Drama in Real Life: Failure on Flight 516

High over northern Russia, an airplane’s control systems begin switching off, one by one. Read on to find out exactly what happened on Flight 516.

Drama in Real Life - airplane crisisPhoto: Shutterstock

Terror on Flight 516

On a grey and chilly morning in September 2010, 72 passengers boarded a Tupolev Tu-154 airliner for the five-hour trip from Polyarny Airport, in northeast Russia, to Moscow. Like many of their fellow travellers, Stanislav and Ekaterina Shestakov had flown the route often enough to know the cabin crew by name. But that didn’t make Stanislav, 30, any calmer. As always, he felt certain the flight would end badly. Ekaterina, also 30, tried her usual argument: “If we’re fated to crash, we’re fated to crash. If we’re not, we’re not.” Somehow, her reasoning never soothed him.

Stanislav had no choice but to fly. The only practical way to make the trip from the remote diamond-mining settlements around Udachny, the town where the couple lives, to Moscow, is by air. The flight leaves from Polyarny Airport, with its single runway and single carrier, Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise, owned by the state monopoly that runs the mines.

It was a particularly tense time for the Shestakovs. Six months earlier, Ekaterina had been appointed head of the juvenile delinquency department for the regional police force. Her new job was in Mirny, 500 kilometres south of Udachny—too far to commute from the home they shared with their five-year-old daughter, Sofia. Stanislav, a heavy-equipment operator at a mine, couldn’t relocate. So Ekaterina rented an apartment near the office and often went a couple of months without seeing her loved ones. The separation led to squabbles, and the couple had sent Sofia to spend the summer with her grandmother on the Black Sea while they struggled to work things out.

Now they were going to join their little girl and take a much-needed holiday together as a family. Still, Stanislav found it impossible to unwind.

In the cockpit the atmosphere was more relaxed. The four-man flight crew had been making the Moscow-Polyarny-Moscow run for nearly a decade. The pilots, Evgeny Novoselov, 42, and Andrey Lamanov, 43, were both veterans, with nearly 20,000 hours of flying experience between them; each held the rank of commander. Both pilots are tall and slim. Novoselov is calm and reserved, while Lamanov can be more impulsive and boyish, and likes a good joke. Yet the two worked in tandem like a pair of Olympic figure skaters. They knew the Tu-154 well, and as they finished their safety checks, taxied onto the runway and launched the big plane into the sky, they had no reason to suspect today’s trip would be different from any other.

This time, however, Stanislav’s anxiety was justified. This time, there would be trouble.

Power Failure

About three hours after takeoff, as they cruised over northwestern Russia, the plane shook violently and the autopilot disengaged. Novoselov and Lamanov quickly took the controls. Turning to flight engineer Rafik Karimov, Novoselov instructed him to find out why the autopilot had stopped working. Scanning the instrument panel, Karimov saw a red light flash.

“We’ve got a power failure,” he reported. The basic electricity on the plane had failed, and the plane had switched automatically to a battery-powered reserve system. But that wasn’t working, either. Karimov—with a jockey’s quiet alertness—didn’t know what was causing the problem, but he quickly grasped its gravity.

Novoselov, who was that day’s flight commander, radioed the regional air traffic control and informed them of the problem. “There’s a chance we’ll need to make an emergency landing,” he said. “Please find the closest airport that can take us.”

“Please verify the reason…” the air traffic controller began, but the radio went dead. Then the plane’s gauges, instruments, navigation devices and control systems began switching off, one by one.

The Tu-154 has four reserve batteries, and those on Flight 516 from Polyarny were at least 11 years old—with a declared lifespan of 12 years. Investigators later concluded that one of the four batteries experienced “thermal runaway,” overheating to the point that its electrolytic fluid boiled away. This affected the battery next to it, so that it no longer worked. Then, unrelated to the battery failure, a voltage jump in the airplane’s main electrical system crippled it. The two remaining batteries couldn’t power the plane’s complex electronics on their own, and within a few minutes even those would be depleted. Everything possible had to be operated on manual mode.

