The Indian Air Force (IAF) has grounded its fleet of Sukhoi S030MKI ‘Flanker’ combat aircraft while it investigates the cause of an apparent ejection-seat misfire that resulted in the loss of an aircraft earlier in the month, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 22 October.
Flight operations of all 180 twin-seat Su-30MKI aircraft have been temporarily suspended after both crewmembers were ejected from their aircraft on 14 October, as it was on approach to land. Both pilots were recovered, with no reports of injuries.
“One Su-30 fighter of the IAF was involved in an accident … in which both ejection seats had fired whilst the aircraft was coming in to land. A Court of Inquiry (CoI) had immediately been constituted to investigate the cause of accident. Meanwhile, as is the procedure in such cases, the flying of the Su-30 fleet has been temporarily suspended [while] certain specific checks are being conducted on the aircraft,” the MoD said in a statement.
The IAF has suffered an appalling loss rate of aircraft and personnel over recent years, with pilot training, maintenance, and original equipment manufacturer support all being cited as reasons.
When the Su-30 crash was first reported, it had been expected that one or a combination of those factors would have played a part in its loss. The MoD’s announcement of the uncommanded ejection would appear to rule out pilot error, leaving poor maintenance and/or original equipment manufacturer support (OEM) as being the most likely culprits.
The Su-30MKI is fitted with tandem K-36DM zero/zero ejection seats, and Russian ejector-seat technology is widely regarded as being among the best in the world. This, coupled with the fact that there have been no other instances of a simultaneous uncommanded ejection having taken place, would appear to rule out a lack of OEM support as being behind at the root of the incident in favour of maintenance issues.
However, although simultaneous uncommanded are unheard of there have been a number of instances of single uncommanded or inadvertent ejections over the years. One of the most recent of these involved a Martin-Baker seat that accidentally fired while the Hawk T.1 Red Arrows display aircraft it was fitted in was parked on the ground, killing the pilot. This was found to be the result of a design flaw, which was subsequently rectified by the manufacturer.
While the track record of the K-36DM seat would appear to rule out a design flaw at this stage, that the Martin-Baker seat and Hawk T.1 had already been in service for nearly 40 years before the tragic accident in the UK in November 2011 shows that it is possible for such a fault to lie undetected and dormant for decades before finally revealing itself in the most dramatic of circumstances.