Investigators suspect that the December 6 crash of a Military Transport Aviation An-124 Ruslan in Irkutsk might have been caused by some problem with the plane’s fuel or with the electronic systems that monitor engine performance. As it was taking off with a load of two Su-27UB jet fighters the giant plane automatically shut down the two engines on its left wing and lost power in at least one of the two on the right wing. The odds are astronomical that such a scenario could be caused by mechanical problems involving the engines themselves. The plane had recently returned from Vietnam after delivering other aircraft. While there it had been refueled with so-called "summer" fuel — jet fuel blended for the hot and humid climate in Southeast Asia. Some of this fuel would have been in its tanks when it was refueled in Russia with "winter" fuel more appropriate to the region. The investigators will now try to determine if this mix of different fuels might have been at the root of the accident.
The public attention given to this tragedy will likely bring to light some unsavory aspects of Russia’s arms export policies. Rossiiskaya gazeta yesterday reported that the factory in Irkutsk that built the Su-27s for Vietnam had contracted with the joint stock company Cargotrans to charter the An-124, load it, and supply the fuel. One of the founders of Cargotrans is Aleksandr Kotelkin, who in September was sacked as the director of the state-owned arms export company Rosvooruzhenie and is now a First Deputy Minister of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade. The shipping company’s board chairman, moreover, is Vadim Yeremichev, once Rosvooruzhenie’s finance director. The paper reported that Cargotrans was paid $1.6 million to cover the loading and fueling expenses but then subcontracted the tasks to the military for a mere $300,000.
Air Force commander-in-chief Pyotr Deinekin could become another casualty of this accident. President Boris Yeltsin abruptly fired former Navy chief Admiral Feliks Gromov last month when a Navy ammunition dump in the Far East blew up. Deinekin reaches the mandatory retirement age of 60 later this month, but there have been rumors that Yeltsin wanted to keep him on for another three years. Deinekin has supported the ongoing reorganization of the armed forces, particularly the merger of the Air Force and Air Defense Troops. In August, Yeltsin named him a Hero of the Russian Federation. (Russian and Western media, December 9)