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295 feet to save 233 lives Why the Russian cornfield landing was even harder to pull off than ‘the miracle on the Hudson’

Source: Meduza
Galina Yeliseyeva / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On the morning of August 15, pilots Damir Yusupov and Georgy Murzin landed an Airbus A321 jet in a cornfield shortly after taking off from the Zhukovsky airport outside Moscow. All of the airplane’s passengers and crewmembers survived, spurring comparisons between this Ural Airlines landing and the 2009 incident in which American pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to land a jet on the Hudson River in New York City. In fact, Yusupov and Murzin faced an even more complex and dangerous task: Their plane was flying much lower than Sullenberger’s, and they had much less time to plan their emergency landing.

What usually happens when an airplane’s engines fail?

Modern jets can remain airborne even when their engines fail, but the distance they can cover depends on their altitude and velocity at the moment the engines turn off. The higher an airplane’s altitude, the longer it can glide through the air before it hits the ground.

In practice, an airplane without working engines becomes a glider, and flying it becomes a physics problem. Of course, modern commercial airliners are not the best choice of vehicle for a glider, but if flown correctly, they can travel for many miles without any engine thrust. To achieve that flight distance, pilots must maintain an optimal velocity known as the Green Dot Speed as well as an optimal angle of descent.

It is extremely rare for an airplane to lose all of its engine power. If such an incident occurs at a high altitude (usually due to inadequate fuel supplies), then the probability of a safe landing is quite good.

In 1993, an A330 liner owned by the Canadian airline Air Transat ran out of fuel following a leak. The plane was located above the Atlantic Ocean at the time. After its engines shut down, the plane glided for more than 140 kilometers (87 miles) and landed safely in the Azores archipelago.

In 1983, a Boeing 767 from Air Canada also ran out of fuel, this time at an altitude of 12 kilometers (almost 7.5 miles). It was unable to reach the Winnipeg International Airport, which was 190 kilometers (118 miles) away. Even though nearly all of the airplane’s appliances shut down, its pilots were able to land it on a former air force base that had been reconstructed as an auto racing track. The plane glided for approximately 160 kilometers (99 miles) without working engines.

However, it is far more difficult to solve these physics problems when a plane’s engines stop working at low altitude, usually due to mechanical problems or a collision with birds. The latter, of course, is what caused the Ural Airlines airplane’s engines to malfunction. In such cases, pilots may not have enough height that they can “convert” to gliding distance to reach a runway. The pilots’ instructions for the A320 family of Airbus models, which includes the A319 and A321, indicate that the planes can glide up to 2.2 nautical miles (2.5 miles) while descending 1,000 feet.

It was his plane’s insufficient altitude that prompted Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to land his A320 in the Hudson River rather than one of New York or New Jersey’s many airports after the airplane’s engines stopped. Sullenberger’s airplane collided with a flock of geese at an altitude of about 930 meters (3,050 feet).

A number of similar incidents have ended in tragedy. For example, in 1985, a Tu-134 owned by Aeroflot was unable to find a safe place to land when its engines failed after a takeoff from Minsk. The plane landed in a forest, killing 58 of the 80 people on board. In 1988, a Boeing 737 run by Ethiopian Airlines collided with a group of pigeons immediately after takeoff and attempted to complete an emergency landing on hilly terrain. Thirty-five of the 104 passengers and crewmembers on board were killed.

Did the Russian Airbus’s crew act correctly, or did they have other options?

There were no other options. Judging by a video one of the plane’s passengers took during takeoff, the Airbus A321 collided with a group of birds immediately after losing contact with the runway, meaning that it was impossible for the pilots to abort the flight. Aviation rules prohibit pilots from cancelling takeoff once their vehicle reaches a certain speed on the runway. According to the open-source service Flightradar24, the A321 reached a maximum altitude of only 90 meters (295 feet) above ground level (243 meters above sea level), meaning that its pilots had far less time to land the plane than Sullenberger did. When their engines failed, the pilots acted according to Airbus’s instructions with a single deviation, and that deviation may have saved the passengers’ lives.

According to Airbus’s 2018 instructions for situations in which a total engine failure makes it impossible for an airplane to reach an airport, the plane’s crew should:

  • Attempt to restart the engines if time allows
  • Turn on a reserve engine powered by the air that passes next to the plane
  • Maintain a velocity equal to the Green Dot Speed and an optimal descent velocity, which both vary according to the airplane’s mass and the stage of the flight
  • Select a landing site that is either on flat land or on water
  • Maintain a ground speed of 150 knots (172 miles per hour) during landing while deploying landing gear and wing flaps (unless the landing site is on water)
  • Maintain a descent velocity of 8.8 meters per second (19.7 miles per hour) and cut that velocity in half immediately before landing
  • Depressurize the airplane by pressing a special button immediately before landing
  • Turn on all of the airplane’s firefighting systems immediately after landing while manually activating the vehicle’s brakes.

The Airbus A321’s crew appears to have completed each of those steps with the exception of landing gear deployment. The decision not to deploy landing gear made the airplane’s brakes unusable as well. In effect, this means the crew followed some of the instructions intended for water landings. The tall cornstalks at the landing site served to decelerate the plane once it hit the ground. Photographs from the landing site include signs of the foam used in onboard firefighting systems, and the fact that those systems were activated may have prevented a fire following the emergency landing.

Were the pilots just lucky?

Both the pilots’ own skill and their adherence to Airbus guidelines played a significant role in their ability to land the plane safely. The crew was also fortunate enough to find an excellent location for an emergency landing.

Of course, there are no general statistics available regarding emergency landings in cornfields, but there is one similar incident that made a notable impression in popular culture. In 1960, the owner of the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team rented an old airplane for his players. On a harsh winter night, the team (including future superstar Elgin Baylor) boarded the plane but was unable to reach Minneapolis: The plane’s in-flight navigation system malfunctioned, its fuel nearly ran out, and its pilots decided to land at the next available opportunity. Ultimately, they landed on a cornfield covered in snow. No one was injured in the landing, and the players happily engaged in a snowball fight before spending the night in a nearby motel. Following the incident, the owner decided to move his club to Los Angeles, giving rise to the 11-time NBA title-winning Los Angeles Lakers.

Report by Dmitry Kuznets

Translation by Hilah Kohen