It was just a regular set of training flights on a Friday night.
An Antonov An‑26 transport aircraft of Ukraine’s 203rd Training Aviation Brigade — side number 76 — had been carrying out its sixth air mission on that day, on Sept. 25.
Twenty cadets of Kharkiv Air Force Institute guided by seven flight officers were practicing their skills by assisting the lead pilot and working with training navigation tools. The aircraft was getting closer to the airfield of Chuhuiv, some 30 kilometers from Kharkiv.
But at 8:38 p. m. local time, the crew reported an unusual pressure decrease in the left engine. Ground control ordered to abort the mission. In a minute, the aircraft was given the green light for landing. The crew checked the airplane’s chassis and wing flaps and started dropping altitude.
Vyacheslav Zolochevsky, a third-year flight navigation cadet, was sitting just next to the cockpit. He did not notice anything strange about the flight — until he suddenly got hit on the head and lost consciousness.
He woke up in pain, suffocating in unbearable heat. The plane was burning.
At 8:45 p. m., the aircraft abruptly lost its altitude and crashed in a field next to a local highway, just 1.5 kilometers from the airfield, bursting into blood-red flames on the horizon. In a split second, the debris turned into a killing inferno, leaving no chances for anyone trapped inside.
But Zolochevsky was lucky — a piece of the wrecked fuselage was covering him, protecting from the fire. He managed to crawl out of the burning debris and saw a burning body of his classmate.
“It felt like a computer game episode,” he recalled later, still in shock. “I tried to put the fire down, and then some people came and did this.”
He passed out and came around again only in a military hospital in Kharkiv.
The cadet burst into tears when doctors told him that his mate he tried to save, cadet Vitaliy Vilkhoviy, died in hospital.
Twenty-year-old Zolochevsky was the only survivor of the An‑26 crash near Chuhuiv. Twenty-five Air Force officers and young cadets were killed at the scene, their bodies were scorched beyond recognition.
The deadly crash has become yet another wake-up call: Ukraine’s Air Force, which still operates decades-old Soviet aircraft, is becoming critically obsolete.
Once again, questions started being asked regarding the quality of aircraft maintenance in Ukraine — and possible corruption involved.
Despite a generous defense budget, which is spent without transparency, the country’s defense falls chronically short of money to modernize the aircraft arsenal, and the leadership hasn’t even started a critically needed rearming program.
Decades in service
A pile of scorched metal debris and a tail fragment was all that was left in on the crash scene.
Sept. 26 was declared the national day of mourning for the victims.
According to early official reports, the crash could be caused by an “unpredictable malfunction,” of one of the left engine’s sensors. Shortly following the tragedy, Defense Minister Andriy Taran said the aircraft probably had hit the ground with its wing.
The incident aftermath has made the broad public in Ukraine realize how old and negligent the nation’s military air fleet is.
The Antonov aeronautics company said on Sept. 29 that Ukrainian civilian and military services currently operate 53 aircraft of the An‑26 family, the oldest among them being over 48 years old and the youngest — 35 years old.
Produced in 1977, the ill-fated An‑26 had been in service for over 43 years.
According to its operational history, it had made nearly 5,770 flights, spending a total of 5,985 hours in the air, while this family of aircraft is normally expected to sustain 20,000 operational hours. The plane’s airframe saw two major overhauls — in 1987 and 1996 — and its service durability was expected to last until June 21, 2022.
Both of its AI‑24BT engines were in a workable condition, according to the military. The left (produced in 1977) and the right (produced in1974) engines recently went through maintenance and their lifespans were extended until June 2021 and October 2020, respectively.
Besides, the landing was taking place in fine weather and at a properly operated airfield. The aircraft’s commander Major Bohdan Kyshenya had a record of over 700 flying hours, including on An‑26s and at the Chuhuiv airfield, which was in his hometown.
Nothing indicated an obvious reason behind the crash — except for the fact that the crew reported the left engine pressure loss, which was deemed as presumably a malfunction of torque sensors.
On Sept. 28, journalist Yuriy Butusov published what he claimed to be an expert report on the fatal aircraft components made recently at Antonov.
According to the document, the aircraft’s left engine had worked 589 hours above the norm without a major overhaul required by Soviet-time instructions. It saw its latest in-depth overhaul as far back as in 1990. But in June 2020, specialists at aerospace firm Motor Sich allegedly extended its lifespan by one more year without a full overhaul.
In this case, the engine would have worked 800 hours above the norm without a full repair, the journalist claimed.
Eventually, according to Butusov, the extremely worn-out engine could malfunction in a key moment of landing, and the crew wasn’t able to win control back.
The journalist accused the country’s Defense Ministry of cutting corners on contracts to maintain and repair military aircraft. He said the ministry preferred to simply formally extend the operational lives of equipment instead of financing full-fledged overhauls required by instructions.
