MOSCOW (AP) – A Russian pilot was hailed as a hero Thursday for safely landing his passenger jet in a corn field after it collided with a flock of gulls seconds after takeoff, causing both engines to malfunction. While dozens of people on the plane sought medical assistance, only one was 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.
Russian television stations showed passengers standing in head-high corn next to the plane, hugging Yusupov and thanking him for saving their lives.
“It was quite a feat to keep the plane from stalling and quickly find a place to land,” Viktor Zabolotsky, a former test pilot, said in televised remarks.
The Ural Airlines A321 was carrying 226 passengers and a crew of seven as it took off Thursday 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. Yusupov 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. Russian 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 were 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 birds away from runways. Plane engines are designed to withstand occasional bird strikes but a collision with a flock of birds can result in serious trouble.
It’s rare for bird strikes to knock out both engines but pilots do prepare for this, said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He said the Ural Airlines pilot probably knew in advance that a farm field was near the airport.
With both engines down, the pilot is flying what essentially is a glider but still has control of the airplane, Hansman said. His toughest decision is where to try to land.
“When you’re in a glider, you’ve got a certain amount of altitude,” he said. “You have to make the judgment what’s the best place I can fly with the amount of energy I have left because I’m not getting any more from the engine.”
Some Russian media reports suggested the birds could have been drawn to Zhukovsky Airport by an unauthorized garbage dump nearby, but there was no immediate confirmation of the claim.
On Jan. 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese after taking off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and both of its engines shut down. The crew made an emergency landing in the Hudson River along midtown Manhattan and all 155 people aboard survived despite landing in very cold water.
The so-called “miracle on the Hudson” was immortalized in the Hollywood movie “Sully,” based on the autobiography of Sullenberger and starring Tom Hanks.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.