For many people, flying is a scary experience. Even if you are able to do it without fear, it can still be a little unsettling at times. After all, you are in an aircraft that weighs thousands of pounds, traveling hundreds of miles per hour, miles above the ground. The chances of something happening to your plane are extremely rare — in fact, you’re much more likely to get into a car accident than you are a plane crash. Still, that doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter a nerve-wracking experience from time to time, especially if you spend a significant amount of time on planes.
Just ask these pilots and flight attendants, who recently took to the internet to share stories about the scariest thing that has ever happened to them on a plane.
45. Critter On A Plane
A flight attendant told me this one. She works for a regional airline. On a night flight, while all of the passengers were asleep, she spotted a small brown critter running from under one row of seats to the other side working its way to the front of the airplane. She thought it was a rat because it was so small. When it got to the galley, she realized it was a miniature chihuahua. It had been eating all the crumbs of food off the floor. She picked it up and carried it around till the owner woke up and freaked out looking for her pooch.
44. Cutting It Close
The scariest experience I’ve had while flying would have to be when one of my instructors ordered a go-around, maybe five feet above the runway, for practice. Stupid me took out the flaps first and then put in power. Let’s just say I’m surprised that the thing didn’t slam into the ground!
43. What A Stunt
I was flying with a student on a nice, clear day. We were doing ground-reference maneuvers (flying fairly close to the ground and snaking over roads, etc). I was pretty pleased with my student’s execution of the maneuver, when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement above the treeline.
On second glance, it turned out to be a stunt plane flying directly into our path. I punched the throttle, pulled the yoke back, and climbed outta there like a homesick angel. I checked the multi-function display (moving map), and there was no indication of another airplane with his transponder on. There were no radio calls in the area. Fine, I thought, he doesn’t have to do any of those, despite the fact that they are the smart thing to do.
And then this jerk starts shadowing us really, really closely. I couldn’t descend to redo the maneuver for fear of getting too close to this hotdog.
42. Caught In The Crosswind
We almost crashed coming into O’Hare. The copilot was pretty inexperienced and tried to touch down during an insanely fast moving crosswind. He should have circled around again. I was seated in the back of the plane (CRJ900). Both passengers next to me had a death grip on my hand or knee. I was covered in bruises. I’ve never seen a pilot so angry. He was cussing out the copilot the whole way to the hotel.
41. A Birthday Surprise
I was doing my first solo cross country in a 1975 PA28-151 when, at 3,500 feet, no more than 20 feet off my nose, a “Happy Birthday” balloon shoots up at probably 1,500 feet per minute. That definitely caught me off guard.
40. Child’s Play
Flight attendant here. Honestly, our planes are extremely well maintained and our pilots and air traffic controllers are very well trained, so the odds of something horrible happening in regards to crashing or malfunctioning are very slim. The worst thing that has ever happened to me was being punched in the face by a very horrible four-year-old girl. That was genuinely pretty scary because I had never felt compelled to punch a child in the face before, and I really had to restrain myself that day.
39. A Christmas Nightmare
My dad was a certified commercial pilot but was not working as such at the time (post-Vietnam there were a lot of pilots and he couldn’t find a job).
When I was six, we flew from Orlando to Miami on Christmas Eve, during the day, to visit my grandparents in a four-seater. My mom was heavily pregnant with my brother.
I was in the back and had my seatbelt off. (Never again.) We hit some sort of air pocket and the next thing I know, my head is on the ceiling and the plane is spiraling towards the ground. It happened so fast! From my perspective, the ground was spiraling up at me. My mom and I were screaming. Dad somehow pulled us out of it about 500 feet or so before we hit the ground.
My mom’s drink was spilled all over her pretty dress. I remember that well.
Obviously, this put a damper on my whole plan to look for Santa’s sleigh in the sky. But we had to fly back that night and somehow my mom made me excited to look for him again.
But yeah, the whole family was nearly wiped out on Christmas Eve.
38. Dodging Geese
In flight training on a go around, the engine went to full power then dropped back down to nearly idle. There was no longer enough runway to land immediately. Somehow we managed a 180-degree turn and landed in the opposite direction.
