In the middle of the secret arrangements for This is your Life, there was a sad visit to the Red Arrows at Cranwell in August 1996. The Leader of the Russian Knights aerobatic display team, Lieutenant Colonel Alexsander Vladimirovich Lichkun and three other Russian pilots re-visited the Red Arrows by invitation of Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, the Chief of the Air Staff. This time they arrived by road having first flown more comfortably and quietly by British Airways Boeing 767 from Moscow to Heathrow.
Accompanying the Squadron Commander were: Colonel Vladimir Pavlovich Basov, the very first Leader of the Russian Knights and now a staff officer at the Russian Ministry of Defence in Moscow; Lt Col Sergei Yureivich Ganichev, another of the original Russian Knights and now on the staff of the Aviation Display Centre; and Lt Col Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kovalskiy, deputy Leader of the present Russian Knights.
"The purpose of our visit," Colonel Basov told me, "apart from our wish to meet the Red Arrows again, is to learn about sponsorship, public relations and the operational planning that goes on behind the scenes, and to see for ourselves how the Red Arrows work in an operational environment. We readily admit that we can learn much from the world's premier aerobatic display team. Not how to fly," he added with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "but how to sell ourselves to the public."
In the four years following the initial Russian Knights visit to Scampton in 1991, the team had travelled widely and their fame grew amongst the international aviation fraternity but little news about their activities was published in the West. The Knights had given displays in America, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and Slovakia, as well as within the Russian Federation and the newly-independent former Soviet republics, but they had not re-visited the United Kingdom.
Their most recent performances had been in December 1995 at Langkawi, Malaysia, where they had once again met up with the Red Arrows. Sadly, on the way home from Langkawi, three of their mighty Sukhoi-27s, one with two pilots on board, flew into the ground near the Russian Naval Aviation Base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam where they were scheduled to make a refuelling stop. All four pilots, Colonel Boris Grigoriev, and Majors Aleksander Syrovoi, Nikolai Kordukov and Nikolai Gretchanov, were killed. Colonel Basov was keen to tell me the Russian Knights' version of the story of the accident because he believed the real facts had been hushed up to protect a senior officer. He and I sat outside the Red Arrows' crew room in a pleasant patio area drinking coffee, while he narrated an horrendous story.
After departing from Langkawi for the long trek back to their base at Kubinka, a few kilometres to the west of Moscow, their first scheduled landing was to be at Cam Ranh Bay for refuelling. Unlike the way the Red Arrows do things, five of the Su-27s had been transiting in close company with their Il-76 transport aircraft. The Red Arrows rarely transit in formation with their Hercules support aircraft although occasionally, for PR purposes, they will make a flypast with their Hercules, as they did at Cape Town in 1995.
There were a couple of very good reasons why the Sukhois had to stay close to their support aircraft. The Su-27s had no navigational aids or radios on board that met the international air traffic control requirements for flying in airways. These requirements are mandatory because the only way the ground controllers can guarantee safe separation between aircraft in airways is when all aircraft can maintain their assigned course to a high degree of accuracy and when they have the appropriate equipment to maintain two-way radio contact with the controllers. However, embarrassing though it was, the Russians had become used to this and so their standard practice when flying outside Russia was to remain close to the Ilyushin until they were able to proceed independently for landing once they were within sight of their destination.
For much of the flight from Malaysia the six aircraft flew at about 35,000 feet, well above the weather. All the pilots were relaxed and looking forward to getting home in a few days. As they approached Cam Ranh Bay airfield, the pilots were alarmed to see that the clouds beneath them were getting thicker and the tops were getting higher. That deterioration had not been forecast. A few years earlier even that would not have been a problem because Cam Ranh Bay had been home for several squadrons of the Soviet Navy's TU-95 long-range bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and the airfield had been well equipped with navigational aids that the Sukhois and Ilyushin could use. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, there had been no urgent operational need to maintain the base in Vietnam and so it had been allowed to fall into disrepair and almost all the radio navigational aids were out of commission for one reason or another.
The Ilyushin crew were in radio contact with the ground controllers at Cam Ranh Bay and they were told that the weather at the airfield was quite reasonable. The lowest cloud over the airfield was said to be about 1,000 metres and the horizontal visibility was fine. The Captain of the Ilyushin relayed the weather conditions to the Sukhois. Because there were high mountains quite close to their destination, it was agreed that the Sukhois would remain in close formation with the Ilyushin as they descended through the cloud until they came into good visual contact with the ground beneath. The Sukhois closed up, three on the starboard, including the two-seat Sukhoi 27UB, and two on the port side of the Ilyushin. Shortly after starting the descent from high level the formation went into thick layers of medium level cloud and it became very turbulent. The Sukhoi pilots had to work hard to maintain position
The Ilyushin captain had failed to pass on to the Russian Knights one crucial piece of information: that there was no serviceable radar equipment at the airfield. This meant that the air traffic controllers had no idea where the aircraft were and they were relying on the Ilyushin's position reports. In fact, the only aid on the ground that was working was the middle marker radio beacon, part of the Instrument Landing System; that is only of any value when the aircraft is lined up with the runway on final approach to a landing. Had the Sukhoi pilots known this they might have decided against following the Ilyushin.
