Su-30MKI, the cause of this crash must be found and remedial measures transparently instituted," says Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retired), a veteran who has extensively flown the Canberra light bomber.
Fortunately, both the pilots (in the Su-30MKI, one is designated pilot and the other is a weapon systems operator) parachuted down safely. The IAF has stated that, "No loss of life or damage to property was reported."
Miraculously - and fortunately for the investigation - the aircraft survived the unpiloted crash without major structural damage. Serving IAF officers say a bad crash and fire might have destroyed crucial evidence.
Experts say the crash was obviously caused by a technical defect, since both pilots appear to have ejected without any emergency or malfunction. Nor could one of the pilots have accidentally triggered the ejection, since the Su-30MKI requires each pilot to operate his ejection seat independently.
The Su-30MKI is fitted with Russian K-36DM "zero-zero" ejection seats, which allow pilots to safely bail out at zero altitude (i.e., from an aircraft on the ground), at zero speed (i.e. from a stationary aircraft).
Earlier Russian ejection seats, such as those fitted on the MiG-21, often caused spinal injuries during bailout. The K-36DM seat, however, is considered as safe as the most modern western ejection seats.
This is the fifth crash of a Su-30MKI since the IAF began flying the fighter in 2000. There were no crashes in the first nine years, but the last five years have seen five crashes involving the total write-off of the fighters involved. One IAF pilot has been killed in one of these crashes.