As an airline pilot, on a smooth day in clear skies at cruise, I suddenly heard a bang and got bounced so hard I nearly hit my head against the window next to me. No idea what that was. There was no damage to the plane.
Also as an airline pilot, I once had a flock of geese coming right at us on short final. I dove the plane down a little bit but there’s only so much you can do with that little warning. Somehow we missed them all.
37. Lightning In A Cloud
I was on my cross-country flight as a student pilot; it’s something you have to do to get your license. Leaving Chicago going to Ohio, we were flying under storm clouds with some bumpy conditions. This was my show, so I was at the controls and my instructor was basically just watching.
A little turbulence kicks up. It was expected, no problem, little airplanes actually handle turbulence well. It’s less “bumpy” and more “leaf on water” kind of feeling. Boom — out of nowhere we end up getting shoved and shaken like ice in a cocktail shaker and zipped up right into a storm cloud. This is before I got my instrument flying certification and there is no visibility. I can’t hear anything because my headset cord came unplugged and I am FREAKING OUT. I am proud I didn’t pee myself.
My instructor just put his hand calmly on top of mine, plugged in my headset and said, “Relax, watch the artificial horizon and altimeter, and don’t kill us.” Thanks, Rick.
To make a long story short, we survived and I got to learn what lightning looks like from inside a cloud.
36. Minor Miscalculation
We almost crashed into trees upon takeoff due to miscalculation of weight and density altitude. As in the bottom of the aircraft was skimming the tops of the trees. I thought for sure we were going to crash. It was to the point where the copilot had given up and was just repeatedly yelling obscenities.
35. Plane Among Parachutes
My father is a pilot and flies his small single prop plane himself. One day, we were flying through a common skydiving area. ATC tells us we are clear to fly through. About two minutes after that, we see parachutes opening all around us. Luckily nobody was in our direct path of flight, but still, knowing that at any second your plane could hit a dude parachuting and kill him and yourself, is nuts.
34. Holding It Down
My mother was a flight attendant for Continental a while back. During a domestic flight, one of the seals on a rear door either broke or came loose and basically she and another flight attendant had to hold it closed until they could make an emergency landing. She said it was so loud that she thought she was going to lose her hearing, and the sudden pressure change probably didn’t help.
33. Help On Board
DC-9 (maybe an MD-80, don’t remember), back in the late 80s. I was a passenger flying from DFW to BHM. Bad, bad southern storms, tops around 50,000 feet, turbulence that would throw you up into the overheads if you weren’t belted in. Halfway through the flight, the plane gets hit by lightning.
The descent, approach, and landing into BHM seemed like a race to beat the storms; everything was done at what seemed to be a much higher rate of speed than usual, including the landing and subsequent rollout taking up nearly all of the 11,000-foot runway.
The pilot got a cheering ovation from the passengers as we rolled up to the gate. While we’re exiting, turns out the two guys seated in front of me were company pilots deadheading. When we got to the exit, the pilot looked at them and said, “Dang, if I knew you guys were on board, I would’ve had you come up front and help.”
32. An Almost-Fatal Fight
I am not crew, but my stepfather is a commercial pilot (or was, he is retired now).
He told us once he had a fight with this guy who happened to be his copilot on his next flight, so they were not talking to each other.
During the landing, they almost crashed… because they still were not talking to each other. My stepdad blames the idiot, but I think both of them were idiots.
30. Tragic Turkey Vulture
I am a student pilot here. The scariest thing to happen to me in flight was a turkey vulture at 5,000 feet flew between the strut, cockpit, and propeller blade (Cessna 172). I was definitely checking my pants after that event because had the bird been closer, I might have died or lost an engine.
29. Heart Attack Mid-Flight
I’m not part of a crew, but on my flight from New York City to London earlier this year, something happened that not many passengers found out about.
Some guy was sick as heck and was lying behind curtains, cramping on the floor. He was close to dying; luckily there was a doctor onboard the plane. We arrived two hours earlier than expected, and when we landed we were instructed to stay in our seats for like 15 minutes because an ambulance crew got on and helped the poor guy.
