A Russian passenger aircraft has landed on a frozen river in the country’s eastern republic of Sakha. All 34 people on board exited the plane unhurt and were pictured walking to safety across snow and ice.
Frozen to several metres deep
The incident involved a fifties-designed twin-propeller Antonov AN-24 operated by regional state-run carrier Polar Airlines. At the time of writing, Polar Airlines have only confirmed that an “AN-24 aircraft landed outside of the runway of the Zyryanka airport.”
Flight PI217 left Yakutsk, the republic’s capital, early on Thursday, destined for Zyryanka, 1,100km (685 miles) to the north-east. After Zyryanka, the route was supposed to continue to another regional airport in Srednekolymsk before making a return trip to Yakutsk. Instead, all passengers were forced to make their exit at Zyryanka when the plane landed close to the airport there, but not close enough.
A Polar Airlines Antonov An-24RV aircraft (RA-47821) carrying 30 passengers landed on a frozen Kolyma River instead of the runway at the airport in the village of Zyryanka in Russia's far east on Thursday 28 December because of pilot error, transport prosecutors said.#aircraft pic.twitter.com/lXKK71z411— FL360aero (@fl360aero) December 28, 2023
Zyryanka’s runway runs parallel to the river Kolyma. Against a subarctic landscape blanketed in snow and ice, the unlit regional airport was reportedly hard to make out and the pilot, identified as at fault by investigators, turned instead towards the river. Luckily, for 250 days a year between October and June, the Kolyma is frozen to depths of several metres, due to temperatures as low -40 degrees Celsius.
The plane appears in video taken by passengers and in investigators’ photographs in what appears to be the middle of the river, on what prosecutors described as a sandbank. Media outlets have noted the long trail in the snow showing how long the plane took to reach a standstill.
Despite the long and unusual landing, remarkably the plane showed no signs of damage. Over 1,000 units of the Antonov aircraft were built in the former Soviet Union in various models, intended to withstand rough terrain airstrips.
60 incidents in three months
“According to preliminary information, the cause of the aviation incident was an error by the crew in piloting the aircraft,” an Eastern Siberian transport police spokesperson said.
However, the swift attribution of blame for the missed landing on crew error will do little to dispel wider safety concerns over Russian aviation, which has been operating without original manufacturer parts and repairs for two years due to sanctions. The incident comes amid technical issues from hydraulics failures to engine fires and memos about malfunctions and safety “workarounds” that have caused alarm. 60 incidents have been reported by Russian monitors in just the last three months.