Peace Time: August 6, 2002

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At least 78 people were killed and 115 injured when a Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi Su-27 jet smashed into crowds watching the Lviv airshow's finale on 27 July. Emergencies ministry officials said seven children were among the dead and of the 138 people injured, 70 of them in critical condition (with burns, fractures and head injuries).

The low-flying Russian-made jet appeared to lose control during a turn, dipped its nose and started to lose altitude. Another report claimed it skimmed one of the aircraft on the ground. The Defense Ministry said that the SU-27 first grazed the ground and slid backward on its wingtip and nose. Two or three seconds later, the jet impacted and exploded into flames only yards from the spectators, sending debris flying into the terrified onlookers. 

Local media released unconfirmed reports that an engine failure might have caused the crash, while defense experts noted that the Ukrainian military was short of cash for spare parts and maintenance. No information had been made public officially on the causes of the accident by the end of the day, although the state attorney's office had opened an inquiry. The government also announced that a distress fund of $ 1.9 million would be made available to support families afflicted by the tragedy.

Both pilots ejected to safety just moments before the plane hit the ground. The unidentified pilots (referred to as "very experienced Colonels") were experienced flyers who had already performed for Ukraine at the Paris International air show. Officials said they had suffered back injuries, but both pilots were seen walking away.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma broke off his vacation in Crimea to fly to the crash site, and banned military air shows the same day. A government spokeswoman later noted that "the decision was made in principle," but had not yet made it into an actual decree. Kuchma told the press that "the guilty must be brought to justice, on this point there is no doubt," the promptly sacked air force commander Volodymyr Strelnykov while the Ukraine's defense minister fired the 14th Air Force Division's commander.

A defense ministry spokesman said this was the first accident of its kind since Ukraine became independent in 1991. It was the deadliest such accident in 14 years, following the death of 70 people at a 1988 air show on a US military base in Ramstein, then West Germany, when three planes collided. In another major air show crash, 10 people were killed and 54 were injured in Ostende, Belgium when a Jordanian stunt plane burrowed into a Red Cross stand. A Russian Sukhoi-30MK fighter crashed at the 1999 Paris air show, when it scraped the ground during a loop.

The Su-27 "Flanker", which went into service in 1984, was the Soviet Union's answer to America's F-15 Eagle. The Ukrainian Air Force had 40 of them and had The even been running a flying school for tourists in the Crimea, charging $9,800 per flying hour in their dual-seat trainer SU-27 UB's.

The Ukrainian military has had a string of recent problems. In September 2000, another Su-27 crashed during maneuvers in the western Ukraine, killing the pilot. In October 2001, the Ukrainians accidentally downed a Russian Tu-154 airliner on a flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk (Siberia) with an SA-5, killing 78 passengers and crew. On 5 July 2002, the pilot of an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Moscow reported seeing a ground-to-air missile pass close to his plane while flying over eastern Ukraine (which the Ukrainians suggested was actually a meteor). Three Russian pilots, as well as the pilot of a Ukrainian plane, confirmed that they had seen a sizable flash in the same area at that time. - Adam Geibel

 


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