Reports surfaced early this morning that a Russian Sukhoi Su-33 was recently lost at sea, probably as early as Saturday this past weekend, though the actual date hasn’t apparently been publicized. TASS, Russia’s federally-owned news agency, stated that an investigation was underway into what exactly precipitated the loss of the Su-33 Flanker-D, the carrier-based variant of the Su-27 Flanker, but early indications show that the aircraft attempted to land twice on the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s rickety (and only) aircraft carrier, failing on both tries. On the second attempt, the Flanker apparently either missed the arresting wires or snapped a wire, and the aircraft wasn’t able to climb up for another go-around or a shore-based recovery. The pilot was promptly picked up by a rescue helicopter after ejecting and was returned to the Kuznetsov, safe and sound.
This is the second crash of a Russian military aircraft attached to Kuznetsov’s wing on its first ever combat deployment. The first was a MiG-29KUBR, the carrier-based variant of the Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum, on its maiden combat deployment. Russian news agencies also reported that the MiG crashed during a landing attempt after an arresting cable snapped, fuel starvation being the root cause of the aircraft’s inability to go-around for another try at recovering aboard the carrier. Only four MiG-29Ks were deployed aboard the Kuznetsov, depleting the air wing down to three with this loss. The Su-33 Flanker-D was due to be retired this year, but was saved from the chopping block, modernized, and then deployed aboard the Kuznetsov with the MiG-29K, the latter of which will eventually replace the former in Russian service altogether.
Of note is the fact that Russian fighters operating off the Kuznetsov don’t carry a full fuel load, as they need to be light enough to get into the air upon launching. This is because the Kuznetsov uses a ramp (ski jump) instead of catapults as American carriers do. Aircraft take off entirely under their own power and achieve a higher angle of attack thanks to the massive ramp at the end of the Kuznetsov’s bow. As Russia doesn’t maintain organic fuel tanking assets in the region, the Russian Navy instead decided to station their carrier as close to shore as possible, minimizing to an extent how far their fighters have to travel to recover aboard the ship. This doesn’t really speak very well for the Kuznetsov’s apparently highly cursed history. A plethora of maintenance issues, an almost innate inability to complete cruises without some sort of critical mechanical failure, and now, the loss of two of its already-small fighter complement, makes matters extremely difficult for Russian defense officials who’ve longed to be able to project power just as efficiently as American and British carriers have been able to since the mid-1900s.