Russian Knights Collide

Issue: 8 / 2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. BhatiaIllustration(s): By 336.jpg

On August 16, two Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets from the Russian Knights collided in mid-air during a test flight southeast of Moscow, killing the leader of Knights, Igor Tkachenko. More people on the ground were injured after one of the planes crashed into a house and triggered a fire. The pilots were training for the 2009 MAKS Airshow. A commission of the Russian Defence Ministry and the main headquarters of the Russian Air Force have been set up to scrutinise reasons for the air incident. According state-run Vesti 7X24 news channel, ‘human error’ and a bird-hit are said to be the cause of collision.

It was indeed a sad Sunday for Kubinka Air Force base where the Russian Air Force’s world-renowned Russian Knights and the Swifts (Strizhi in Russian) formation aerobatics teams are located. The accident occurred barely two days prior to the opening of the International Aerospace Show MAKS 2009 for which both teams were training. According to an eyewitness, the accident occurred when a formation of five Su-27s of the Russian Knights and four MiG-29s of the Swifts were changing configuration during a turn to the right over the Moskva River floodlands outside the air show grounds. While two pilots ejected safely, the leader, Colonel Igor Tkachenko, one of the most experienced pilots of the Russian Knights, paid with his life. While a probe into the crash has been launched, according to the preliminary reports emanating from the Russian Defence Ministry indicate the cause of the accident to be a “flying skill error”.

Across the world, aerobatic teams mostly fly sports and trainer aircraft or sometimes even light-weight fighters. For example, the Indian Air Force’s first recognised aerobatic team, the Thunderbolts, was formed on Hunter transonic fighters. Later, with the winding down of the Hunter fleet, a new nineaircraft team, the Surya Kirans, was formed on the Kiran jettrainers. Similarly, the US Air Force’s Thunder Birds aerobatic team is equipped with the lightweight F-16 aircraft.

The Russian Knights, however, are the only formation aerobatic team in the world equipped with heavyweight fighters. Russkie Vityazi was formed in early 1991 with Su-27 aircraft. The aircraft has proved to be much harder to control when manoeuvring as part of a tight formation. Most notable among the many reasons forwarded are its heavy weight and large dimension which causes the aircraft to be less responsive compared with its lighter counterparts such as the MiG-29 aircraft. The average weight of the six-plane team totals a staggering 150 tonnes during aerobatics, with the sum of their collective wing span amounting to over 75 m.

Incredibly, through sheer perseverance all these challenges were met head on with the team performing in the UK within a few months of its creation, as part of its first foreign tour. On December 12, 1995, approaching the Kam Ranh airfield (Vietnam) in adverse weather for refuelling, formating under the wing of an IL-76, three fighters of the team slammed into the top of a mountain with the loss of four of its highly experienced pilots. The IL-76 barely escaped. After the almost unbearable loss and contrary to the general belief in Russia and abroad, the Russian Knights resurrected themselves and formed another team. After perfecting a four-aircraft Diamond team in 1996, a sixplane formation took to the skies in 1997. Igor Tkachenko was part of this team. The Russian Knights didn’t stop there. For the MAKS International Air Show they stretched the formation aerobatic frontiers further by carrying out a nine-aircraft mixed (with four MiG-29s of the Swifts) display—perhaps the world’s most breathtaking formation aerobatic show.