The pilots of an Airbus A380 jumbo jet sent emergency signals to ground control in Beijing while trying to steer their plane out of a monstrous hailstorm as cracks started to appear on the cockpit windshields right in front of them.

The pilots had reportedly been quite confident that their plane even could handle the violent airstreams it encountered before landing, as the A380 is unlike narrow-body jets that could easily succumb to turbulence. They thought it would be a breeze for the A380 to pass through the band of hail and heavy rain, yet the double-deck superjumbo that weighted hundreds of tons started to pitch and plunge amid the screech of passengers soon after it started to descend into Beijing’s Capital International Airport on Sunday morning.

The plump iron bird in service with Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines was hauling about 300 travelers from Guangzhou to Beijing on Flight CZ3101, but the landing approach got rough after rain and hail started to pummel the plane around 3,810 meters above the ground, when it was circling near Tianjin.

The pilots sent the 7700 emergency signal to ground control amid the blizzard-like hailstorm, but they eventually managed to stabilize the plane and land it, after treacherous convective weather snarled air traffic in and out of Beijing’s main aviation hub, with more than 160 flights canceled and more diverted.

Cockpit windshields were shattered. Photo: Weibo
The A380 suffered minor damage to its weather radar on its nose as well as cockpit windshields. Photos: Weibo

Photos of the plane after landing showed shattered cockpit windows, as well as flaked-off paint and damage on its nose, which houses the airliner’s weather radar.

A civil-aviation expert told China News Service that an A380 cockpit windshield normally consisted of multiple panels with structurally rigid frames, and thus cracks on its external sheet would not compromise the overall safety of the plane. As well, the damaged radar components could easily be replaced.

He said that in low-altitude flights against inclement weather, controlling any plane could be difficult and fuel burn could increase as well, so the A380 would have needed to divert elsewhere had it failed to land at the Beijing airport. But he also said modern passenger jets like the Airbus A380 and Boeing’s 787 and 777 were all equipped with predictive weather systems to help avoid and mitigate against high winds and severe turbulence.

The A380 is the world’s largest passenger jet, and thanks to its size as well as roundabout airframe design, the giant plane is touted for its smooth flights even under inclement weather conditions.

A spokesman for China Southern was quoted as saying that the well-trained crew regained control of the plane as per the instruction manual during the situation, and that the plane only sustained minor damage to its windows and radar system.

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