Russians hail 'hero' pilot after Moscow emergency landing

Michael MAINVILLE
The Ural Airlines A321, carrying 226 passengers and seven crew, came down in a corn field

A Russian pilot was hailed as a hero Thursday for safely landing an Airbus carrying more than 230 people in a Moscow corn field after a bird strike.

The Ural Airlines A321 flying to Crimea hit a flock of seagulls shortly after take-off from Moscow's Zhukovsky airport early Thursday, the Rosaviatsia air transport agency said in a statement.

Birds were sucked into the engines and the crew decided to immediately land, bringing the plane down in the corn field about a kilometre from the runway, with the engines off and the landing gear retracted.

The aircraft, carrying 226 passengers and seven crew, was evacuated using inflatable ramps.

The health ministry said 23 people were sent to hospital but there were no serious injuries. Only one patient, a 69-year-old woman with moderate injuries, required further hospitalisation, it said.

"It all happened in a few seconds... We took off and came back down," passenger Irina Usacheva told state television channel Rossiya 24.

Passenger Svetlana Babina said the bird strike could be heard from inside the plane and that the engines started making "strange noises".

"We have to pay tribute to the pilot, in the circumstances he landed as softly as possible," she told the RIA Novosti news agency.

- 'Miracle' landing -

"Everyone is alive! The pilot is a genius," passenger Olga told tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, saying applause broke out following the landing.

The pilot, identified as 41-year-old Yekaterinburg native Damir Yusupov, was praised for his quick thinking.

"The crew of the Ural Airlines flight showed fantastic skill and cool-headedness," said Yevgeny Kuyvashev, the governor of Yusupov's home region.

"He and his team saved 233 lives. They are heroes."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also hailed the "hero pilots" who landed the plane.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the transport ministry to prepare state awards for the crew, saying their actions "deserve the highest praise."

Russian media called the landing a "miracle" and drew comparisons with US pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's 2009 landing of a disabled US Airways airliner in the Hudson River after a bird strike.

Russia's investigative committee said it had opened a probe into the incident.

The committee posted a video on its website of the plane on its belly in the field of corn, with the evacuation ramps deployed. Investigators could be seen examining the interior of the cockpit.

The plane had taken off for Simferopol, the main city in Russian-annexed Crimea, a popular summer destination for many Russians.

Zhukovsky, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Moscow, opened in 2016 as its fourth international airport. A Soviet-era test flight centre, it hosts the biennial MAKS international air show.

- Dumps near airports? -

Experts pointed to a growing problem of birds at illegal dumping sites near Moscow's airports.

"The problem with birds is enormous," aviation safety expert Alexander Romanov told RIA Novosti. "It comes from, among other things, landfills that are scattered in violation of all regulations."

Residents of the town of Zhukovsky said an illegal landfill was located between the airport and the Moscow river and that seagulls gathered there.

City authorities insisted there were no dumps near the airport, saying the nearest landfill was 14 kilometres (nine miles) away.

Russia was once notorious for plane accidents but its air traffic safety record has improved in recent years.

The last major accident was nonetheless in May, when a Sukhoi Superjet belonging to national carrier Aeroflot crash-landed and burst into flames at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, killing 41 people.

The plane, bound for the Arctic city of Murmansk, had turned around after being struck by lightning, bounced on the runway while landing and caught fire.