Russian pilots land plane in cornfield, earn Kremlin praise

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two Russian pilots safely landed an airliner carrying 233 people in a cornfield outside Moscow after striking a flock of birds, prompting the Kremlin to hail them as heroes who will receive top state awards.

Russians have said it was a miracle that no one was killed when the Ural Airlines Airbus 321 came down in a field southeast of Moscow with its landing gear up after hitting a passing flock of gulls, disrupting the plane’s engines.

Up to 74 people, including 19 children, were treated for injuries, six of whom have been hospitalized, Russian news agencies quoted the emergencies ministry as saying.

State television said the incident was being dubbed the “miracle over Ramensk”, the name of the district near Moscow where the plane came down around one kilometer (0.62 miles) from Zhukovsky International Airport.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid praised pilot Damir Yusupov as a “hero,” saying he had saved 233 lives, “having masterfully landed a plane without its landing gear with a failing engine right in a corn field.”

Some drew comparisons with U.S. Airways Flight 1549 which performed a landing on the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after striking a flock of geese.

“We congratulate the hero pilots who saved people’s lives,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that the Kremlin would see that the men were quickly given state honors. “There’s no doubt about this. They will be given awards.”

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The plane’s engines were turned off when it executed the emergency landing and it also had its landing gear up, according to Elena Mikheyeva, a spokeswoman for Russia’s civil aviation authority.

Footage shot by passengers showed the flight lasted less than two minutes and that the engines had experienced difficulties almost immediately after take-off.

Vitya Babin, 11, who was on the plane with his mother and sister, said passengers had not been warned there was going to be an emergency landing. There was silence in the cabin and then screams began when it touched down, footage showed.

“We were not warned,” said Babin.

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An unnamed passenger interviewed by state television said the plane had started to shake moments after it took off.

“Five seconds later, the lights on the right side of the plane started flashing and there was a smell of burning. Then we landed and everyone ran away,” he said.

Passengers were evacuated via escape slides and were told to distance themselves from the plane.

Slideshow ( 19 images )

“One of the stewardesses said there was smoke coming from the plane and we immediately panicked. We ran after one of the men. He said follow me,” Babin said.

A local resident quoted by radio station Govorit Moskva said the gulls that struck the plane had probably come from an illegal rubbish dump near Zhukovsky airport.

Moscow region officials, however, rejected that assertion and said the nearest rubbish dump to the airport was 14 kilometers away, TASS news agency reported.

The plane was due to fly to Simferopol in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.

Safety concerns have plagued Russia’s airline industry since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, though standards are widely recognized to have sharply risen on international routes in particular in recent years.

Additional reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn/Mark Heinrich