The Shestakovs, sitting near the front of economy class, saw the “fasten seat belt” light fade out, as if on a dimmer. Then the plane suddenly wobbled from side to side and for several seconds it seemed as if the pilots were struggling to maintain control. “Something’s happening,” Stanislav told his wife. “We’re going to crash.”

“Don’t worry,” she responded automatically. “Everything will be fine.”

The chief flight attendant, Elena Razumova, noticed the same anomalies. She went to the cockpit and asked if something was wrong. “We’ve got a big problem,” engineer Karimov answered tersely. “We’ll tell you more later.”

Razumova, a youthful-looking 50-year-old, had attended Moscow’s Civil Aviation Institute and had been flying for 30 years; she guessed the glitch was electrical. She returned to the cabin and told the other attendants to stand by for further instructions. All five made sure their ID cards were in their pockets, standard protocol in case someone had to identify their bodies.

Fuel Levels Critically Low

The pilots brought the plane down from 10,600 metres to 3,000 and then to 1,200 to skim the top of the cloud layer. It was dangerous to go any lower without a working attitude indicator, the device that enables pilots to keep an aircraft’s wings level when clouds obscure the horizon. They flew for 150 kilometres, searching for a gap where they could slip through safely and look for a place to land.

Suddenly a warning light—one of the few devices still functioning—indicated that fuel levels were critically low. Shortly after, an alarm blared. Fuel was no longer being drawn from the main tanks because there wasn’t a constant current to work the pumps—and the three engines could use only whatever was left in the small tank that fed them directly. The crew knew they had just 30 minutes of fuel left.

There was no time to waste. Focusing on his training rather than the pounding of his heart, navigator Sergey Talalaiev, 52, tried to send an SOS signal on an emergency frequency, unaware that the transmitter had already stopped working.

“We’ve got to dip below the clouds,” Novoselov told flight attendant Nikolai Dmitriev, who’d come to see if he could help. “Better go back to the cabin.”

Dmitriev, 42, didn’t need to hear more. He relayed the news to his fellow attendants, one of whom was his wife, Elena Dmitrieva. The two of them had flown together for the past seven years.

“We’re going to die,” Stanislav told Ekaterina.

“Everything will be fine,” she repeated, although she was beginning to believe him.

This was not Dmitriev’s first air emergency. In March 2001 he was working a flight from Istanbul to Moscow when three Chechen hijackers had stabbed another flight attendant, threatened to blow up the plane and ordered Dmitriev to let them into the cockpit. With a knife to his heart, he swore (falsely) that the door was locked and couldn’t be opened from the outside. The pilots agreed to land in Saudi Arabia, where the terrorists released some of their 174 hostages. Saudi commandos later stormed the plane; one hijacker, one passenger and a female flight attendant were killed. Dmitriev was given a medal for bravery.

Now he was frightened, but as before, people were depending on him to help them cope. As he asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts, he avoided making eye contact with his wife. It was best, he thought, for both of them to focus on their jobs.

As the plane began its descent and entered the disorienting whiteness, Novoselov and Lamanov concentrated on holding the controls steady. Luckily the cloud layer was thin, and within seconds they emerged below it.

The land beneath them was covered with taiga, the pine and birch forest that blankets most of northern Russia. A river meandered through the flat terrain, with a sandbar in the middle. It wasn’t an ideal place for a 74-tonne airplane to attempt a water landing, but anything was better than the woods. “We’ll aim for the sand,” Novoselov told Dmitriev, who had returned to the cockpit.

The attendant left to warn his colleagues, and they began fastening cupboards, securing loose equipment and moving passengers to free up emergency exits.

The pilots flew down for a closer look. Spotting a small settlement in the distance, they decided to circle around it. And as they completed their pass, an incredible sight met their eyes: an airstrip.

