Liu Chuanjian — a former Air Force pilot and trainer who became a Sichuan Airlines captain in 2006, after retiring from the CPLA — has been all over Chinese social media and English-language news over the past few days, following an epic emergency landing he and his co-pilot made at the Chengdu airport. On May 14, the right-front windshield on Liu’s aircraft, which had just taken off on Flight 3U8633 from Chongqing to Lhasa, cracked at high altitude, and was blown off the plane by air pressure. Liu and his co-pilot — who was partially sucked out of the cockpit — successfully made the emergency landing in Chengdu 20 minutes later.
“We’re trained for emergency situations like this all the time, and I’ve been a pilot for over twenty years. When it happened all I was thinking about was just handling the flight landing well to guarantee the safety of all passengers and cabin crew,” said Liu in a quick interview with TV news show Sichuan Observation. “It was like when you’re driving at 50 kilometers an hour, and suddenly the car is going 100 kilometers an hour, and your hands are out of the window.”
Liu’s co-pilot went to the hospital after the landing — he was halfway out of the cockpit when the window blew out, and suffered facial scratches and a sprained wrist.
Liu said that operating an Airbus A319 flight flying at 800 km/h while carrying 119 passengers at an altitude of over 10,000 meters (approximately 32,800 feet) and no windshield resulted in low cabin pressure, blasting wind, sub-zero temperature, and extreme sun exposure. Therefore, the landing has been seen as a miracle, and Liu praised as a hero who did something unprecedented. He’s been dubbed “the Chinese Captain Sully” by netizens.
Liu’s wife, Zou Han, told Chongqing Morning that she learned of the accident from the news. When she called her husband, before she found out how severe and dangerous it had been, Liu simply said, “The plane is broken. I’m busy.”
In the aftermath, The Beijing News asked professionals a question that’s been on the mind of many online commentators: why did the window shatter, and why wasn’t this prevented by routine inspection?
According to the Beijing News report, the Airbus A319-100 aircraft in question was purchased in 2011, and has flown for 19,912 hours without any problems. The windshield had never been replaced, and hadn’t been inspected for 15 days prior to the accident.
Technical experts sent from Airbus have arrived in Chengdu to help with the investigation. Although Captain Liu handled the emergency more than professionally, if the incident was caused by a manufacturing irregularity or a failure of inspection, the public expects the companies to apologize and make it right. This is only the latest such scandal for Sichuan Airlines: the company was interviewed by the Southwest Regional Administration of the Chinese government’s Civil Aviation Administration in 2017 following several safety incidents.
The plane under inspection
In an article in The Paper (link in Chinese), military commentator and popular science writer Tian Chen “agreed with Captain Liu that this is not exactly the same as what Captain Sully did [in his] emergency landing on the Hudson River, but more like the incident that occurred to British Airways Flight 5390 in 1990.”
A report by Reuters also made this comparison: “In 1990, one of the pilots on British Airways Flight 5390 was blown partially out of the cabin window after its windshield blew out at 23,000 feet. He survived the incident, which occurred on a BAC-111 jet.”
Indeed, China is not alone in facing such issues of flight security. Last month, “the pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 had to deal with a 737 that suddenly banked left on its own,” an anomaly that resulted in the death of one passenger, according to CNN, and two months ago, Fox News reported that a “JetBlue flight from Puerto Rico to Florida was forced to make an emergency landing Sunday after the cockpit window cracked.”
While pilots all over the world are well trained, more safety measures should be adopted to make sure that no passengers will ever have to go through the terror that faced the passengers of 3U8633 — even if some of them still found the courage to snap a selfie:
Cover image: China Daily
We highlight our top stories each week in an email newsletter that goes out every Monday - hot, fresh, and straight to your inbox.
Don't worry, we don't spam