There are certain professions where it is acceptable or even commendable for its members to take risks. Rarer are those careers where it is wise to gamble while on the job. When it comes to taking a risk and gambling with the lives of others, it is doubtful you will find a job description that seeks that particular quality. This would certainly be true for an airline pilot, whose expertise, precision, and concern for safety are paramount. That’s what makes it even more remarkable to consider the case of the airline pilot who made a bet that he could land his passenger plane while blindfolded.
Aeroflot Flight 6502 took off from Yekaterinburg on October 20, 1986. The Tu-134-A narrow-body twin-engine airliner was carrying 87 passengers and 7 crew members to Grozny by way of Samara (which was called Kuybyshev at the time). The flight was commanded by pilot Alexander Kliuyev. Also in the cockpit were co-pilot Gennady Zhirnov, navigating officer Ivan Mokhonko, and flight engineer Kyuri Khamzatov.
As the plane approached Samara, Kliuyev boasted that his prowess with the Tu-134-A was so great that he could land the plane blindfolded. Some might have dismissed Kliuyev’s words as mere boasting, but he was insistent that he meant it, and he was willing to put his money where his mouth was.
As the plane approached Samara, he sealed the bet with the Gennady. Oddly, airplane cockpits are not typically stocked with blindfolds. That being the case, Kliuyev ordered the flight engineer to pull the curtains over the cockpit windscreen. At 3:48 pm, at an altitude of 1,300 feet, Kliuyev was flying blind, guided only by flight instruments. The fact that the other members of the cockpit crew were also blind did not, apparently, cause anyone any concern.
As the plane continued its descent, air traffic control recommended an NDB (non-directional beacon) approach. NDBs do not provide vertical guidance, so the pilot disregarded the instruction, insisting upon using his instruments. As the plane passed 200 feet, the ground proximity alarms began to sound. The air traffic controller issued an order to go around, but Kliuyev would hear nothing of it. He had a bet to win, after all. He committed the plane to landing.
Perhaps sensing that some things are worth losing a bet over, someone opened the blinds less than a second before landing. Kliuyev tried to abort the landing, but by that point, it was too late.
Flight 6502 touched down at a speed of 150 knots (280 km/hr). The plane was highly unstable. It jumped at impact and overshot the runway before flipping over and bursting into flames.
Sixty-three people died on the spot. Seven more died later from their injuries. during the accident and seven more in hospitals later. One of the few bright spots of the crash was that all of the children on the flight — fourteen in total — survived.
Co-pilot Zhirnov survived the crash itself and attempted to rescue survivors. He suffered a cardiac arrest and died on the way to the hospital.
As for the pilot, Kliuyev admitted to his role in the accident, although he attempted to pass it off as a skill training exercise. He was prosecuted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was released after serving six years.
There is no official word as to whether Kliuyev paid Zhirnov’s estate for losing the bet.