‘Best of the best’: pilot said to have drawn on air force training to land Sichuan Airlines jet

Liu Chuanjian was an instructor at a PLA flight college for 10 years before he joined the airline and ex-colleague says he was ‘one in a thousand’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 8:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 10:01pm

A former colleague and the wife of a Chinese pilot who safely landed a passenger jet on Monday after its windscreen blew out in mid-air say his air force background and self-discipline helped him to skilfully handle the crisis. 

Chinese aviation authorities are investigating the cause of the incident along with plane maker Airbus, and on Wednesday ordered checks on all windscreens from the same batch of aircraft, China News Service reported. 

Captain Liu Chuanjian, 46, had to make a manual emergency landing in Chengdu when the windscreen suddenly fell out as the plane was cruising at 32,000ft (9,750m). His 27-year-old co-pilot Xu Ruichen was sucked halfway out of the cockpit in the incident, but escaped with minor injuries because he was wearing a seat belt. A cabin attendant also suffered a back injury, but there were no other reported injuries to the 119 passengers and nine crew members on board.

Sichuan Airlines flight 3U8633 had been on its way from Chongqing to Lhasa.

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Liu spoke to the media in Chengdu on Wednesday, saying he was confident at the time that he could steer the plane to the nearest airport manually when the automatic systems stopped working.

“I've flown that route at least 100 times and I know it well. I was confident I could pull it off, but I had to decide whether to get the plane down as quickly as possible – which would put people in danger because it would mean higher speed – or lower the altitude a bit more slowly,” he said. “I went for the middle option.”

Liu was an instructor with the PLA Air Force No 2 Flight College in Sichuan province for 10 years before he joined the airline in 2006. 

One of his former colleagues at the college, identified only as Zhao, told Chinese news outlet that Liu was an excellent pilot who stood out in every aspect during his time with the air force. 

Liu started his training at the same college in 1991 and went on to become an instructor after he graduated with top marks in 1995. 

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Zhao said that the air force’s high standards meant only 30 per cent of the trainees made the cut to become pilots – and only those who got the full score for every subject were eligible to work as instructors.

“Those who stayed on at the college and became instructors were the best of the best pilots,” Zhao told the news outlet. “[Liu was] one in a thousand – he was a straight-A trainee pilot.” 

As an instructor, Liu conducted countless sessions teaching others how to cope with broken windows in mid-flight, by having a cabin window in the training aircraft suddenly slide open. 

But the conditions involved in the real-life crisis he experienced on Monday were far more challenging, according to Zhao. The main training aircraft is usually flown at 200km/h and that will drop to 100km/h during crisis training, but the Sichuan Airlines plane was flying at around 900km/h, with an outside temperature of about minus 40 degrees Celsius.

“It would’ve been very difficult even to keep his eyes open [in the cockpit]. It’s a miracle really that the plane was landed safely,” Zhao said.

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The pilots and crew have been praised by the airlines, authorities and local media for safely landing the flight after a 20-minute struggle with the loss of cabin pressure in freezing temperatures.

According to the captain’s wife, Zou Han, it was his self-discipline and physical fitness that would have helped Liu stay calm in the crisis.

She told China News Service that her husband exercised every day when he was not on duty, jogging and playing basketball, to make sure he stayed strong and fit because his job involved flying between airports in the country’s southwest that are 8,000ft above sea level. 

Zou said Liu also reviewed his flights when he got home and kept notes – and to make sure he was not late he would stay in the airline dormitory the night before a morning flight.

“For others, he’s a hero, but for me – he’s my husband. I wish he could come home soon,” Zou said after travelling from their home in Chongqing to Chengdu on Tuesday for an emotional reunion with Liu. 

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