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2 Russian jets collide, crash in air show training

MOSCOW — Two Russian air force jets rehearsing aerobatic maneuvers collided Sunday near Moscow, killing one stunt pilot and sending one fighter crashing into nearby vacation homes, a military official said.

The Su-27 fighters were part of the elite Russian Knights flying group preparing to perform at the MAKS-2009 air show, the largest and most important showcase for Russia's aerospace industry.

The jets collided near Zhukovsky airfield, east of Moscow, where the air show opens Tuesday.

Air force spokesman Lt. Col. Vladimir Drik said all three pilots involved ejected. He said rescuers recovered two in satisfactory condition but the third was killed.

The Kremlin identified the dead pilot as Col. Igor Tkachenko, commander of the Russian Knights.

The Russian Knights' Web site said Tkachenko was 45, was married with a son and daughter, and had been an aerobatics pilot since 1989 with more than 1,500 hours' experience flying attack aircraft.

One jet crashed into a row of houses near the airfield, setting three ablaze and scattering debris over a wide area. The RIA-Novosti news agency said one woman was seriously wounded and up to four other people on the ground may have been injured.

Russian TV footage showed wreckage from the other jet lying in an unpopulated field.

The Russian Knights, formed in 1991, have suffered tragedy before. In December 1995, three of its Su-27 jets crashed into a Vietnamese mountainside in rough weather as they were returning to Russia from an air show in Malaysia. Four pilots died.

More generally, Russian air force jets have suffered a series of mishaps attributed to the Soviet-era age and poor maintenance of their airplanes.

Earlier this year, officials grounded the air force's entire fleet of Su-24 swing-wing attack aircraft after two crashes in three days.

Two crashes of MiG-29 fighter jets in 2008 led to that model's temporary grounding as well. Subsequent inspections determined that many were in dangerous shape, either through age or ill repair, and had to be scrapped.

Also Sunday, a Yak-52 single-propeller aircraft crashed in the Kaluga region south of Moscow. Russian broadcasters NTV reported that one of two people killed in that crash was the son of a former Russian Knights pilot.