The crew onboard the bomber “Samara” – tail number 21 – was preparing for takeoff at Dyagilevo Air Base in Ryazan southeast of Moscow. The air base serves as the training center for Russia’s strategic bomber force. Exact route of today’s flight is still unknown for the public.
The navigator and co-pilot go through the checklist while the captain is taxing down the runway preparing for full speed and take off. Then comes the smoke. And more smoke.
Take off preparations are immediately interrupted. The smoke comes out of the control panels from behind the screens where the navigator, radio operator and flight engineer are seated. The crew tries to put out the fire, but unsuccessfully. Finally the aircraft is evacuated and the airfield’s fire brigade manages to put out the fire that had spread to a larger part of the aircraft behind the cockpit.
See the photos from the fire damages.
Which flight route that was halted due to the fire this day is not known. BarentsObserver can however today reveal that this particular aircraft is a frequent visitor to the international airspace outside Norway and other countries in northwestern Europe.
The old strategic Tupolev-95 bombers have been regular visitors in the Arctic and along Norway’s coast since 2007 when they resumed patrol flights outside Russian airspace. Last year, Norwegian F-16 fighter jets were scrambled 41 times and identified 71 Russian military planes, including Tu-95 strategic nuke bombers.
Head of Communication at Norwegian Joint Headquarters, John Espen Lien, confirms to BarentsObserver that the Tu-95 with the tail number 21 has been identified several times by F-16 fighter jets scrambled from Bodø Main Air Station in northern Norway.
The F-16s take off as soon as surveillance and radar indications show an unidentified aircraft is approaching Norwegian airspace from the north. Main goal for the Norwegian pilots is to identify the foreign aircraft and show sovereignty. The Russian pilots have never violated Norwegian airspace in post-Cold War times.
But, what would have happened if the fire that broke out on the aircraft 21, “Samara” happened a few hours later? At high altitudes just outside Norwegian airspace in the north?
The Tu-95 strategic bombers are very old aircrafts; the first of the type entered service in 1956. The fire struck aircraft No. 21 was however recently repaired and upgraded, according to the newspaper Kommersant. Some sources says the Tu-95 pilots do not have the optimal amount of flight hours per year that is required to stay highly trained for operating such technically advanced aircrafts. Russia has according to Wikipedia 55 combat-ready Tu-95 aircrafts.
“We are not concerned,” says John Espen Lien asked about the safety regarding Russian strategic bombers flying outside the coast of Norway. He says the Norwegian Defence does not have any emergency plans in case of plane crash involving the Russian bombers.
“Aircraft accidents are falling within Norwegian aviation authority and the Joint Rescue Coordination Centres,” says John Espen Lien.
The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC), Northern Norway, located in Bodø says they don’t have any special procedure to handle an accident with a Russian bomber.
“In principle we have no special procedures for such a special situation,” says Tore Wangsfjord to BarentsObserver. He is Operative Rescue Commissioner at JRCC.
“However, we have procedures for incidents where military aircrafts or vessels are involved with respect to dangerous cargo, weapons etc. This is primarily to protect the rescue crew’s safety. We do also have a good cooperation with the (military) Joint Headquarters that in such situation would be a natural partner and advisor,” says Tore Wangsfjord.
Tu-95 aircrafts are designed to carry nuclear tipped cruise missiles. No information is available whether or not the bombers flying along Norway’s coast are actually carrying nuclear warheads. Several American media, however, reports that the two Russian Tu-95 bombers that in mid-February circled Guam air base in the Pacific were carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Kommersant compares the seriousness of the fire in the aircraft with the fire onboard the strategic nuclear powered submarine “Yekaterinburg” north of Murmansk in December 2011. The submarine had 64 nuclear warheads onboard when the fire happened.
Press-service of Russia’s Ministry of Defence issued a quick brief report shortly after the fire onboard bomber No. 21 on February 26. “During taxing preparing for a routine flight, smoke appeared in the technical compartment of the Tu-95MS plane. Fire brigade arrived at the scene promptly and put out the smoke. No crew members were injured.”
The newspaper Kommersant recently published photos proving that the fire was much more serious than the official statement indicated. The photos show a seriously burned control-compartment inside the aircraft and also a photo showing fire damage on the outer hull of the bomber. Two scenarios are can clearly be concluded from looking at the images; the fire was too serious to be put out by the crew itself; and, if at all possible to save the aircraft - a quick emergency landing would have been needed if this fire had started while the aircraft was on mission.
The best known aircraft accident involving a strategic bomber carrying nuclear weapons happened at Thule Air Base on Greenland in 1968. An American B-52 bomber crashed onto sea ice causing conventional explosives aboard to detonate and the nuclear warheads to rupture and disperse, which resulted in seriously radioactive contamination. The accident involved four hydrogen bombs.
Kommersant reports that the Russian Defence Commission investigating the February fire onboard the Tu-95 bomber in Dyagilevo Air Base in Ryazan recently concluded that the aircraft are so heavily damaged that there will be no sense to repair it.