So what do they have? No electricity on board,
all equipment down, no airport in sight, and only a half-forgotten runway deep in the Siberian
snow forest. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for a passenger plane landing, so
it’s a real miracle that everyone ended up safe and sound. And all of it thanks to…
a glass of water. Flight 516 was scheduled for September 7,
2010 as a regular flight from Udachny, Russia, to Moscow. The plane had been used for 20
years, but it had never suffered a single accident before, so the cabin crew had no
doubts the flight would be easy. Passengers got on board the plane; flight attendants
nonchalantly checked their boarding passes; everything went as usual. The first pilot
greeted everyone, and the flight began. The crew noticed the first signs of trouble
while the plane was over a small town of Usinsk in Siberia. The electronic equipment started
acting abnormally, but the pilots shrugged it off as a nuisance and continued the flight.
Air traffic control also neglected the problem. The aircraft captain, Yevgeny Novosyolov,
made an announcement for the passengers to remain calm: the plane was going through a
slight turbulence, and the flight could get a little rough for a short time. And it worked:
there was no commotion on board, the people trusted their pilot.
However, just 8 minutes after the announcement, the lights in the cabin went off. Only the
flight attendants paid any attention to it, believing everything was alright. In the cockpit,
though, the situation immediately became desperate. It wasn’t just the lights that shut down;
all the electronics on board suddenly went out, basically leaving the pilots to their
own devices. Without the equipment, the plane became crippled.
It was still operable, but all the navigational systems refused to work, the radio went offline,
and the fuel transfer pumps were also lost. This resulted in pilots having to navigate
using only their visuals, and the fuel that remained usable could only keep the plane
in the air for about 30 minutes. The situation was critical. The time was not enough for
the flight to get to the nearest airport even in otherwise perfect condition, but with all
the electronics gone, finding a good spot to land — and land there safely, for that
matter, — was next to impossible. The pilots had to use all their experience
and expertise to keep the plane steady. When the electrical failure occurred, the aircraft
was high above the clouds at 34,780 ft (10,600 m). The crew had to get below the curtain
to see the ground in case they needed to make an emergency landing, but also to turn on
the auxiliary generator that couldn’t function at high altitudes. Without any means to control
the angle at which they descended, they used an old and almost forgotten trick: a glass
of water put on the control panel. Taking turns, the pilots watched the water
in the glass and measured the angle of descent by its incline. This perfectly simple but
genius solution made it possible to get as far down as 9,840 ft (3,000 m), at which level
the pilots were finally able to try and switch on the generator. As misfortune would have
it, the attempt failed. No electricity still. The crew didn’t lose hope, though, and as
they could see the ground now, they scanned it for a place to land. As Captain Novosyolov
later said in an interview, it was a pure stroke of luck that they saw a landing strip
near the town of Izhma. It was an old airport that had been abandoned for a long time and
closed for any aircraft except helicopters. No radio, no air traffic control — nothing
was left there. Except one man: airport supervisor Sergey Sotnikov.
All in all, what happened in the next few minutes can only be described as a miracle.
You see, despite the abandonment of the airport, Sotnikov, of his own will, kept the runway
in a good condition for all those years. He cut down the emerging brush, swept away garbage,
and even drew the runway marking when it faded. That’s why the pilots of the unfortunate
plane were able to notice it in the first place — and you could only imagine their
surprise at this finding, because this airport was not even on the maps anymore.
However, the length of the runway in Izhma was only 4,347 ft (1,325 m), while this airplane
needs 6,560 ft (2,000 m) to land safely. Moreover, the speed at which the aircraft was going
down was much greater than safety instructions allowed: 236 mph (380 kph) against the safe
168 mph (270 kph). That was because the flaps could only be controlled via electrical switches.
All odds were against the cabin crew of the plane, but now they at least had a chance.
They didn’t need to land in the forest any longer, risking the lives of everyone on board,
so they used the sudden opportunity to their advantage.
It took the airplane three attempts at landing before it finally hit the runway. The first
two ended in the pilots returning the aircraft for another circuit. They assessed all the
risks and were very careful in their actions. As it was later noted in the official investigation,
this carefulness might have saved dozens of lives.
Before the last attempt at landing, all passengers and the cabin crew were transferred to the
front of the plane to be ready for an emergency evacuation. And there was still no panic!
As the crew recalls, everyone was calm and serious, absolutely understanding that something
big was going on, and their lives were at stake. People were waiting patiently in their
seats and didn’t make a sound. Finally, the pilots committed and brought
the plane down on the runway. The landing gear almost went ablaze from the friction,
but still it didn’t help the plane to stop before the runway ended. The aircraft ran
through all of it and rammed into the forest, going another 520 ft (160 m) before stopping
completely. The trees damaged the plane but also slowed down its advance, which was part
of the miracle. The machine came to a screeching, bumping halt. The emergency escape slides
were dispatched. And all 72 passengers along with all 9 crew members safely went down to
the ground. None of them were even slightly injured.
So, against all odds, with none of the plane’s electrical systems working, with no proper
runway to land on, with a speed that should have crashed the aircraft into the forest,
and without even the means to tell anyone they were having an emergency, the heroic
pilots still landed the plane and saved everyone’s lives.
The lucky passengers and crew were transported by helicopters to nearby Ukhta, from where
they went on to Moscow by another plane, and only one family decided they’d had enough
air travel for a lifetime and took a train instead. But whatever the passengers chose,
all of them signed a collective letter to the government to grant decorations to the
cabin crew. They all agreed that the professionalism they showed on board prevented the tragedy.
On October 8, 2010, a month after the event, Sergey Novosyolov and his co-pilot Andrey
Lamanov were made Heroes of the Russian Federation, while the rest of the cabin crew received
the Orders of Courage. Not forgotten was another hero without whose diligence and dedication
the safe landing of Flight 516 would’ve been impossible. Sergey Sotnikov, the supervisor
of the Izhma airport, received his decorations in February 2012.
But what happened to the airplane after it delivered its passengers and crew to safety?
At first the government wanted to put it out of use and dismantle it. The arguments were
that even if the aircraft was repaired after all the damage it received, it would be unable
to take off from the runway in Izhma. It was still too short for such a big and heavy airplane.
However, it was later decided that the plane could be rescued, after all. And indeed, in
March 2011, after all the immediately necessary repairs were finished, the airline owning
the plane managed to fly it to another station where it could be repaired completely.
After that, the aircraft continued performing flights for another 7 years. It received its
own nickname, Izhma, and in September 2018 it flew for the last time. Part of its old
crew from 2010 was on board, while the former captain met his old friend on the ground.
That was how, after almost 30 years of service, the heroic airplane said its goodbyes.
Do you know any other amazing stories of miracles in the air? Sound off in the comments below!
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