August 20, 2009: Russia fighter pilot Igor Tkachenko predicted his own death in the air four years ago. Sort of. Back in 2005, Tkachenko complained that the Su-27s given to the acrobatics team he leads were unfit for regular fighter squadrons, and required considerable refurbishment and maintenance before his pilots could safely use them. But the Russian Air Force has long had problems maintaining its high performance aircraft. A shortage of qualified and experienced maintainers, plus parts and equipment shortages, as well as defective parts, created a perpetual headache for squadron maintenance officers. The usual result was fewer aircraft fit to fly, and this limited the training pilots got.
Earlier this month, Tkachenko died when his Su-27 collided with another Su-27 while practicing for an acrobatic air show. Tkachenko is the leader of the Russian Knights aircraft demonstration team, that performs at air shows and other events. Most large air forces have such teams, and they usually get priority in terms of aircraft and maintainers. But even with that, Tkachenko was unable to keep his units aircraft up to the required standards.
While Russia was able to design and build Western quality fighters (the MiG-29 and Su-27/30) by the end of the Cold War, they pushed their technology, and manufacturing capabilities to the limit. While the Russians were able to keep their maintenance and reliability problems out of the news, foreign intelligence agencies knew. So did nations that bought these high performance jets, but they got great bargains, and assurances from the Russians that proper spare parts would be provided, and the users could train and retain capable maintainers (or, in some cases, hire foreign technicians to do it right.) Many of the less developed nations that bought these high end fighters, saw them waste away from lack of effective maintenance. Since this also happened if they bought Western fighters, they kept quiet and were content for all the money they saved buying the cheaper Russian stuff. Enough of these spiffy looking fighters could be out into the air to dazzle the locals, and potentially troublesome neighbors.
Meanwhile, Russia continues scrambling to remain competitive in the jet fighter market. With F-22 production being shut down, with fewer than 200 built, Russia has a shot of at least producing fighters equal (at least on paper and in demonstrations) to Western aircraft. But the more hidden problems of parts quality and aircraft reliability remain, waiting for a fix, or a wartime embarrassment that could run Russia out of the jet fighter business.