Colonel Basov told me that the Ilyushin captain positioned his aircraft overhead the airfield as accurately as he could and then initiated a 'tear drop' descent pattern. This was rather like a pattern called a QGH that the RAF used to use 30 or 40 years ago. (QGH was shorthand for a controlled descent through cloud.) To carry out a QGH the ground controller would take frequent bearings on his radio direction finding equipment and tell the aircraft what headings to fly to home to the airfield. When the aircraft passed through the overhead, the bearings indicated on the direction finder would fluctuate rapidly as the aircraft passed through the so-called 'cone of silence'. The aircraft would then be instructed to descend on a known safe heading until it was down to half its original height plus two thousand feet. It would then turn inbound onto a reciprocal heading towards the airfield, descending to a specified minimum safe height at or above which the ground should become visible. If the ground was not visible at that minimum height, the approach would be aborted and the aircraft would climb away to try something else.
The problem for the Russians was that the ground controllers at Cam Ranh Bay did not have any serviceable direction finding equipment so the Ilyushin captain had to estimate his position and start the procedure when he thought he was overhead, a sort of do-it-yourself QGH which was both illegal and foolhardy. Unfortunately, for reasons which never became clear to Colonel Basov, the formation was actually about 30 kilometres from the airfield's overhead when they started descending and the starboard turn put very high ground between the aircraft and the airfield. During the latter stages of that fateful descent through the thick turbulent cloud, one after the other in quick succession, the two outermost aircraft on the starboard wing struck the ground and exploded on impact.
"The pilot of the third and last remaining Sukhoi on the starboard side, the one nearest the Il-76, was heard on the radio starting to say that he was ejecting, but he never got past the first syllable before he also crashed into the ground," said Colonel Basov. "At that point our Il-76 rolled out of the turn and initiated a maximum rate climb. I estimate that its starboard wing tip could have been no more than one or two metres from the ground."
Try to imagine what it must have been like for the two Sukhoi pilots on the port side of the Ilyushin. They knew that three aircraft had just struck the side of the mountain, therefore they and the Ilyushin were perilously close to it. Suddenly the Ilyushin started to roll towards them; the Sukhoi pilots realised immediately that if they did not push down on their control columns the Ilyushin would collide with them. On the other hand if they did push down, thereby making their own aircraft descend, they would almost certainly hit the ground themselves. It was all very disorientating especially as visibility in the thick cloud was so poor that they could barely see the full wing span of the huge Ilyushin.
Lichkun and Kovalskiy, the pilots of the two Su-27s in very close formation on the port wing, did what any professional pilots would do in that situation: they independently broke out of the formation in a steep left hand climbing turn on full power and immediately reverted to flying on instruments. Those two pilots needed every ounce of their skill to retain control of their aircraft and not become totally and fatally disorientated. Lesser pilots may well have collided with the port wing of the transport aircraft, which would have caused the total destruction of all three aircraft.
Fortunately Lichkun and Kovalskiy came out of the cloud almost immediately and saw open ground in front of them - and an airfield! Without knowing which airfield it was, and without receiving any reply to their radio calls, they made a visual circuit of the airfield and landed a few minutes later in a state of considerable shock. It turned out to be a small civil airport that used a different radio band which was why they had received no reply to their radio transmissions. As soon as they climbed out of their aircraft they were promptly arrested by Vietnamese officials for landing without permission. They were held in custody, incommunicado, while the civil authorities sought instructions from their own Vietnamese military command. Communications being what they were between Vietnam and Russia, it was 36 hours before the Vietnamese were able to establish where the two Sukhois had come from.
Meanwhile the Ilyushin, having somehow found a safe area to descend below cloud, had landed safely at Cam Ranh Bay some considerable time after the other Sukhois had crashed. No doubt the Ilyushin crew and its passengers were also in an advanced state of shock. They knew three aircraft had crashed but they had no information about the other two and assumed they too must have crashed. It never, apparently, occurred to them that they might have landed safely at another airfield. The two surviving Sukhoi pilots were eventually taken to Cam Ranh Bay by road. Because of the remoteness of the crash sites, the bodies of the four dead pilots were not recovered for 14 days after the accident and it was several more days after that before they were repatriated to Russia. Imagine the feelings of the next-of-kin.
According to Colonel Basov, there was no official inquiry into the tragedy because the captain of the Ilyushin had been ordered to make the fatal descent through cloud against his better judgement by a high-ranking general travelling as a passenger. Quite what prompted the general to give the fatal order was never established but majors in the Russian Air Force, having been brought up the Soviet way, would not question the orders of a much senior officer. In the RAF, an air marshal flying as a passenger would not question the actions of the captain of his aircraft, whatever his or her rank - or at least I hope he would not.