As 2023 drew to a close, brief footage and pictures of a Russian passenger airliner landing unexpectedly on a frozen river became popular on the internet. Since then, preliminary investigations into the event involving Polar Airlines flight PI217 have been initiated, with the piloting crew being held responsible for the tragedy.
Thankfully, no passengers or crew members were hurt in the incident, but there were questions about the strange landing spot. Unconventional landing grounds for airplanes are not uncommon; in fact, US Airways Flight 1549’s successful landing on the Hudson River served as the inspiration for a Hollywood film.
The aircraft in question was a 1957-built twin-propeller Antonov-24 from the Soviet era, intended to fly from unprepared airports and rough airstrips. With thirty passengers and four members of the crew, Polar Airlines Flight PI217 took off from Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha in the Russian Far East, and was headed for Zyryanka, a place with a reputable airport.
But when the aircraft finally stopped, it was on the frozen Kolyma River, which is next to the airport, rather than the Zyryanka airport runway. The area saw extremely low temperatures, with lows of -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius), and a heavily snow-covered terrain that made it difficult to distinguish between the airport land and the frozen river.
The investigation revealed that the plane landed on the river’s sandbank, leaving a visible trail of snow indicating the distance it took to stop. Despite the unexpected landing site, passengers could disembark safely, and the aircraft appeared undamaged. The Zyryanka airport, being a regional facility, lacked proper lighting on its airstrip, contributing to the confusion.
Notably, this incident is not isolated, as the Russian aviation industry reported 60 commercial aviation incidents in the past three months. Many of these cases involved emergency landings, engine fires, and malfunctions, attributed in part to sanctions imposed on Russia due to its aggression in Ukraine.
In September, another incident involved an Airbus 320 attempting to land at Novosibirsk airport, ultimately landing in a wheat field due to a hydraulics system failure. Authorities once again placed blame on the pilots for the unexpected landing. These incidents underscore the challenges and risks faced by pilots operating in adverse conditions, demanding a thorough examination of safety protocols and training within the Russian aviation sector.