Alrosa Flight 514 departed Udachny en route to Moscow early in the morning of 7 September 2010. With 72 passengers and nine crew members aboard, the Tupolev Tu-154M airliner flew west from northern Siberia, east towards the capitol of the Russian Federation. Below, the spruce trees and pines of the tiaga (coniferous forest) goes on for hundreds of miles in every direction. Air transport is dominant in this region, although river travel is an option. There are few roads in the tiaga, and most villages would be isolated without the travel service provided by small aircraft, but there are no airports big enough to handle a jet airliner.
The Tupolev Tu-154 is a Soviet design from the 1960s that entered into airline service with Aeroflot in the 1970s. The aircraft has a poor safety record, having suffered hundreds of accidents over the decades with many injuries and loss of life. A reliable airliner, it is not.
This far north, at this time of year, the day is still longer than the night. These subarctic latitudes are comparable to northern Alaska and Canada. It’s characteristic autumn weather, with low fog obscuring the ground from high-flying jets. At about 7am, at an altitude of 10,600 meters (approx. 34,780 feet) the Tu-154 experienced an electrical malfunction. The cockpit flight instruments, radio gear, and navigational equipment were all out of commission. Worse, so were the electric fuel pumps needed to transfer jet fuel from the wing tanks to the center tank in the fuselage, which directly fed the plane’s three engines. With only about 30 minutes of fuel remaining in the center tank, no way to refill it from the wing tanks, and no airport within 30 minutes range, the pilots knew they had a serious problem. Immediately they began a quick descent, searching for someplace to set down. They were near the village of Izhma, which was on a river. The ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ had taken place just the year before. Flight 514’s pilots headed for the river and Izhma, thinking they stood a better chance of survival landing on the water like Captain Sully did than landing in the thick of a forest.
As they made their approach, one of the crewmembers spotted an open strip of land near the village, free of trees. Fantastic! They would make an attempt to land there first, before going for a swim in the river. The open strip of land turned out to be the village of Izhma’s old airport, closed since the early 2000s. All but abandoned, only a couple of helicopters used it anymore.
The airport was built in the 1970s and opened for business in 1978. Sergey Sotnikov was one of its first employees and worked there as an engineer for more than twenty years. When it closed, he lost his full-time job, but took on a part-time job as caretaker/manager of the old airfield. Despite the fact that it was no longer used, Sergey insisted on keeping it clear of vegetation, flood waters, junk vehicles, and stockpiles of firewood that some villagers wanted to keep there. He took alot of grief from the locals, but somehow he was certain the old airstrip would be needed again. And so he labored day after day for years without appreciation or even pay to keep the runway open.
Flight 514 made three attempts to land on the old runway. It was really too short for the big jetliner, and because the electric systems were out, the pilots could not deploy flaps to lower their landing speed. On the third try, they set her down anyway, hitting the thrust reversers and the brakes hard. The Tupolev overran the runway and barreled through some trees before coming to a halt. Not a single person aboard was injured. The nation hailed it as a miracle. Pilots Evgeny Novoselov and Andrey Lamonov were hailed as heroes and awarded medals. The aircraft was eventually repaired and returned to service. Sergey Sotnikov was not awarded any medal, because he was ‘just doing his job’ (even though he was doing far more than that). The Russian people did recognize his efforts, even if authorities didn’t. As one Russian blogger put it, Sergey Sotnikov is an “unexpected hero“.
Question Of The Night: What’s the best food you’ve ever had while traveling? (Surely not inflight airline “food”?)