This story takes us back to 1986, behind the Iron Curtain and is about a game of Russian Roulette, but instead of a loaded revolver it was being played with a loaded plane (with passengers).
The date was 10.20, 1986, Aeroflot Flight 6502 has taken off from Koltsovo Airport in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) heading towards Grozny. The flight had one scheduled stopover in Kurumoch Airport of Samara (then Kuibyshev). The aircraft was a Tu-134A with a crew of seven, carrying some 87 passengers aboard. The crew consisted of Alexander Kliuyev (pilot in command), co-pilot Gennady Zhirnov, Ivan Mokhonko (navigating officer), Yuri Khamzatov (flight engineer) and 3 flight attendants.
We can only imagine what they were talking about during the flight, but apparently when nearing their stopover in Kuibyshev, a bet was made between the co-pilot Gennady Zhirnov and the commander. Kliuyev was dared to show his skills by landing the aircraft blind and using only the cockpit instruments. Apparently Kliuyev accepted the challenge and at 15:48 , at a height of 1,300 feet, flight engineers pulled blinds over the windshield and the crew started their descent towards Kuibyshev. The pilot also refused any radio assistance, and ignored the NDB landing approach suggested by the control tower. When the descent has reached the height of about 203-213 the plane control system alarmed a ground proximity warning, which Alexander Kliuyev also ignored and instead of making a go-around and making a second attempt, as stated by the rules, he continued his landing approach. The plane eventually touched the ground at a speed exceeding 170 miles per hour, 132 m past the runway threshold at a vertical speed of 5 m/s. This translated to 4.8 g.
The landing gear broke off on impact and the plane jumped off the track, its right wing tore off while the left one folded in half spilling fuel, while the plane was rolling over in mid air and eventually fell on the ground turned upside-down some 700 feet away from the point of touch down. A few short moments later the plane burst into flames. The crash has killed instantly 63 people, four of which were part of the crew, seven more died later in hospital. A secret reported on the case that was made public at a later date gave slightly different numbers 85 passengers and 8 crew. 53 passengers dying instantly, as well as 5 crew members, 11 more dying later in a hospital. It is unknown what led to this difference in the report, but the numbers are still close enough to not really matter.
All available police squads, fire brigades and ambulances were called in to help. Ironically pilot in command Alexander Kliuyev and co-pilot Gennady Zhirnov had whose bet caused all this, survived the crash. However co-pilot Zhirnov did not hesitate and immediately started helping others and evacuating as many passengers as he could. He was reported to have shown his head out of the plane just to catch a breath and immediately jumped back to help with the rescue. He later died from a cardiac arrest, caused by the large amount of smoke that he had inhaled. Kliuyev survived the incident to be later prosecuted.
The first hand reports by the policemen and fireman who rushed to the rescue were gruesome and horrific, describing the burning interior of the plane, the stench of burned flesh, the people who died during the crash still fastened to their seats hanging from the ceiling (which was actually the floor), eventually the seat belts have melted or burned away and the bodies of those who died started falling over the rescuers. Maybe the only positive thing that could be said about this day is, that at least all of the 14 children that were on board survived, that makes 14 out of all of the 17 survivors.
Much of the information that we have now, comes from Police officer Sergei Churilov and Fire Department Chief Colonel A.K. Karpov. They were among the first people that came to the scene.
The pictures you see in this article have been taken by Fire Department Chiev Karpov himself. And he managed to keep them and later reveal them, as the KGB officers that arrived on the crash site had forbidden any information leaks on the crash.
Main pilot Cap. Alexander Kliuyev was later prosecuted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released after only 6 years, probably by amnesty after the fall of the communist regime.
Information about this accident was covered up for two years, and it was reported officially only in 1988. It has been a sort of a habit for the Soviets to cover up any information regarding such accidents. It was only when there were foreign passengers aboard or many civilian witnesses of the crash, that the Soviets allowed any information to reach the media.
That information cover up used primarily to keep the image of Aeroflot as the most secure airline company in the world (at least in front of the civilians). The official statistics for emergency landings and crashes that Aeroflot has been showing to the world were pointing toward them being an almost perfect and error proof airline operator when compared to western airline companies, who couldn’t cover up their mishaps.
Nearing the end of the Soviet Era, under the less despotic rule of Michail Gorbatschow the government began declassifying many such cases and it became evident that Aeroflot has had as many if not even more incidents than the western companies.
While thinking of a conclusion to this story, I remembered an old saying “much of the problems start after someone says –here hold my beer, I’ll show you something” it is a joke that applies mostly to teenagers and young people doing stupid stuff, but apparently grown up and well educated men are also susceptible to this behavior.
I do understand one’s need to challenge his skills, but I really could not comprehend how could one do it while he is responsible for the lives of dozens of other people.