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Russia: Latest Crash Could Ground Advanced Warplane

Moscow, 30 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Last week began with a series of troubling air crashes, and ended with the air disaster in Indonesia.

A series of military-related crashes - including the crash of a Stealth fighter - led U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen to ground, for 24 hours, all military air missions, in order to assess flight-and-safety procedures.

Among the hardware falling from the sky was one of Russia's most advanced warplanes: the MiG-31, all-weather fighter/interceptor. One of the aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff on a regular flight near Tver.

Our military affairs correspondent in Moscow reports the MiG-31 has already become Russia's most accident-prone aircraft, and Air Force Commander Colonel-General Viktor Prudnikov has spoken before - and is speaking now - of grounding the fighter.

The incident has raised questions about the lack of training, and the diminished skills of Russian pilots.

Prudnikov says MiG-31 pilots should log at least 100 hours of air-time annually in order to fly safely. But, says Prudnikov, this would require an eight-fold increase in the funds allocated for flight-training and maintenance in his cash-strapped force.

Last years, pilots who fly less-advanced aircraft logged as little as 45 hours air-training time. And, and pilots of advanced fighters logged even less, or just 19 hours - about a fifth of what Prudnikov says they need.

Moreover, according to the Defense Ministry daily Krasnaya Zvezda -more than half the pilots who have graduated from flight schools over the past few years - have not flown any flight-training missions at all, since joining their assigned units.