In 2009 a US Airways plane struck a flock of geese and had to make an emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River. Captain Chesley Sullenberger became a national hero. Tom Hanks played him in a cinematic version of the event, which pilots have described as a near-impossible act of aviation skill.
Will Liu Chuanjian get his own film too? That’s a valid question after he made a similarly spectacular emergency landing in Chengdu. His Sichuan Airlines flight was bound for Lhasa and was cruising at 32,000 feet when the cockpit window smashed open.
“There was no warning sign,” Liu told the Chengdu Economic Daily, “Suddenly the windshield just cracked and made a loud bang. The next thing I know my co-pilot had been sucked halfway out of the window. Everything in the cockpit was floating in the air. Most of the equipment malfunctioned and I couldn’t hear the radio. The plane was shaking so hard I couldn’t read the gauges.”
After pulling the co-pilot back into the cockpit, Liu landed the plane in extraordinary circumstances – relying on his eyes and his instincts to guide it down.
Chinese aviation authorities are now investigating how the glass could have broken, as is Airbus, the manufacturer of the aircraft in question.
“I’ve flown that route at least 100 times and I know it well,” said Liu. “I was confident I could pull it off, but I had to decide whether to get the plane down as quickly as possible – which would put people in danger because it would mean higher speed – or lower the altitude a bit more slowly. I went for the middle option.”
The incident is a reminder of the increasingly pressing need for high-quality pilots as China rapidly expands its passenger jet fleets. Just prior to Liu’s heroic feat, the Financial Times had published a detailed article about China’s pilot shortage. It noted estimates from Boeing that airlines in the Chinese market will need to employ 110,000 pilots by 2035. With shortages of available staff, foreign pilots are already being lured with tax-free monthly salaries of $26,000 (up from $10,000 a decade ago, according to Dave Ross of Wasinc International).
The next generation of Captain Liu Chuanjians are likely to have been trained abroad, it seems, because of restrictions on available air space for flight schools in China (an estimated 75% of the country’s airspace is limited to military use). Almost half of the 5,053 trainee pilots from China are studying in foreign flight schools in countries like Australia, says the FT. One such is 22 year-old Bo Song from Shandong who told the newspaper: “English is really important. We have to communicate with our instructors and the tower.”