A truly miraculous landing on a river in the centre of a big city saved dozens of lives, and the pilot was hailed a hero. It happened 45 years ago in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
On August 21 a strange picture shocked the people of USSR’s second biggest city: a passenger liner being tugged by a small boat along the river Neva. Passersby first thought some movie-studio was filming a scene, but then noticed the broken hull of the plane.
The Russian-made Tupolev-124 aircraft, then a new model, was flying from the Estonian capital of Tallinn to Moscow via Leningrad. After takeoff a bolt fell off the plane’s chassis (it was later found on the runway). During the flight assistant pilots tried to hammer the trigged chassis and even cut the bottom of the plane from the inside to do so, but it didn’t help. The plane was destined to find a harsh landing on a field outside the Leningrad airport.
The crew, headed by Viktor Mostovoy, was given an instruction to fly around the city to burn excessive fuel. Then flights at 400 meters above a populated area were allowed, and the plane circled the sky over the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul fortress, and the historical churches and palaces. The fuel sensor, unfortunately, was broken, and as the crew realized there was not enough fuel to take the plane outside of the city, both engines died just above the Smolny palace in downtown Leningrad. One of the pilots was sent to the passengers ‘to distract them with conversation’, while others tried to glide the plane down to the river.
The plane slid over a new bridge being built at that time – just 4 meters above it, and horrified workers jumped from the scaffolding straight into the river. The plane’s tail touched the water, and the entire body smoothly flopped onto the water surface… just a hundred yards away from the other bridge.
It was sheer luck that a tug boat (an old steamer built in 1898) was in close vicinity to the place of emergency landing. The hull of the plane was damaged and started to fill with water. The crew of the boat were sure it was some new trick by Soviet scientists testing a new hydroplane, but the captain was experienced enough to see the aircraft was in dire straits. He ordered the cargo float to be unhooked, broke the plane’s windshield and tied the hawser to the control wheel of the Tupolev.
The boat safely ‘docked’ near an embankment. The 44 passengers on board including 2 children left the plane through an access port on the roof of the plane, while their luggage was unloaded and neatly piled onto the asphalt. No signs of panic were seen, passersby and passengers met the crew with a loud applause. In a few minutes a bus picked up the travelers and their belongings and took them to the airport.
The heroic landing was hailed as a miracle in the press, and word of mouth carried the news of the amazing rescue effort across the country. The authorities had no choice but to award the crew captain Mostovoy with an order, though it was obvious to the professionals that his mistakes caused the incident. The captain of the tug-boat was given a certificate of merit and awarded a watch – a typical gift of that time to show the recognition of courage and gratitude of the state.
The plane was considered nonrecoverable and sawn into parts. The pilot cabin was sent to an aviation school as a cock-pit mock-up, the chairs were sold to anyone wishing to buy them, the rest taken to a scrap metal shop.