MOSCOW -- It could be called the ultimate game of Russian roulette, but instead of a loaded revolver, the Aeroflot captain gambled with a loaded airliner.
The date was Oct. 20, 1986, when Cmdr. Alexei Klyuyev boasted to his fellow crew members that his "feel" of flying was so good that he could land his twin-engine jetliner with the blinds pulled on the cockpit windows.
When he tried to prove the point, Klyuyev flew his twin-engine Tu134 jet into the ground at Kuibyshev, about 600 miles southeast of Moscow, killing 62 people, according to officials of Aeroflot, the only civilian Soviet airline. Klyuyev survived and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for violating aviation laws.
Since Aeroflot was formed 56 years ago, the Soviets have treated information about crashes almost as state secrets. Only within the past year has the Soviet press reported details about Aeroflot accidents. Western aviation experts suspect that the Soviets still do not report all accidents and significantly underreport the number of deaths.
Yesterday's immediate announcement of the crash of a military transport plane en route to aid earthquake victims at Leninakan in Armenia, was the first of its kind. Seventy-eight people were killed in the crash. Recent crash reports have been restricted to Aeroflot planes carrying passengers; no information has been released about cargo flight accidents or those involving military transports, such as the Il76 that crashed yesterday.
Until last year, the Soviets reported Aeroflot crashes only when foreigners were among the victims or when numerous civilian witnesses were at the crash site.
As Aeroflot accident information has become available in the West, it shows that planes crash in the Soviet Union for the same human and mechanical reasons that they crash elsewhere. In fact, most of the disasters the Soviets discussed have striking parallels in recent U.S. aviation history.
For example, 36 people died in February when the pilot of a Tu134 misjudged his rate of descent, disregarded a ground proximity alarm in the cockpit and slammed into the ground at Surgut, 1,300 miles northeast of Moscow. According to the investigation report, the plane encountered ground fog while approaching the runway and the pilots did not use the standard procedure of going around for another landing attempt.
Two months after the Surgut crash, Soviets read for the first time the results of a government investigation when Pravda, Izvestia and other newspapers reported that pilot error had caused the accident.
In May, a National Airlines crew landing at Pensacola, Fla., in light fog ignored and turned off a ground proximity warning while descending into the shallows of Escambia Bay, well short of the runway. Three people were killed, and a passing barge operator rescued most of the 58 on board. The National Transportation Safety Board's report said, among other things, that "the crew failed to check and utilize all instruments available . . . ."
In July 1986, a Soviet Tu134 was cruising at about 30,000 feet when the flight engineer noticed smoke in the passenger cabin. As the smoke thickened, the pilots started to descend through thick clouds and look for an airport.
The crew crash-landed in a dense forest 50 miles from Syktyvkar, about 600 miles northwest of Moscow, because thick smoke in the cockpit prevented the pilots from seeing the few instruments that were still functioning. Almost a third of the plane's passengers survived the crash and fire, but 52 passengers and two crew members died, Soviet officials said.Pilot Error a Major Factor
An Air Canada DC9 crew encountered the same type of emergency over Louisville in June 1983. The Air Canada jet was directed to Cincinnati's airport, where the plane landed, then burst into flames as the cabin door was opened. Eighteen of the 41 passengers survived.
In neither the Soviet nor the Air Canada accidents were investigators able to identify the ignition source for the fire.
Aeroflot agreed to answer questions about its accident history for The Washington Post, but would not release statistics that would permit comparison of Soviet and American accident and fatality rates.
David R. Kelley, chief of the safety board's operational factors division, attended several U.S.-Soviet air safety meetings during the 1970s and said, "I have no doubt that if their records compared favorably with ours, they would produce it graphically for the world to see."
Aeroflot officials, after being presented with a list compiled by the British-based Aviation Information Service on 56 crashes dating to 1958, confirmed all but one of the accidents. In addition, they provided details of six previously unreported domestic crashes in 1986 and 1987.
Errors by pilots caused or contributed to eight of 10 Aeroflot crashes that have occurred since March 1986, according to Cmdr. Nikolai Ryzhakov, Aeroflot's chief flight safety inspector. Over the years, the safety board has called pilot error the primary or contributing cause to about two-thirds of U.S. accidents.
There was no question who was to blame in the blindfold-landing crash in Kuibyshev, which Soviets first read about in the Communist Party newspaper Sovyetskaya Rossiya weeks after the accident, when the paper reported the sentencing of the pilot. That article placed the death toll at "dozens." The number 62 was provided by Aeroflot officals during an interview.
One Moscow-based pilot said the cockpit voice recorder captured the captain, Klyuyev, boasting of unnatural flying ability and insisting that he had landed blind before and could do it again.
The newspaper report said Klyuyev ordered the flight engineer to pull the blinds over the plane's windshield two minutes before landing, when the aircraft was about 1,300 feet above the ground. The pilot continued the approach, the newspaper said, until he ordered the blinds open less than a second before impact.
Blindfolding part of the cockpit and using a hood to block the pilot's view outside the cockpit are common training techniques to teach pilots to fly using only instruments. However, the official account said Klyuyev violated every rule on blind flying, which Soviet regulations allow only in training flights. Even in those cases, a qualified instructor who has a full view to the outside must be in the copilot's seat.
The Aeroflot accident report did not say whether Klyuyev had been drinking. Aeroflot officials said that no crash has ever been caused by a drunk pilot.
Soviet officials would not discuss whether the other flight crew members challenged Klyuyev's blindfolded landing proposal, even after it became clear the landing would fail. The only public mention of the plane's copilot, G. Zhirnov, came in Sovyetskaya Rossiya, which said he died of heart failure while trying to rescue passengers.
