Attrition: Gimme Shelter

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March 13, 2012: The Indian Air Force is installing lightweight shelters for its Russian designed Su-30MKI fighters to protect them from the intense tropical sunlight they are otherwise exposed to. The metal and fiber structures are light weight, so even if they are blown down by high winds they will not do any serious damage to the aircraft. Work began on the shelter program in late 2010, a year before the media began publishing embarrassing stories about why there had been so many Su-30MKI accidents recently. Among many other things, investigators discovered that many of the Su-30MKI aircraft were routinely parked in the open. India is a tropical nation and the direct sunlight not only heats up the aircraft but the ultraviolet radiation levels are highest in the tropics. The prolonged exposure to all this heat and radiation is not good for a high-performance aircraft. Although built to handle high-altitude and high-speed conditions, these aircraft are usually parked in a shelter to reduce the potential weather damage. When powered down, components normally protected by cooling systems can be exposed to extremely high levels of heat if the aircraft is left in the sun. It's not known what sort of component failure this might induce, so the investigators are trying to find out what long periods of high internal heat might do to aircraft performance. Russian aircraft designers have long paid more attention to designing aircraft that survive prolonged exposure to extreme cold. In the past, Russian military equipment has been found unable to handle exposure to the tropical heat of India and other tropical countries.

Air force officials dismissed the sunlight and heat as a cause for accidents but admitted, because they had decided to obtain shelters in 2010, that they did see the harsh sunlight as a potential problem. At the very least the shelters prevented the aircraft from heating up to the point where maintenance personnel had a more difficult time doing their work because of the very hot metal.

The 38 ton SU-30MKI is most similar to the two seat American F-15E fighter-bomber. Even though equipped with Western electronics, the aircraft cost less than $40 million each, about half what an equivalent F-15 costs. The Su-30MKI can carry more than eight tons of bombs and hit targets over 1,500 kilometers away.

 


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