I should add that we were doing 1150 kph=715 mph (ground speed) in a Boeing 777 at some points in the journey, which is very close to the ground speed of sound. The engine noise was very loud, making it impossible to sleep without earphones.
28. Windowless Plane
My girlfriend used to fly for a domestic Thai airline, Bangkok to Chiangmai or something similar. Anyway, after the plane had landed and she had said thank you to all the passengers, the pilot walked out of the cockpit looking a little worse for wear. Why? One of the windows had come off the cockpit. Luckily they weren’t flying too high when it happened, but dang that’s scary.
27. Sidelined By The Snow
I was on a flight that was supposed to go from Chicago to Buffalo, but there was an insane snow storm happening. We spent an hour on the Chicago tarmac getting de-icing fluid on the wings. Once we were in the air, there was mad turbulence. On our approach to Buffalo, it felt like we were on a roller coaster as the plane went up and down, circling the runway. After about a half hour of this, the pilot said that we couldn’t land due to the snow and we only had about a half hour or so left of fuel, so we were going to try and make it to Albany. Made it to Albany safely at four a.m.
26. Put Some Ice On It
I was flying and there was a problem with the toilet water. Basically, we couldn’t flush, so the flight attendants dumped a bunch of ice in it after everyone went to cover up the urine/poo combo. Good times on the ERJ-145.
25. Weak Windshield
Cruising along seven miles high, the outer pane of the windshield directly in front of my side absolutely shattered into a thousand pieces. It sounded like someone fired a shotgun in the cockpit. We ended up diverting. Got on the ground safely and waited for a spare airplane to be sent so we could continue. Imagine watching this happen directly in front of your face and being told a few hours later to go back up and try again. This is why pilots are more than just button pushers.
24. San Fran Slip Up
My dad was flying into San Fran a few years ago (he’s a pilot, I believe it was a Boeing 757 or something).
Anyway, he was flying and another plane was on the same route going his direction. Luckily, he and the other pilot went up and he went down. The aircraft control tower did not report in.
I think it was in the news at San Fran, not sure, but luckily my dad’s safe!
23. Dry Flight
We ran out of liquor. Now that’s a real emergency.
22. Engine Emergency
I’m just a private pilot getting my hours to be a commercial pilot, but the scariest would be an engine failure at 1,200 feet. After failing to restart the engine, we declared an emergency. Luckily, I was with my instructor so in that case, he handles controls and I do communications and checklists.
21. Lost In The Forrest
I was getting my glider pilot license and one of the pilots in training went on his first solo flight at the end of the day. It was the last flight of the day so the rest of us were watching his approach, and we all saw his glider suddenly disappear under the trees of the forest that’s right behind the runway. We were told to go back to the dorms while the people in charge were to investigate the crash. The guy who crashed walked into our dorm a couple of hours later, completely fine. He got really lucky to leave that situation completely unharmed. I’ve heard of cases where people crash into forests and get impaled by branches.
20. Lights Out
I was on a flight that was struck by lightning. All of the lights went out for a while. The pilot came on and told us, “Ah, we have been struck by lightning. Happens now and then. Nothing to worry about.” But he said it in that slightly squeaky voice that was not totally convincing. I assume when lightning hits the nose of the plane the pilots are temporarily blinded. That is the scary part. Of course, we were bumping around in a big storm and in a small plane.
19. Lack Of Oxygen
I’m studying for my PPL, and have only done a handful of lessons. But the most nerve-racking thing for me on one of my lessons was when the instructor pulled the fuel mixture lever out and we started to nose dive quite steeply. I recovered well though.
The only other odd experience I had on an aircraft was on a DC-10 back in 2003. We took off and the oxygen masks along the row of four seats in the middle all dropped down, but only four of them did.
18. Planes In Proximity
I was a passenger on a flight 20 years ago where something strange happened about two minutes after takeoff. We were climbing steadily, and then suddenly took a STEEP dive down. I remember looking out the window and then suddenly feeling that floating feeling where your stomach is in your chest. I really thought the plane was going down. The sound of the engines is burned into my head because I swear they got louder than I’ve ever heard an engine get before.