A senior Aeroflot pilot said in an interview that he understood Zhirnov had committed suicide rather than face charges of negligence.
Under Soviet regulations, according to a Soviet pilot, a commander who threatens the safety of the flight abdicates his authority and the copilot becomes obligated to take charge.
"You have to understand that this regulation is completely unrealistic," the pilot said. "It is much more likely that a copilot would remain passive even to the point of a catastrophe."
That contention is underlined by many examples in the United States, including the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into Washington's 14th Street Bridge. The copilot acquiesced in mistakes made by the pilot that contributed to that crash, according to the investigation report.
Other recent crashes disclosed by the Aeroflot officials:A twin-engine turboprop An24 crashed at Bugulma, near Kuibyshev, in March 1986, when it lost one engine and one of its wing flaps failed to extend fully on landing. The plane can carry 50 passengers, but Aeroflot officials declined to say how many were killed in the crash. A Yak40, a 40-passenger three-engine jet, crashed on the runway at Tashkent on Oct. 10, 1987, after it encountered turbulence from the wake of a large four-engine cargo jet that had taken off 45 seconds earlier. Aeroflot said nine persons -- five passengers and four crew members -- died in the crash. Ryzhakov said Tashkent controllers violated a rule requiring a one-minute wait between planes and that the minimum waiting time has since been increased to two minutes.
The United States has no binding regulation on takeoff separation distances between jet aircraft, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Fred Farrar, but the Air Traffic Controllers Handbook contains a strong recommendation that controllers hold smaller aircraft three minutes before clearing them for takeoff behind a large jet. U.S. regulations require a three- minute hold for small private aircraft taking off behind a large jet. Another Yak40 crashed on June 19, 1987, in the southern seaport of Berdansk, killing six passengers and two crew members. The crew had tried to land in a driving rain with visibility below the permitted Soviet minimums. Ryzhakov said the pilots did not obtain current weather data from the airport tower and tried to land in the same direction that the wind was blowing. Normally, landings are made into the wind to minimize an aircraft's ground speed at touchdown.
In addition to the 55 accidents since 1958, western experts have compiled a partial list of Aeroflot accidents before then, and those confirmed by Ryzhakov suggest that the start-up of jet service was as much a problem for the Soviets as it was for British and American aviators. All three nations experienced accidents early in the jet years that resulted in improved flight testing and pilot training.Flying for the Masses
In 1956, Aeroflot initiated the world's first jet airline service, from Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia. The airplane was a Tu104, which had the same engines and essentially the same wings as the Soviet Tu16 bomber. The plane at first was outfitted in luxurious detail with about 40 seats. Soon afterward, the Khrushchev government decreed that the plane should be used for the masses, and the large chairs and couches were replaced with 100 seats.
From the start, Aeroflot had trouble with the new design, high speed and high cruising altitude of its jets. The first of at least a dozen Tu104 crashes occurred in June 1958, followed by another in October the same year, according to Serafim Yevsukov, a former Aeroflot navigator now living in Rockville.
He said investigators were unable to determine the cause of the first crash because the aircraft struck the ground at a near-vertical angle and was destroyed, but the second was caused by structural failure. "The radio operator reported that they were falling. He said goodbye to everybody and their families," said Yevsukov, who was assigned to Tu104 flights. "The captain's name was Garold Dmitrievich Kuznetzov. They were my friends; I flew with them."Catching Up to the West
As a result of the early Tu104 crashes, Aeroflot instituted a conservative program of flight testing under which new aircraft are flown for more than a year on cargo flights before they are used in passenger service.
In 1973, the crash of a three-engine Tu154 touched off a drive within Aeroflot to catch the West in simulator training. Until then, almost all flight training was done in airplanes, where practicing some emergencies is out of the question. According to Aeroflot's Victor Nagorniuk, most of the larger Soviet airports have a training center with simulators, some with visual screens to allow pilots to "see" when they descend below the clouds. Few of the simulators are equipped with motion devices that give pilots the sensation of movement, and much of Aeroflot's flight training is still conducted in aircraft.
Capt. Jeremy Butler, training chief for British Airways, said the Soviets "are about 15 or so years behind" the West in simulator training, which he said is cheaper and safer than training aboard aircraft. "There are many things you can do in a simulator that would be very dangerous to try in an airplane," he said.
In Ulyanovsk, Aeroflot training chief Nagorniuk showed a reporter the airline's two-year-old simulator complex, where senior pilots are taught to fly the most complicated planes.
"Our most serious problem is a lack of proficiency," he said, explaining that the airline spends about three months in qualifying a new captain on Aeroflot's widebody jet, the Il86.
By comparison, British Airways spends about one month to qualify new pilots on its Boeing 757. Delta Air Lines spends five weeks in training experienced pilots to fly the Boeing 767.
Even without the full motion of modern western simulators, the training at Ulyanovsk can seem real enough. During a session in a Tu154 simulator, the instructor directed the three-member crew -- including a visiting reporter pilot -- through the usual series of electrical malfunctions, engine fires and severe vibrations until it was time to attempt a landing in blowing snow and gusty surface winds.
As the plane began its slow turn toward the runway, a bright light flashed the Russian word pazhar, for fire. The pilot reached to shut off fuel from the burning engine, but the move prompted shouts from the Soviet flight engineer, whose job it is to handle power adjustments.
Later, after the "plane" touched down on the runway, the copilot and flight engineer complimented the visitor on his flying. Said the copilot, "I knew you'd make it if you just stayed calm."