May 07, 2019

On May 5, an Aeroflot (SU) Sukhoi Superjet SSJ 100 operating Flight SU-1492 caught fire during a hard landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO), killing at least 41 of the 78 people onboard. The aircraft was bound for Murmansk Airport (MMK) but returned to SVO shortly after takeoff. The causes of the accident and subsequent fire are still under investigation, but the accident highlights how crucial it is for passengers to prepare for evacuations and listen to flight attendants when one occurs.


The Aeroflot Flight 1492 Accident

Investigators have not yet determined what exactly happened to Flight SU-1492, but media outlets, flight tracking websites, and videos of the accident provide the basic sequence of events. According to Russian authorities, the aircraft was struck by lightning shortly after takeoff, causing several electrical systems to fail, including the aircraft’s radios and autopilot. The pilot chose to return to SVO and attempted to land approximately 30 minutes after takeoff. It is not clear if the reported lightning strike affected the aircraft’s control systems.

Video of the landing shows that the aircraft landed hard and bounced at least four times. During one of the bounces, a brief fire flashed underneath the aircraft’s wing, followed shortly by a sustained fire trailing from the wing. The aircraft’s appearance as it continued down the runway suggests that one or both of the main landing gear legs collapsed during one of the impacts or failed to extend in the first place. The aircraft slid down the runway, trailing a large fireball, before sliding sideways to a stop. The fireball engulfed the rear of the aircraft’s fuselage as it slowed.

Of the 78 people onboard Flight SU-1492, only 37 were able to evacuate safely. According to the airline, everyone who survived escaped the aircraft within a minute of it coming to a halt. Several survivors have credited the aircraft’s flight attendants with helping them survive. Video from inside the aircraft indicates the aircraft filled with smoke before it came to a stop and that luggage from the overhead bins fell into the aisle during the attempted landing. Unconfirmed Russian media reports claim that some passengers impeded the evacuation by trying to retrieve their baggage from overhead bins. Stopping to gather luggage during an evacuation is extremely dangerous for both the individual doing so and others on the aircraft; passengers should always leave all luggage behind during an evacuation.

Several media reports have highlighted the role that lightning allegedly played in the accident. While a lightning strike may have caused issues with the aircraft’s electrical system and triggered the pilot’s decision to return to SVO, lightning did not directly cause the fire that engulfed the aircraft. Video of the accident shows that the aircraft was not on fire prior to the landing attempt and shows the moment the fire started; there was no lightning strike during the landing attempt. Lightning strikes on airliners are a relatively common occurrence; some cause technical issues that can lead pilots to make an emergency landing, but lightning very rarely plays a role in a fatal accident.

Investigators are likely to focus on several key aspects of the accident:

  • The initial electrical failure: Investigators will find what caused the alleged electrical failure and whether the failure impacted the aircraft’s control systems.
  • The landing attempt: Investigators will examine why the aircraft landed hard and bounced during the landing attempt, and whether the pilot’s decision to immediately return to SVO to attempt a landing instead of circling to dump fuel was sound. Investigators will also determine whether the aircraft was overweight during the landing attempt.
  • The fire: Investigators will determine why the aircraft caught fire during the landing attempt, and why the fire spread so quickly to the cabin. Video of the fire is consistent with major ruptures of the aircraft’s fuel tanks, which could have been caused by damage to the landing gear or engines in the hard landing. Modern airliners, however, are designed to minimize the chance of landing gear or engine damage rupturing fuel tanks.
  • The evacuation: Investigators will assess the conduct of the evacuation to see if any fatalities could have been prevented.


Aeroflot Safety Standards

Aeroflot is Russia’s state-owned flag carrier and largest airline. While the carrier has a poor reputation for safety among the general public due to numerous crashes in the Soviet era and early 1990s, the carrier has dramatically improved its operational and safety standards over the past 25 years and had a clean recent safety record prior to Flight SU-1492’s accident. Aeroflot holds numerous international safety certifications and is a member of the SkyTeam airline alliance, one of the three major global airline alliances. Aeroflot also codeshares with numerous major global carriers, indicating that those carriers have confidence in Aeroflot’s operational and safety standards.

The carrier is listed as Preferred in WorldAware’s Worldcue Airline Monitor. WorldAware will closely monitor the investigation into Flight SU-1492’s accident to determine if the carrier should remain Preferred. Given the airline’s safety certifications, codeshare agreements, and clean recent safety record prior to Flight SU-1492, it would take clear signs of major safety deficiencies to cause WorldAware to downgrade Aeroflot to Not Preferred status.


