2020 Chuhuiv An-26 crash: How riskful is using long lifer planes?

Author : Anna Peshkova

Source : 112 Ukraine

Today another 53 of the same An-26 aircraft operate in Ukraine; one of the "long-livers" is a 48-year old airplane, while the "youngest" one has been serving for 35 years
20:47, 30 September 2020

Open source

Some controversial facts of the disaster, which claimed the lives of 26 military personnel and cadets of the Kharkiv Air Force University named after Ivan Kozhedub, come to the lips of those, who are not indifferent to the tragedy. In particular, it is about technical problems with the engine (which one of the victims reported to his mother on the eve of the disaster), and the age of the vessel. This plane was 43 years old.

Judging by the information published by the Antonov enterprise, Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing, and services company, today another 53 of the same An-26 aircraft operate in Ukraine. Of these, 24 units belong to the civil aviation and 29 serve for the state aviation. One of the "long-livers" is a 48-year old airplane, while the "youngest" one has been serving for 35 years. The President gave instructions to suspend their operation for now.

Age is just a number?

That same AN-26 went to land, not even having time to take off. And what happened during the flight is anyone's guess so far. Aviation expert Vasyl Shevchenko suggests that the road at night could seem like airfield lights. However, the fact that the plane was flown not by cadets, but by top-class professionals, casts doubt on this version. Since 2014, the training of flight personnel has improved significantly. In 2016, more than 4,000 training air battles and interceptions were carried out, and the number of flights increased 10 times.

Statistics show that most of the accidents in aviation are due to the human factor, and not due to equipment failure. In the case of commercial aviation, technical malfunctions cause only about 30% of accidents, in the case of fighter-assault aviation - 10%.

By itself, the AN-26SH ("SH" means that we are talking about a special party for training navigators) gets high marks from experts. It is used for flights on international air routes and for joint actions with NATO forces.

Related: Everything happened as in computer game: Survived cadet tells about An-26 plane crash

"This aircraft is reliable because it was created at a time when the Soviet Union was very strong. The Kyiv plant produced only 1,461 units of these aircraft, and only 144 of them crashed. Moreover, 90% of these 144 were shot down by air defense systems in Afghanistan, Latin America, Asia. Thus, the statistics of aircraft accidents are even lower than those of Boeing," Oleg Starikov, military expert, emphasizes.

It is believed that one should not pay too much attention to the factor of age. It is more important to consider the "mileage" - that is, how many takeoffs and landings of the aircraft. However, even a "seasoned" aircraft can be operated for a long time, subject to investment. Although, of course, it is not infinite, because there is also the concept of "material aging."

If we consider Ukrainian civil aviation, then the average age of all vessels is about 25 years - almost the same as in some US airlines. This, according to industry experts, is not too critical. However, they agree that there is some danger for ships over 30 years old. Then the probability of failure of any mechanism increases. World practice shows that more and more attention is paid to the issue of the age of the aircraft. For example, Iran, which leases our ships, does not accept aircraft over 20 years old.

So, when analyzing whether it is safe to use the old AN-26, it is important to find out whether they passed all the maintenance on time.

“Everything depends on the attitude to the vehicle. There is no problem in the fact that it was produced 43 years ago, and it was still operating I don’t see any problem here. Vessels that are 70 years old are also flying. But the norm on routine maintenance must be strictly observed,” pilot Oleksandr Likhodid states.

Chassis struts for replacement on a Boeing 737-800 aircraft

Routine maintenance is the planned annual periodic maintenance of an aircraft, performed on the fly. They are carried out six months after the launch of the vessel into operation, and then annually.

Based on the documentation available to the public, the plane was technically ready to fly. Otherwise, the technical services would not have signed all the documents, the flight director would not have released him, and the pilot himself would have refused to fly. But it is still impossible to say exactly how competent the actions of the technical personnel were. Some of the specialists could have overlooked the problems that could lead to the failure of other aircraft systems.

Related: PM instructs to remove officials who organized An-26 flight

Longevity on paper and in practice

From time to time, aviation, like any other technique, needs an overhaul. Since 2015, Ukraine has repaired three An-26s that were stored at bases and were unusable. All systems were restored on the planes, including communications and navigation. A few years later, another six An-26s were repaired, and then another two were repaired.

The decision about whether a major overhaul is needed or not is made by experts after inspecting the board. But theoretically they can do without it for decades. It is difficult to name the exact cost of updating the AN-26, because everything depends on the specific case, but judging by the tenders, it could be about 1,2 million USD. Several years ago, Ukroboronprom, association of defense multi-product enterprises, apparently not finding such funds, simply sold the old An-26 at auction for UAH 50,000 and 212,000 USD.

The crashed plane was last overhauled in 1999. The next update was supposed to take place in 2022. Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Antonov State Enterprise signed an agreement to extend the service life of the airframe. Chances are high that at the next inspection, the resource would be extended again by adding additional hours for flights. By the way, these works were to be completed only on October 1. It is not clear whether the repair work was completed ahead of schedule or whether the aircraft was released at their stage.

In addition, according to media reports, in June, Motor Sich specialists separately extended the engine life until 2021 (according to the rules established in the Soviet Union, the engine and airframe resources are extended separately).

