As Sukhoi tries to break into the commercial aircraft market, it has faced big questions about reliability and support. The first crash of one of its regional jets in Indonesia could compound the challenge of becoming a rival to established players.
The passenger list shows there were 50 on board, including crew. Most passengers were Indonesian airline executives involved in aircraft procurement. SkyAviation, which has 12 Superjets on firm order, the first of which it was due to take delivery of later this year, lost 10 people in the crash. Pelita Air Service lost two employees and the following carriers each lost one person: Airfast Indonesia, Air Maleo, Aviastar, Indonesia Air Transport, Kartika Airlines and Sriwijaya Air. There were also some journalists and executives who worked for travel agencies and other travel-related companies on board the aircraft.
Rescuers have encountered problems getting to the crash site because of poor weather conditions and the fact that the side of the mountain where the aircraft crashed is almost a vertical slope. But latest reports say rescuers have spotted bodies at the crash site. The bodies will be put in nets and winched up by helicopter, Indonesian officials say.
Indonesia’s National Transport Safety Committee (NTSC) has appointed Professor Marjono to lead the investigation. Marjono, like many Indonesians, only goes by one name. Russia has sent an investigation team as well. The NTSC is very experienced by virtue of the fact that Indonesia has one of the highest aircraft accident rates in the world. But the NTSC lacks resources, so it is likely to lean heavily on air safety investigation agencies in Russia, France and possibly Australia to assist, particularly in the retrieval of information from the flight data recorder and cockpit voice-recorder.
France’sis a partner in Powerjet, the aircraft’s engine supplier. Australia, meanwhile, has helped Indonesia investigate previous air crashes and with training of air traffic controllers.
This air crash has brought into question Indonesia’s air traffic management. Reports, quoting Indonesian officials, say that just before the SuperJet crashed into Mount Salak, the pilots requested permission to descend to 6000ft from 10,000ft. If air traffic control (ATC) granted permission, then the crash investigation team may seek to ascertain why ATC did that considering the aircraft was flying in a high mountain area.
Another area of focus in the investigation may ascertain why the pilot requested to go to such a low altitude. Weather conditions at the time of the crash were poor, an NTSC official tells Aviation Week. He also says there was no distress call detected. The crash site is 6,100-6,200ft above sea level, adds the official.
Contact with the aircraft was lost a few minutes after the regional jet departed Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in Jakarta at 14:20 local time on May 9, Indonesian officials say. Last contact with the aircraft was at 14:33 local time, soon after the aircraft descended to 6,000 ft., say Indonesian search and rescue agency officials.
If the Indonesian investigation comes to the conclusion that the accident was due to pilot error and finds no fault with the aircraft, Sukhoi’s reputation could still be shot. Concerns about corruption in Indonesia still exist, so any Indonesian investigation report that totally exonerates the airframer may draw skepticizm.
The accident comes on top of a spate of crashes of Russian airliners, although most of those involved older aircraft.
Sukhoi launched the Asian demo tour - which saw the SuperJet travelling to Kazahstan, Pakistan and Myanmar, prior to Indonesia - in an effort to drum up sales. After Indonesia, the aircraft was due to fly to Laos and Vietnam. The aircraft in the accident was SN95004, which replaced SN95005, the aircraft used on the earlier leg of the Asia tour.
Sukhoi has struggled to generate sales for its commercial aircraft in Asia. Besides SkyAviation, the only other firm order for SuperJet in the region is from Lao Central Airlines, which had three on firm order, the first of which is due to be delivered later this year. Orient Thai Airlines signed an agreement in 2010 for 12, but it was a non-binding document. Kartika Airlines has an order for 30, but there was a question mark over whether it would take delivery in light of the fact it has stopped flying due to financial difficulties.