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Aviation

Five miracles airline pilots pulled off that saved lives of hundreds of passengers and crew

From Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s death-defying landing on New York’s Hudson River to the quick thinking of a China Eastern pilot to avoid a deadly runway collision, here are some of commercial aviation’s narrowest escapes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2018, 7:02pm

Two Chinese pilots who safely landed a passenger jet after a cockpit windscreen blew out in mid-air on Monday have been praised as heroes by the public for saving hundreds of lives.

In what has been described as a “miracle landing”, Sichuan Airlines pilot Liu Chuanjian operated in temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius to steer the plane manually to southwestern China’s Chengdu city for an emergency landing.

Praise for Chinese pilots as inquiries start into how plane lost windscreen

None of the 119 passengers were injured, but the co-pilot Xu Ruichen was almost sucked out of the cockpit and suffered a cut to his face after the windscreen shattered at an altitude of 9,750 metres (32,000 feet).

Although flying remains the safest way to travel and aviation deaths have steadily declined over the past two decades, the skill and courage of pilots still remain critical when a mishap occurs. Here are five passenger flights whose pilots have been remembered for the miracles they pulled off, which helped hundreds narrowly escape death.

1. Southwest Airlines Flight 1380

April 17, 2018

An American ex-fighter pilot saved the lives of 148 people on-board her plane by making a successful emergency landing after one of the passenger jet’s engines exploded.

The explosion blew out one of the cabin windows and killed a passenger, but Captain Tammie Jo Shults remained calm as she steered the single-engined aircraft to land at Philadelphia International Airport.

Shults, who was one of the first female US Navy fighter pilots when she qualified in the 1980s, was praised by grateful passengers for having “nerves of steel” and being “a true American hero”.

Pilot said to have drawn on air force training to land Sichuan jet

2. China Eastern Airlines Flight A333

October 11, 2016

China Eastern Airlines pilot He Chao avoided a runway collision with another plane at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport by making a steep take-off, saving the lives of the 439 people on-board the two aircraft.

The plane was cleared for take-off when the pilots spotted another plane crossing the runway.

Pilot He took over control and accelerated for a sharp climb as his co-pilot hesitated for a second. The aircraft flew over the other plane and avoided a crash by just 19 metres.

He was later rewarded with 3 million yuan (US$471,000) by the airline. 

An investigation found that an error by the air traffic controller caused the terrifying incident.

3. Cathay Pacific Flight 780

April 13, 2010

Two Cathay Pacific pilots safely landed an Airbus A330-342 at Hong Kong International Airport despite the failure of both engines in 2010.

The aircraft with 322 passengers and crew had to land at twice the normal speed because the power setting jammed in one of the engines during the final approach.

The two Australian pilots, Malcolm Waters and David Hayhoe, were awarded the Polaris Award for heroism and airmanship by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.

“When I came off the slide, I turned around and looked at the aeroplane and it was like a Hollywood movie,” Waters told the South China Morning Post

“There was an aeroplane with pieces hanging off it. All the slides were deployed. The life packs and the food packs and everything that goes with the life rafts were hanging off strings from the door slide.”

A total of 57 passengers and six crew members suffered minor injuries. The most serious was a broken ankle received by an elderly woman.

4. US Airways Flight 1549

January 15, 2009

In the famous water landing that has been dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson”, US Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely glided the plane onto the Hudson River after it lost all engine power.

The plane with 155 passengers struck a flock of geese just two minutes after taking off at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

In the seconds that followed, Sullenberger weighed his options – which included turning back to LaGuardia or landing at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport. He decided to ditch in the Hudson, passing around 270 metres above the George Washington Bridge. There were 208 seconds from when the plane struck the geese to when it touched down in the Hudson.

Although Sullenberger has received wide public acclaim for the safe landing, the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government investigative agency, launched an inquiry into whether he should have turned back to LaGuardia Airport instead.

The board ultimately determined Sullenberger’s decision was correct the following year.

The incident was adapted into a film,  Sully , starring Tom Hanks in 2016.

5. British Airways Flight 5390

June 10, 1990

The recent Sichuan Airline incident reminded many of a similar accident that happened almost 30 years ago on a British Airways flight, where the captain was partially sucked out of the plane after a windscreen panel separated from its frame at just over 17,000 feet.

Thirteen minutes into the flight that took off from Birmingham Airport in England, a loud bang sounded from the cockpit as the window panel separated from its frame because of an installation error. 

Captain Tim Lancaster’s upper body was propelled out of the window by the rush of air, and he was only able to survive thanks to crew members who desperately held onto his ankles for almost 20 minutes.

Flight attendant Nigel Ogden, who was in the cockpit to offer the pilots a cup of tea, quickly grabbed Lancaster’s legs, while the co-pilot Alastair Atchison took control of the plane and made an emergency landing at Southampton Airport.

Pilots reveal death-defying ordeal as engines failed on approach to Chek Lap Kok

The crew thought Lancaster had died because his head had been banging against the side of the cockpit, but luckily he only went into a coma and suffered minor injuries, including frostbite and fractures. 

“His face was banging against the window with blood coming out of his nose and the side of his head, his arms were flailing and seemed about six feet long,” Ogden told The Sydney Morning Herald after the event. “Most terrifyingly, his eyes were wide open. I’ll never forget that sight as long as I live.”

Ogden’s shoulder was dislocated and he also suffered frostbite. None of the passengers were injured.