Russian Airline Crew Lauded As ‘Heroes’ After Icing-Induced Emergency

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All’s well that ends well, but Russian carrier S7 Airlines Flight 5220 certainly got off to a terrifying start—perhaps due to “counterfeit” deicing fluid. Shortly after takeoff from Magadan Airport, just north of the Sea of Okhotsk in far eastern Russia, the Airbus A321neo with 199 passengers and seven crew members on board began to gyrate wildly. The crew declared an emergency due to airframe icing. According to a flight data recorder readout posted on social media (not yet confirmed to be from Flight 5220), the Airbus crew disconnected the autopilot shortly after takeoff. After a slight descent that began about five minutes after reaching an altitude of 8,784 feet, the single-aisle airliner spent the next seven minutes in chaos as “multiple flight parameters show rapid oscillations for about seven minutes,” according to a narrative posted on Kathryn’s Report.

“The pitch attitude oscillated with -23.9 degrees and +43.6 degrees being the most extreme values reached. In that period the aircraft rolled left and right with the extreme values being +49.8 degrees and -91.1 degrees.” The data published by Kathryn’s Report showed the aircraft rapidly climbing from 4,699 feet to 14,351 feet, then quickly descending to 5,084 feet. “From then on altitude remained difficult to control,” read the narrative, with the aircraft climbing back up to 13,748 feet and descending to 4,556 feet at an average rate of around 1,000 feet per minute.

Reports suggest the aircraft entered airspace with significant icing conditions. Multiple Russian news reports suggest that S7 Airlines “cannot rule out improper de-icing before the aircraft departed Magadan.” Some have gone so far as to speculate that the deicing fluid used at the airport was “counterfeit.”

The crew made two unsuccessful attempts to land back at the departure airport. It’s unclear whether the problem with landing there was the persistent icing or perhaps a fuel load that dangerously exceeded the maximum landing weight. But eventually, the crew was able to climb to and maintain a normal cruising altitude and continue westbound for a safe landing at Irkutsk five hours after takeoff (the original destination, Novosibirsk, was considered unreachable due to extensive flight time at low altitude while attempting the emergency landing at Magadan).

The flight crew is being hailed as heroes for their recovery from the low-altitude emergency.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. An airliner nearly succumbing to icing? That must be pretty rare, so I have one question: how much of a role did Airbus’ infamous inability of the pilots to override the automation play in this near-disaster? It wouldn’t be the first time.

    • Maybe rare but does occur and is a well known risk.
      Look for a Scandinavian airlines twin jet with rear engines, decades ago.
      IIRC ice departed inboard wing into engines.

      Other cases more directly affecting lift.

      Constant vigilance in operations, crew depends on ground crews

  2. “But eventually, the crew was able to climb to and maintain a normal cruising altitude and continue westbound for a safe landing at Irkutsk five hours after takeoff.”

    Hmmm, after such pitch and roll oscillations (-91.1 degrees!), I don’t know if, as a passenger (or perhaps even a crew member), I’d want to spend five hours in soiled shorts going to an alternate destination. Not sure I understand the heroism claim…

  3. Something smells here. Was there something wrong with the airplane’s anti/deicing system? If they knew they were departing into potentially severe icing conditions, why wasn’t it on for takeoff? I’m not familiar with Airbus onboard deicing systems, but I can’t imagine they would be functionally very different from Boeing.

  4. Could it be that there was an emergency in the first place because of pilot error?

    If that was the case solving a problem one allowed to occur negates hero status in solving that problem.

    If the plane was not properly deiced prior to takeoff, maybe the takeoff should have been aborted?

    The old phrase comes to mind, ‘Takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory’ comes to mind.

    Perhaps its a defect in the Airbus design, but I don’t recall other Airbuses drilling in due to non-controllable icing.

    Just wondering.

    • Maybe rare but does occur and is a well known risk.
      Look for a Scandinavian airlines twin jet with rear engines, decades ago.
      IIRC ice departed inboard wing into engines.

      Other cases more directly affecting lift.

      Constant vigilance in operations, crew depends on ground crews

  5. I’m curious about the declaration of counterfeit deicing fluid prior to take off. No mention yet of investigations of improper deicing fluid and whether it was applied correctly. Magadan Airport in Russia may prove difficult for investigators in determining whether or not deicing fluid was correct or not.

  6. Another example of how Russia is not normal. The boss of Total lost his life a few years back because a drunk snowplough driver decided that doing the main runway with an aircraft about to take off on it was a good idea — people watched him but did nothing to stop him.
    Now counterfeit icing fluid — the real stuff was probably drunk.
    Its life Scotty but not as we know it…

    • Constant vigilance is needed, even in better societies:
      – incorrect airport temperature readings in Arctic by contracted observers, TC/NavCanada had to shape them up
      – Canadian B737 had engine flame out during taxi to takeoff position, water in fuel just brought in by barge to Caribbean airport. (Supposed to be tested before putting into airport tanks.)