A Russian military court acquitted and reinstated a Su-35 fighter pilot who accidentally shot down another fighter pilot flying a Su-30SM2 during dogfight training.
The ground crew did not disengage the former’s onboard 30-millimeter cannon, while the aircraft’s user manual and safety procedures were impractical, which led him to him making a mistake, an accident investigation revealed.
This led to the cannon releasing 25 rounds instead of activating an alert on the screen that simulated weapons release. The incident took place on September 22, 2020, near the Khotilovo air base in the Tver region.
The Main Military Directorate of the ICR cleared Major Vasily Savelyev, the commander of the 790th Fighter Aviation Regiment at the time. He was being tried under Article 351 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
A report in Kommersant also noted that both the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the jets’ manufacturer JSC Sukhoi, “decided to change the methodology of the exercises to make them as safe as possible for people and equipment.”
“Obsolete instructions from the Ministry of Defense and the manufacturer of the Flight Operations Manual (RLE) of the Sukhoi family of fighters prevented military pilots from full training,” the report added.
How Did It Happen?
During the “training battle with a maneuverable air target at medium and high altitudes,” Major Savelyev flying the Su-35, was initially being pursued and had been losing the dogfight to the Su-30.
But then he turned the tables and brought his plane behind the Su-30 for a shootdown. However, upon pressing the button, the GSh-30-1 30mm cannon shot real rounds into the Su-30SM2.
“Only a photographic fixation of a combat defeat should have occurred,” Kommersant said. He stopped firing on the fifth shot, despite the cannon having a blazing rate of fire of 25 rounds a second. But the five shells were enough to disable the target aircraft, and both the pilots ejected while the jet crashed into the forest.
A Case Against Friendly Fire & Impractical Safety Instructions
The investigation by the garrison called his action “inattentive, arrogant and careless (that) created a real threat to the life and health of the pilots…undermined the combat readiness of the unit,” and even “harmed the security of the state in the field of defense, expressed in the loss of an aircraft.”
The charge said he violated the “use of the built-in cannon mount against an air target” of the “Combat use” section of the Su-35 RLE. The document required Savelyev to turn off the “Main” switch, which supplies power to the electrical circuits of weapons pylons and mounts carrying bombs, missiles, and guns.
But a subsequent direction in the RLE is what Savelyev and his lawyers particularly challenged. Just before firing “(the pilot should) direct the aircraft in a safe direction, press the “Fire” trigger all the way and make sure that instead of firing, the photocontrol device turns on.
Savelyev contended that the plane had been taken off combat duty a month before the exercise. Thus, before the flight, he was right to assume that his cannon had at least been brought to a “non-combat position,” the Kommersant report further said.
Ground Crew Did Not Disable Cannon
Moreover, the flight operation and maintenance log books signed by ground crew personnel, which included an ensign technician and a Senior Lieutenant, indicated that the plane did not have armament on board.
But a probe showed that the cannon was not “blocked on the ground.” Kommersant quoted a source who said that the ammunition, with 250 rounds, is not removed even during exercises. This is because, during operations, when the aircraft is being prepared for combat, the crew is spared the tedious effort of loading cannon ammunition.
“But for some reason, representatives of the technical services forgot to open the electric contactor of the additional fuse of the gun and pull the shell tape out of the breach,” the report added.
“Breech” means the ammunition feed at the rear of an automatic weapon that swallows the belt. Thus removing the “tape” would have prevented the rounds from entering the chamber, leading to a sort of jam.
Savelyev argued in court that he had to open fire quickly and did not have time to follow the RLE procedure. This is because the exercise was practiced for a realistic combat situation, and an actual war would not allow time for running a safety check in the middle of combat.
The court willingly accepted this line of argument, eventually leading to the case against him being dismissed. “(Thus) by his actions, he only exacerbated the consequences of the mistakes made on earth,” the report added.