How a Child in the cockpit of an Aeroflot flight just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union brought down an Airbus
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the official State-owned airline Aeroflot began a difficult transition to Western-style competitive business model. Aeroflot had a justifiably earned reputation for poor safety, crew standards, maintenance, and unreliable equipment. The decision to begin a migration to Western aircraft until more modern Russian-designed and manufactured equipment could eventually compete.
Any transition to new technology and procedures are time-consuming, requiring man-hours and experience. When this is not done well, accidents happen. In an emergency situation, especially when there is confusion and distraction, even the most experienced plots can fall back on previous experience and knowledge. This is what occurred on March 23, 1994 aboard Aeroflot Flight 593, an Airbus A310 flying from Moscow to Hong Kong.
Back in 1991, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Aeroflot leased 5 Airbus A310 airliners. Flight 593’s pilot was Andrey Danilov with a total of 950 hours in the Airbus 310; Co-Pilot Igor Piskaryov had significant time and experience as well but less than 500 hours total flying Airbus aircraft.
It’s a well known fact that after September 11th, access to the cockpit is extremely restricted–typically to only the pilots, aircrew jumpseating, and flight attendants if there is a specific reason to enter. Prior to those events, rules were occasionally more lax. Most western nations banned visitors to the cockpit during flight but occasionally a guest would be permitted to see the cockpit, especially on some lesser regulated carriers. Additionally, most airlines followed a “Sterile Cockpit” Rule that eliminates distractions to the flight crew through conversation or interruptions that are not directly related to piloting the aircraft. While strictly enforced on takeoff and landing phases, it is expected a basic level of crew discipline and decorum is enforced at all times.
At the time, the culture at Aeroflot was much more lax. On March 23, 1994, Relief Pilot Yaroslav Kudrinsky brought his two children, son Eldar and daughter Yana into the cockpit. He invited Eldar to sit in the left hand seat and hold the control column. Eldar was warned not to touch anything else. He did what many kids would do. He didn’t listen to his parents. He inadvertently hit the autopilot switch and disengaged the roll component of the autopilot. The jet immediately began to bank abruptly. Co-pilot Piskaryov tried to correct. Eldar was ordered to get out of the seat, but things went wrong very quickly. Both pilots were used to the audible alarm signals used in Russian-made aircraft, the Airbus instead used warning lights to warn of malfunctions or important alerts. Time wasted in reacting to the unfamiliar alerts allowed the aircraft to go into a series of climbs and then dives, the last one being a fatal one, resulting in a crash with loss of all passengers and crew 75 totals.
Confusion aboard the ill-fated Aeroflot flight
In the moments leading up to the crash, the crew worked frantically at deciding what was happening and how to disengage the problem. Their delay caused precious time and lost altitude. Cockpit conversations show that the confusion over what had happened, getting Eldar out of the left hand seat, and figuring out how to correct the oscillations all wasted valuable recovery time.
Flight 593 demonstrated how a lack of following established procedures, and a serious lack of judgement can lead to disaster. Under severe stress, humans fall back on habits and muscle memory. The seconds lost in translating old reactions to newly learned ones are multiplied many times over. When you add in distractions caused by the presence of unfamiliar persons in close proximity to the emergency (such as the two children and violating the most basic safety procedures) and confusion, the situation isn’t likely to end well. It was an accident that could have easily been avoided. A visit by the child when the jet was at the gate could have both avoided an incident and checked the box for a visit to see the cockpit.
Aeroflot in 2019 is not the “Aero-flop” of the 1970’s.
Aeroflot today is a far cry from the airline that flew during the Soviet Union and led to the accident of flight 593. Aeroflot spent much of the 90s refreshing its fleet and adapting to Western standards. The airline’s safety record has improved. Prior to the end of the Soviet Union, the State-owned airline was derided as “Aero-flop”, the inefficient, crude domestically manufactured aircraft and poor safety and maintenance earned the criticism. They were amongst the most dangerous airlines in the world. Over the past 15 years, they underwent a modernization program. Today they fly a mostly-western fleet of Boeing 777, 737NG, and some of the latest Airbus narrow-body and wide-body aircraft. The have modern maintenance procedures and crew training in line with the rest of the world. While the crash landing of the Sukoi Superjet 100 in 2019 was a setback, their operation is regarded as modern. Aeroflot is a member of the SkyTeam world alliance, joining the ranks of Delta, Korean Air, and KLM.