A Miracle in the Middle of Nowhere

The little settlement of Izhma—principal industry, reindeer herding—lies 1,500 kilometres north of Moscow. In Soviet times, a tiny civil airport had been built at its edge, but it closed in 1997; later it reopened as a helicopter terminal. The runway was no longer needed, and bushes sprouted between the slabs. But the facility’s manager, Sergey Sotnikov, had kept the concrete in decent repair.

In the sky above Izhma, the Tu-154’s pilots kept circling, trying to line up the plane for the difficult landing. The Izhma strip is only 1,340 metres long; a Tu-154 needs 2,500 metres to land. The pilots wanted to ensure that the plane touched down on the first metres of the runway so they could use as much paved strip as possible.

The landing gear could be lowered manually, but the electrically operated flaps, slats and spoilers—all normally used to slow the aircraft’s approach—were out of commission. Novoselov and Lamanov would have to use old-fashioned stick-and-rudder skills to land a modern aeronautical behemoth on a runway designed for little prop planes.

They circled once, twice, three times, gradually reducing the plane’s velocity and refining the angle of approach. With each pass, the flight attendants repeated the instructions for an emergency landing to the passengers in their sections.

Some passengers prayed; others vomited into airsickness bags. The attendants walked the aisles, offering smiles and reassurance. Stanislav asked his wife, “If we die, what will happen to our little Sofia?”

“My mother will take care of her,” she replied, squeezing his hand.

On the fourth pass, the pilots homed in on their target. The only working instruments were those showing altitude, vertical speed and airspeed; the navigator monitored the gauges and called out the airspeed as the pilots came in to land.

As the plane shot towards the runway, the flight attendants took their seats and buckled in, shouting, “Attention! We’re landing!”

“My mouth is so dry, I can’t swallow,” Dmitriev confessed to the attendant who sat next to him near the front of the plane.

“Mine, too,” she said.

Dmitriev and his wife, assigned to opposite ends of the plane, hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. Out the window, the taiga was rushing towards them.

Lamanov pushed the stick forward just enough to vault over the last trees, then deftly nosed the plane towards the airstrip. A moment before they touched down, Novoselov threw the engines into reverse and the plane touched concrete with its main wheels. After the nose wheel touched down, Lamanov hit the brakes. The plane quickly slowed from 380 kilometres an hour to 100, but the 1,340-metre runway was far too short. The wings and cockpit sliced through saplings like scythe blades as the Tu-154 sped off the concrete and into the forest.

God help us, Novoselov prayed, then thought, After all this, please don’t let us die because some stupid tree hits the cockpit.

Emergency Landing

In the cabin, people were screaming as branches smacked the windows. When the plane finally stopped, 200 metres into the woods, vapour rose from the friction-heated wheels. Some passengers applauded. Others, thinking they saw smoke, began shouting, “Open the exits!”

One of them was Stanislav. He leaped into the aisle, but a flight attendant, determined to prevent a stampede, blocked his way. “Stay where you are,” he said. “Please sit down.”

At that moment Stanislav’s wife burst into tears, and he realized she needed him. He sat and stroked her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he murmured gently. “Everything is fine.”

It took a little longer to convince some of the other passengers. But when one of the flight attendants opened an emergency exit, looked outside and announced there was no fire, the crowd calmed down. Soon all the passengers had exited the plane by the emergency chute and within ten minutes local emergency brigades arrived.

As a light drizzle fell, friends and strangers hugged, shared cigarettes and took sips of vodka and cognac. For the flight crew, however, the work was not over—the plane had to be sealed and officials had to be debriefed. A uniformed emergency worker approached Novoselov with a grave expression. “There’s one casualty,” the man said.

The pilot shuddered. “Who is it?”

“You killed a hare,” the worker said, and broke into a grin.

Novoselov had a good long laugh, taking deep gulps of the sweet forest air.

That afternoon most of the passengers flew on to Moscow from another airport, on another Tu-154. Only one couple, too traumatized to fly, opted to take a train.

It was not the Shestakovs.

Next: These two pilots were flying from Oahu to Hawaii—then they heard the engines go quiet.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada