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Sunday, 28 July, 2002, 18:48 GMT 19:48 UK
Sukhoi Su-27: Dazzling Russian fighter
The SU 27 flying at the air show minutes before it crashed
The pilots of the SU 27 ejected safely
Following the air show crash in Lviv in western Ukraine, Clifford Beal from Jane's Defence Weekly looks at the history of the Sukhoi Su-27 in the Ukrainian air force

Considered one of the world's most capable fighter aircraft, the Russian-built Sukhoi Su-27 fighter has amazed spectators at air shows around the world for a decade now.

A product of the well-financed Soviet aerospace industry, it entered production in 1985 as the new jewel of the Soviet Air Force and capable of matching the American air force's F-15 Eagle fighter.

Both powerful and manoeuvrable, it has nonetheless suffered previous crashes while on display, most recently at the 1999 Paris air show at Le Bourget.

Many children lost contact with their parents in the subsequent confusion
Flying debris ripped through the crowds causing many injuries

The two-seat Su-30MK that crashed in Paris - a more recent variant of the Su-27UB operational trainer that crashed in Ukraine - had been performing a similar aerobatic manoeuvre in which it failed to come out of a loop, subsequently clipping its tail on the ground.

The pilots safely ejected and the aircraft crashed on the field away from spectators.

The Su-27 is renowned for its ability to maintain manoeuvrability and extreme control at low air speed, partly a function of its very powerful engines and its slightly aft centre-of-gravity.

But like all high-performance military aircraft, aerobatic manoeuvres carried out at low altitude always carry an element of risk because of the small margin for safe recovery in the event of engine or control failure.

Safety standards

Since the tragedy at Ramstein air base in 1988 where some 70 spectators were killed when three Italian air force MB-339 jet trainers collided in mid-air, tight safety controls have been in place at western air shows to separate crowds from aircraft during aerobatic displays.

This does not appear to have been the case at the Ukraine air show.

Kuchma has called for resignations of senior military staff
President Kuchma broke off his holiday to visit the injured

Investigators in Ukraine will no doubt concentrate on three major factors: the aerobatic routine itself, the condition of the aircraft, and the abilities and actions of the two pilots.

It would appear that spectators were lined along at least two sides of the airfield, limiting options for evasive action.

Moreover, the proximity of the display itself may have been much closer than would have been permitted in Western Europe.

Training and servicing

A sophisticated piece of machinery, the Su-27 requires high maintenance.

Since independence, the Ukrainian air force has suffered from a severe lack of funds and properly trained personnel.

Whereas in the days of the Soviet Union, when fighter engines would be completely replaced after just a few hundred flight hours, today both cash-strapped Russia and Ukraine must service equipment for longer with far fewer spare parts.

Aid workers help the injured, some of them in a critical condition
There are questions about the positioning of the crowds

The problem is not limited to equipment. Since the end of the Cold War, pilot training and experience has declined dramatically in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

According to a recent military report in Ukraine, air force pilots get roughly 20 hours flight time per year, a figure that is over 10 times lower than in most Nato air forces.

While the Ukrainian military has tried in the last five years to embrace reform along western lines, including downsizing and professionalisation of its armed forces, it continues to be hampered by the poor state of the economy.

Even more damaging, the lack of political reform in Ukraine has limited the influence of those military officers attempting to introduce change.

See also:

27 Jul 02 | Europe
27 Jul 02 | Europe
21 Jul 02 | Country profiles
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