A prototype of the Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker exploded during take-off at the Komsomolosk-na-Amure Aviation Production Association's (KNAAPO) Dzemgi flight test aerodrome on 26 April. Spokesmen for KNAAPO told Russia's Novosti news service that the fighter caught on fire and burst into flames during this test of the aircraft's take-off regime at 0955 hours Moscow time (1755 hours in Komsomolsk).
In the cockpit was Yevgeniy Frolov, one Sukhoi's most experienced pilots who has been with the Su-27 program since its inception in the 1980s. He managed to eject safely before the aircraft exploded. "The aircraft was engulfed in flames while it was still on the ground," said a Su-35 programme spokesman. "Frolov did not even have time to get the aircraft in the air."
Su-35 programme representatives told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the crash was the fault of one of the NPO Saturn 117S engine's PMC units and not a failure of a fuel pump, as had been previously reported. "One of the engine's control systems failed and the engine was working at only 93 per cent power," said the representative.
This crash comes at a bad time for Russia's military aircraft industry, which has had strong export sales for almost two decades but has seen those orders fall off as of late. Also, the poor performance of Russian air forces in the August 2008 incursion into two separatist provinces of the neighboring nation (and former Soviet Republic) of Georgia has raised questions about the current state of Russian defense aerospace technology vis-Ã -vis Western weapon systems.
Su-35 program managers state that the loss of this aircraft and its equipment are "regrettable," but that "this is small compared to the cost represented by the recent loss of a [Lockheed Martin] F-22, which costs almost US $400 million." One of the many costly on-board systems lost in this explosion was only the second flying, operationa model of the NIIP Irbis-E radar set, the most advanced to date for any Sukhoi fighter aircraft
The Super Flanker had been a contender in the ForÃ§a AÃ©rea Brasileira (Brazilian Air Force or FAB) fighter competition here in Brazil, but was dropped in favor of contenders from Europe -- the French Dassault Rafale and Sweden's Saab JAS-39 Gripen -- and the U.S. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Sukhoi had projected as many at 160 Su-35 sales as possible follow-on orders to existing Su-27 and Su-30MK fighter model customers like India and China, but these and other smaller-scale customers have yet to commit to the program.
Russia's defense industry has been hit by rising labour costs that make the price tags for weapon systems as high as their Western counterparts, eroding one of their chief advantages. Other Russian defense firms have been hard hit by the international financial crisis and the lack of credit available from Russian financial institutions, which in turn cuts off the delivery of components and other critical materials from suppliers. This has had Rosoboronexport, the Russia arms export agency, stating that some export orders may not be filled on time this year.
The plan for this Su-35 prototype was for it to be put through its initial paces at KNAAPO and then flown in a demonstration flight in time for the traditional Communist (but still celebrated in the New Russia) May Day holidays this coming weekend. How much of damper this will be on the holiday plans of Russia's defense industry officialdom -- and how much of set back this loss is for the Su-35 program -- remains to be seen.