Sukhoi Superjet Safety

Flight SU-1492 was operated by a Sukhoi Superjet SSJ 100 aircraft, a modern Russian-built design. The SSJ entered service in 2011 and is the first all-new jet airliner type to be designed and built in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. There are no current indications of major safety deficiencies in the SSJ, and Russian authorities have not taken any steps to ground the aircraft, but WorldAware will closely monitor the investigation into Flight SU-1492’s accident to determine if travelers should avoid the type.

Flight SU-1492 is the SSJ’s second fatal accident since the type entered service in 2011. The first fatal accident occurred in May 2012, when an SSJ on a Sukhoi-operated sales demonstration flight crashed into a mountain in Indonesia, killing all 45 people onboard. The investigation blamed the accident on pilot error. The SSJ has also had two serious non-fatal accidents. In July 2013, an SSJ on a test flight in Iceland hit the runway with its landing gear retracted after a pilot made an error during a go-around test. All five people onboard survived. In October 2018, a Yakutia Airlines (R3) SSJ suffered a main landing gear collapse when it ran off the runway and into a construction zone during landing at Yakutsk Airport (YKS) in Russia. All 91 people onboard survived.

Approximately 150 SSJs are in service around the world, mostly in Russia and neighboring countries. The only airline in the Americas to operate the aircraft is Mexican carrier Interjet (4O). The only Western European airline to operate the type was Irish carrier CityJet (WX), which operated the aircraft on its own flights and on behalf of Belgian flag carrier Brussels Airlines (SN). Both Interjet and CityJet have had significant reliability issues with the aircraft, as Sukhoi and engine manufacturer PowerJet’s maintenance and technical support infrastructure is underdeveloped outside of Russia. Due to these issues, CityJet has placed its SSJ fleet into storage, and Interjet is considering abandoning the aircraft as well.


Tips for a Successful Evacuation

Flight SU-1492’s accident demonstrates the importance of getting out of an airliner quickly in an evacuation. Airliner evacuations are relatively common; a study by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that an airliner evacuation occurred on average once every 11 days in the US alone, although most are not nearly as dramatic as that on Flight SU-1492. Passengers can improve their chances of emerging from an evacuation unscathed by taking a few simple steps before, during, and after evacuating an airliner.

When boarding an airliner, passengers should count off the number of rows between their seat and the nearest exit, as knowing this information can be invaluable during an evacuation, especially if the cabin lights go out or the cabin fills with smoke. Knowing where the next-closest exit is can also be important, as the exit closest to a passenger can become blocked or unusable in an emergency. Passengers should also listen to the pre-flight safety demonstration; while it may seem tedious, it contains valuable lessons from previous accidents that can help save a passenger’s life.

Accounts from survivors of Flight SU-1492 demonstrate the importance of listening to flight attendants during an evacuation. Flight attendants are trained to keep passengers safe in an emergency, and following their instructions will almost certainly increase a passenger’s chances of escaping an airliner emergency unscathed. Passengers should generally not open exits unless they are ordered to do so by a flight attendant, as opening an exit can cause smoke or water to enter the cabin. Passengers should never stop to retrieve luggage during an evacuation; nothing in an overhead bin is more valuable than the lives of the people trying to get off the plane.

In fiery accidents such as Flight SU-1492, smoke inhalation is almost always the main cause of death for passengers. If the cabin fills with smoke, holding a damp cloth over the nose and mouth can help protect a passenger against some poisonous gases found in smoke from airliner fires. Smoke and heat from fires are also often less intense near the floor of an aircraft cabin, so passengers who stay low can slightly mitigate these threats. The cabin floor also has automatic lighting to show where exits are. While the damp cloth and staying low will not protect a passenger for a sustained period of time, these steps can give a passenger a few extra seconds to evacuate safely. 

Passengers who make it out of an evacuated airliner aren’t clear of danger yet. The area surrounding an airliner in distress is often swarming with emergency crews and vehicles driving around at high speed. Explosions from burning aircraft are also a threat – in 2007, a burning China Airlines airliner exploded less than 10 seconds after the last passenger evacuated. Passengers who can still run should get away from the aircraft as quickly as possible and should follow all instructions from flight attendants and emergency responders. 


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