“There’s nothing accidental when it comes to the exploitation of machinery,” Butusov said on Sept. 28.
“It is obvious that the (crash) was directly caused by the aircraft’s technical condition… Twenty-six Ukrainian airmen were killed in many ways due to indifference, unprofessional organization, devil-may-care attitude, and the lack of financing even on basic safety.”
Upon that, on Sept. 26, the Nashi Hroshi investigative media reported, referring to data from the e-procurement system Prozorro, that the fatal An‑26 was among nine aircraft designated on July 28 to the extension of service life by Oct. 1, 2020.
Moreover, the journalists said, the central Air Force Command in the city of Vinnytsia (referred to as military unit A2015) never made payments to the Antonov Company under the contract.
The Air Force Command dismissed all accusations saying that the aircraft’s lifespan had already been successfully extended in 2020 by two more years by Antonov Company.
“Therefore, the allegation regarding (the aircraft’s) unpreparedness for flights and it being planned for repairs in the nearest time is not true,” the military stated on Sept. 26.
The military, however, hasn’t commented on the serviceability status of engines as of late Sept. 30.
Meanwhile, military experts continue analyzing the aircraft’s flight data recorders, which are expected to be studied out completely by “the end of the week.”
“The inquiry contemplates several accounts of events,” as OIeh Uruskiy, Ukraine’s vice prime minister for strategic industries, said late on Sept. 30.
“Nonetheless, it becomes clear that technical issues that were the case were supplemented by various human factor aspects.”
If the investigation discovers the engine’s overuse as at least one of the fatal factors, it will signal about the critical situation of Ukraine’s air force.
According to the military command, much of the country’s air fleet reaches its operational limits as soon as in 2025–2030, despite attempts to maintain and regularly repair it.
In May, the Air Force proposed a concept envisaging spending a total of nearly $12 billion within the next 15 years on purchasing and starting to exploit a whole range of newly-produced aircraft of all types, including at least $1.2 billion on military transport components.
This project’s worth is over 38 times the size of Ukraine’s Air Force budget in 2019 alone.
The concept was immediately reclaimed from public access by the order of the General Staff.
Despite the critical state of the air fleet, the leadership has not launched a full-fledged air force rearmament program. The only aircraft type that is referred to for potential purchase is Brazilian-made Embraer EMB314 Super Tucano light attack-training aircraft.
In any case, the investigation’s result, if carried out properly, will speak volumes about what must be changed in Ukrainian military aviation.
“The investigation of the accident is a procedure that is not aiming to point a finger at and/or find someone guilty,” Janne Uusmaa, an Estonian commercial pilot with vast experience with Boeing aircraft, told the Kyiv Post.
“It is to find what happened, why it happened, and how can it be prevented from happening again. If the investigation shows that the accident is a result of clear criminal negligence, then and only then should a criminal investigation be started.”
But from the get-go, Uusmaa said that it wasn’t a good idea to gather so many cadets on one plane.
“It needs to be asked, could they have split the group and have four flights with a group of five or something like that? In the future, this might prove to be more appropriate. Again, could this training have been conducted with a simulator? Or partially with a simulator and/or on aircraft, on the ground and some part in the flight?” Uusmaa said.
The expert believes that this type of training is still risky and requires risk mitigation procedures that are appropriate to the type of training conducted.
“Was this thought out properly?” he said. “For future reference, there are certainly things that could be done differently.”
Meanwhile, behind the cold numbers and statistics about the tragedy presented by the investigation, there are almost 30 families whose young relatives died in the crash.
Just two of those families were pardoned from woe: the family of cadet Vyacheslav Zolochevsky, the only lucky survivor, who was reported to be quickly recovering from injuries in hospital.
There was also another cadet who didn’t board the plane at the last moment: student Oleksandr Kharchenko was disqualified from the flight mission on that day.
But for the family of 20-year-old cadet Oleksandr Skochkov, the pain is immense.
Just six years before his death, his father, Captain Ihor Sckochkov, also a flight navigator with the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade, was killed in the air crash when Russian-backed militants downed a Ukrainian transporter Ilyushin Il‑76MD in the sky over the Luhansk Airport in the Donbas in June 2014.
Just like Oleksandr, all cadets were between 19 and 21 years old that died during the Oct. 26 tragedy.
Even most of the senior military personnel, including flight commander Major Bohdan Kyshenya, were no older than 30.
One of the officers, Senior Lieutenant Ashraf Msuya, was well-known in any military unit he served in. A Kharkiv Air Force school graduate, he was of Tanzanian origins and he loved aviation with passion.
According to his friends, he expected to be promoted to the rank of captain in early December. And he had a lifelong goal of becoming Ukraine’s first black military general.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter