The Russian Air Force added to its long string of recent incidents and mishaps on Tuesday, this time costing three of its pilots their lives. The ejection system of a Tu-22M3 bomber was accidentally activated during pre-flight checks, and the low altitude did not allow for the crew’s parachutes to open, killing three and injuring a fourth, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Among those killed was Col. Vadim Beloslyudtsev, the commander of the bomber unit at Shaikovka airbase, about 90 miles southwest of Moscow.
The supersonic, nuclear-capable Tu-22 (NATO designation: “Backfire”) began production in 1959 and has seen countless modifications and upgrades since, including the M3 iteration involved in Tuesday’s incident. One of those upgrades, however, was not to the “zero-zero” ejection seats that most modern combat aircraft are outfitted with, as noted by The Warzone’s Thomas Newdick. The KT-1M ejection seat aboard the Tu-22M3 requires an airspeed of 80 miles per hour for ejection below 200 feet. Zero-zero seats allow aircrew to safely eject even at zero airspeed and zero altitude, accounting for emergencies on the ground while the engine is turning, but the aircraft is still stationary or only taxiing.
The matter is currently under investigation. While it is unknown at this time whether the ejection seats were activated by an equipment malfunction or human error, the deadly mistake is the latest in a long string of dangerous and/or embarrassing setbacks for the Russian Air Force.
Tuesday’s events come about two years after a particularly ugly week for Russian aviation in January of 2019, when, coincidentally, two separate incidents claimed the lives of three Russian pilots each, as well. The first was on January 18th, when two Su-34s collided while conducting training over the Sea of Japan. Only one pilot was recovered from the water alive.
Just four days later, a Tu-22M3 attempted to land at Olenegorsk airbase in the Arctic when a sudden (and, in their defense, unpredictable in that region) blizzard was passing through. The main landing gear hit the runway with such impact that the aircraft folded in two and exploded on the runway (video below). Russia’s state-sponsored news agency, TASS, reported a combination of the inclement weather and pilot error as the cause of the crash, but some experts speculated that instrument failure could have played a hand in it as well. TASS also did not mention why the crew was not diverted to another airbase or instructed to wait for the storm to pass.
Not even eight months later, two more Su-34s collided over Lipetsk in Southwest Russia. The group leader lost visual contact with his wingman and the two jets actually made contact twice, the second after an overcorrection to try and put space between them. The leader’s aircraft lost an entire section of its wing while the wingman suffered significant damage to the cabin, fuselage and engine (from debris). Miraculously, both landed safely, but it was a near miss and yet another blunder to add to the list.
One possible explanation for this seemingly sudden wave of destruction is rather simple: Russia is playing fast and loose with the rules. The deeper you look into all of these occurrences, the more a trend begins to become apparent. From maintenance, to pilots and their training, to military leadership, it does not appear that Russia fosters a culture that values safety.
Look no further than last August, when two Russian SU-27s intercepted a B-52 over international waters in the Black Sea performing routine NATO flight operations.
“The Russian pilots flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner while crossing within 100 feet of the nose of the B-52 multiple times at co-altitude and while in afterburner causing turbulence and restricting the B-52’s ability to maneuver,” U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Public Affairs statement.
Video of the encounter was also released.
“Actions like these increase the potential for midair collisions, are unnecessary, and inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander, said at the time. “While the Russian aircraft were operating in international airspace, they jeopardized the safety of flight of the aircraft involved. We expect them to operate within international standards set to ensure safety and prevent accidents.”
The Kremlin is notoriously tight-lipped with anything that would be a perceived embarrassment. There are other incidents in the not-so-distant past where the Russian Defense Ministry’s dismissive response raises eyebrows and begs the question: how many gaffes have occurred that we don’t know about?
One such instance was reported by online Russian news outlet, Baza, in April of 2019. Citing a leaked document, the actual cause of a MiG-31 crash two years prior was revealed to have been the result of friendly fire caused by weapons system malfunction. The statement from the ministry was only that a MiG-31 had crashed, and no further details were given.
In September of 2017, during the Russian War Games known as “Zapad,” a KA-52 “Alligator” fired two S-8 rockets at media observers of the event. The pilot apparently mistook the two vehicles that were destroyed as his intended targets for the training exercise. Russian military officials made fairly bold claims that while two trucks were destroyed, no one was injured. Another Russian news source, 66.RU, refuted this, and it was reported at least two and possibly three were seriously injured. This is all backed up by videos from multiple angles.
Then, there’s another aircraft that was lost to friendly fire September of last year in an incident that would make any former maintainer from the military aviation community put their hands on their head and yell, “How?!” The Russian Ministry of Defense was surprisingly forthcoming with the details of an Su-35 shooting down an Su-30 in what was meant to be a mock dogfight that turned very real.
The Su-35 had been loaded with 150 live 30mm rounds for its Gah-301 cannon as well as air-to-air missiles in preparation for QRA (quick reaction alert) duty. The missiles were unloaded prior to the training sortie, but not the gun. The pilot pulled the trigger expecting a simulated kill, and got a real one, though both pilots in the unfortunate Su-30 ejected safely and were recovered in the forest near Tver, northwest of Moscow.
Whether it is poor maintenance and degradation of military hardware, poor training, just plain recklessness, or a combination of all three, the Russian Air Force has a serious problem and can’t seem to get out of its own way. Having knowledge of the system of checks and balances present for mechanics and pilots in the American arsenal, some of these oversights are hard to fathom. This isn’t to say that U.S. forces haven’t had their own share of tragedy and costly mishaps in training, but the rash of debacles that the Russian Air Force has experienced in the last five years has been excessive and alarming.
On the one hand, there is a human element to Russia’s seeming lack of regard for their aviators’ safety. While it would be a bit hyperbolic to liken Russian attitudes and lack of action in response to these deaths and near-misses to the evil Empire in “Star Wars,” the frequency of which lives are needlessly imperilled, and the seeming expendability of their armed forces seems to at least warrant a comparison. This is far from only being an issue of right and wrong for humanity, though. The lack of attention to detail and an approach of treating pilots like disposable commodities are also just a tactical nightmare. Russia either doesn’t value its pilots, or simply doesn’t value the training it gives them. Regardless of what the answer to that is, it seems indicative of flawed thinking and a military power in decline.