In the case of the crashed AN-26, Motor Sich could be abused. After all, the final engine resource based on the results of the extension was supposed to be 800 hours more than it was provided for by the Soviet operating documents.

The left engine was manufactured in December 1977. After a major overhaul in 1990, it flew 2,339 hours instead of 1,750. The right engine was manufactured in 1974 and after the last one flew 1,662 hours instead of one thousand hours. At the same time, the engines received an extension of their service life upon inspection.

Oleg Starikov says: if the problem really lies in the illegality of extending the service life, then Antonov will bear responsibility for the disaster. And since this aircraft is dual-use, the Armed Forces will also partly share it. Although, according to the expert, the situation is not typical. Airplane builders are most interested in showing their reliability.

Related: An-26 crash: Kharkiv honors memory of deceased cadet

However, even if the experts came to the conclusion that the aircraft would not do without overhaul after it was carried out it would not become absolutely reliable. The problem is that all the components and assemblies that we change are old, and new ones are not produced or purchased for political reasons. The concept of "aging of metals" has not been canceled.

If the components are replaced with imported ones, the aircraft will need to be certified - on paper it will be a completely different technique.

Earlier, Ukrainian aircraft were certified in the Aviation Register of the Interstate Aviation Committee in Moscow. Now we are getting out through the State Aviation Administration of Ukraine. It is difficult to say whether such certification is reliable in terms of jurisprudence and the safety of the aircraft itself. A way out could be found if Ukraine joined the EU. Then we would be certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency. However, it is too early to talk about this.

Outdated technology

There are doubts that in accordance with the current stringent safety requirements, the AN-26, like any other aircraft of the 1960s-70s, would have received a certificate of airworthiness at all.

When it comes to flight safety, it's not just about the functioning of all the details. AN-26 is a propeller-driven aircraft. This means that if the engine fails, a lot depends on whether the pilot has time to feather the propeller. It is necessary to turn it so that it does not interfere with the flight, otherwise, the rotor blades will create very high air resistance and the plane will turn in one direction. With a high degree of probability, it will rollover.

At high altitude, the pilot has time to turn the blades. At a low altitude, the wing can strike the ground, which probably happened in Chuhuyiv.

The likelihood that the crash was indirectly provoked by the specifics of the aircraft, that is, the age of its development, is very high. The tragedy might not have happened to the An-70, which has automatic weathering.

Related: An-26 crash: Experts finish decryption of black boxes

AN-26 replacement

While the investigation of the causes of the tragedy is underway, the President gave an order to suspend any flights using similar aircraft. But what about the long-term solution to the problem? AN-148 could be purchased instead of the AN-26. Paradoxically, Ukraine did not purchase a single unit for internal needs but only exported. The deal could be concluded through a special state program. For example, lease planes.

In the program for the development of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, no specifics can be traced on the issue of replacing aircraft. Regarding transport aircraft, it is only indicated that in 2027-2035 it is proposed to switch to a "medium-sized transport aircraft of national production, on the basis of which other samples of special aviation equipment will be created." Regarding training flights, it is emphasized that they also want to change the L-39 (made in Czechoslovakia) to "a modern multifunctional combat training aircraft, which will become the main training platform, and, if necessary, can be used to perform certain combat missions in order to enhance the capabilities of tactical aviation."

And although it is completely unclear which specific aircraft they plan to use, officials have already calculated that the modernization of combat training aircraft alone will cost the country $ 1.3 billion, transport, and special aircraft - another $ 1.5 billion.

Related: Investigative bodies consider several versions of An-26 plane crash

However, it is not clear what to do in the next seven years, when the equipment is still purchased. It is paradoxical not only that the solution of such important issues is being postponed, but also that for 6 years of the war Ukraine could not present a worthy program to modernize this area.

The most difficult situation in the military aviation industry can be traced to combat aircraft. Several years ago, Boeing discussed projects to upgrade fighter and assault aircraft, but they never came up with concrete proposals. Everything rests on financing, which is needed many times more than for transport workers. The cost of one fighter is from 20 to 100 million dollars. In addition, for this aircraft, it is also necessary to create the appropriate infrastructure for their routine maintenance. The whole budget of Ukraine may not be enough for all this.

Antonov state enterprise

By and large, this situation is typical not only for aviation but also for the ground forces and naval forces, despite the fact that Ukrainians still pay 5% of the military duty from their salaries every month. However, even more, significant than the lack of funding is the lack of strict control over how these funds are spent.

Related: An-26 crash: Over 50 such aircrafts exploited in Ukraine

And, of course, an audit of the university is necessary, under whose control these flights were carried out. It is also necessary to figure out whether they tried to save money on the flight because the cost of one departure can reach several thousand dollars.

By the way, the previous rector of Kharkiv Air Force University of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has already been tried for high treason. When purchasing fuel for flights, the price unexpectedly changed after the end of the tender: it was overstated by 5-30%, and the supplied volume of fuel was less. Some experts and regarding Chuhuyiv put forward the theory that problems could arise due to the quality of the fuel.

An audit of the Ukrainian aircraft fleet is also necessary. Otherwise, the tragedy might repeat again.

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