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Pilot safely lands disabled airliner after bird strike

Only 1 of 233 on board hurt seriously enough to need to be hospitalized

Published: August 15, 2019, 9:25pm
6 Photos
A Russian Ural Airlines A321 plane sits in field after an emergency landing Thursday. RU-RTR Russian Television
A Russian Ural Airlines A321 plane sits in field after an emergency landing Thursday. RU-RTR Russian Television Photo Gallery

MOSCOW — A Russian pilot whose passenger jet lost power in both engines after colliding with a flock of gulls shortly after takeoff Thursday managed to land in a cornfield smoothly enough that only one of the 233 people on board was hurt seriously enough to be hospitalized.

The quick thinking of the captain, 41-year-old Damir Yusupov, drew comparisons to the 2009 “miracle on the Hudson,” when Capt. Chesley Sullenberger safely ditched his plane in New York’s Hudson River after a bird strike disabled its engines.

Experts say the two near-tragedies could force aircraft makers and regulators to rethink engine designs so they can better withstand bird strikes, although technology to do that is not yet available.

Yusupov was hailed as a hero after the feat, and Russian television stations showed passengers standing in head-high corn next to the plane, hugging Yusupov and thanking him for saving their lives.

The Ural Airlines Airbus A321 was carrying 226 passengers and a crew of seven as it took off from Moscow’s Zhukovsky Airport en route to Simferopol in Crimea.

Russia’s Rosaviatsiya state aviation agency chief, Alexander Neradko, told reporters that the crew “made the only right decision” to immediately land the fully loaded plane with its wheels up after both of its engines malfunctioned.

“The crew has shown courage and professionalism and deserve the highest state awards,” he said, adding that the plane was fully loaded with 16 tons of fuel. “Just imagine what the consequences would be if the crew didn’t make the correct decision.”

The airline said Yusupov, the son of a helicopter pilot, is an experienced pilot who has logged over 3,000 flight hours. He worked as a lawyer before he changed course and joined a flight school when he was 32. A father of four, he has flown with Ural Airlines since his graduation in 2013. He became a captain last year.

Yusupov’s wife told Rossiya state television from their home in Yekaterinburg that he called her after landing, before she had heard about the emergency.

“He called me and said: ‘Everything is fine, everyone is alive,’ ” she said. “I asked what was it, and he said that birds hit the engine and we landed in a field. I was horrified and in panic and burst into tears.”

Russian officials immediately rushed to shower the pilot and crew with praise. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, hailed the pilots as “heroes” and said they will receive state awards. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opened a session of Cabinet by praising the crew and asking the transport minister to explain what happened.

The Emergencies Ministry said that 74 people asked for medical assistance after the incident. Health authorities said 23 people, including five children, were taken to the hospital, but all but one was released following check-ups.

Bird strikes on planes occur regularly around the world even though airports use bird distress signals, air cannons and other means to chase them from runways. Smaller birds are usually chopped up by turbine fan blades, but engines aren’t designed to withstand strikes from multiple birds or larger birds such as geese, said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Birds rarely disable both of a jet’s engines, but with two cases reported in a decade, jet makers may have to redesign future engines to better resist such a strike, Hansman said.

“That’s likely to be a discussion, just because the overall aviation system learns from incidents like this,” he said, adding that risks and probabilities will have to be weighed.

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John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the bird-vs.-engine problem has been under study for years, with no fix available at present. If engine components are made of heavier, stronger materials, there’s a risk that they could crack and break off, striking the fuselage and injuring passengers, he said.

“As far as the engine being able to digest the larger birds, we don’t have the technology,” he said. “We don’t have the metals. They really pushed the envelope where we are today.”