Anyway, the plane levels out and we went along with our flight. No one says anything. I’m sitting in first class when I hear the stewardess open the cockpit door and say something I couldn’t understand, then I hear what I’m pretty sure was the pilot yelling, “Another plane, private!”
I assume another plane was flying without following directions and got close enough that the ATC told the pilot to nope out of there. I never got any more information about it, but I was only 14 at the time so I doubt anyone would fill me in anyway.
We all ended up getting refunds for our tickets and $250 in credit for another flight. Sweet. This was when Continental was still around.
17. Eager To Exit
When I was 10, I got up to use the bathroom on the plane. Being my first flight ever, I just found the first door and followed the instructions to open it. I pulled for a few seconds before giving up and getting my dad. I walked him back to the emergency exit and told him the bathroom door wouldn’t open. He froze for a second, grabbed my arm and ushered me to the obviously labelled restroom and never mentioned it again.
What I’m curious about is why all the other passengers around the door didn’t question why I was vigorously jiggling the emergency exit handle at altitude, just slowly waiting for fate to work its magic.
16. Not The Best Opener
I was on a plane just chilling when a man stands up with a beer and a knife he snuck on to the plane somehow. Totally thought he was gonna try to hijack the plane. Instead, he uses the knife to open his beer and sits back down. A flight attendant came and politely asked him for the knife until the end of the flight, and he obliged. It was terrifying for about two minutes, but that’s it.
15. A Dangerous String
A friend shared her experience when she started work as cabin crew. She was in charge of locking the plane door. Mid-flight, she realized that there was a strange flapping sound and discovered she had not secured the door properly. There was a really small piece of string (not sure what) that was stuck between the door and the jamb.
14. A Rocky Start
I’m not an airline pilot, but I fly small planes as I build my hours to get to that point. A copilot and I were hired to fly a Cessna across the country. We stopped for fuel and on takeoff, we got to only about 100 feet when the plane stopped climbing and started doing the exact opposite of that.
We turned and lined up with a different runway, but we were still coming down very hard and very fast. The plane hit the runway and then went off the side into the dirt and stopped only 70 feet from where it first hit the ground, which isn’t much considering we were going at highway speeds. I broke eight bones, including three vertebrae and was in the hospital for about three months as well. But despite this, I still want to get back in the plane and fly again.
13. Heated Blanket
I was at the Heathrow police station custody desk when a little old woman was being bought in shouting and cursing. I asked the police office what she had done; he told me she had set fire to a blanket on a flight.
12. Diverted From Disney
We had to remove a woman and her two little kids from the plane that were on their way to a trip to Disney World.
This was because TSA found illegal substances and a pipe in her bag.
11. Frightened Flight Attendant
I was on a flight back from Florida. A flight attendant taps me on the shoulder and asks if I would please move to the emergency exit. I say sure, so she runs through how the door works and what I would need to do in the case of an emergency.
We taxi and take off. She’s in the jump seat facing me, and were having some small talk. Suddenly, at about five thousand feet, there is a loud bang and the door moves ever so slightly. The same thing happens at ten thousand and she looks visibly upset. She asks me, “What was that?” I said, “I don’t know but I’m not taking off this seatbelt.” It stayed on the entire flight. I think I was more unnerved by her reaction than the noise. She looked on the verge of tears.
10. Hit By A Carry-On
A few years ago, I was on a flight in a ~20 row prop plane, between LAX and Mammoth Lakes, which hit some very extreme turbulence. In the middle of drink service, the captain made the announcement that everyone should finish their drinks and buckle their seat belts, and for the flight attendants to please secure the cabin.
Within a minute, we were bumping up and down like crazy — people were openly crying, small objects were rolling around the floor of the cabin, and the attendants were being thrown around a bit as they struggled back to the front of the plane. As the last attendant approached the front of the plane, we dropped for almost two seconds. She was thrown up to the ceiling, and then when we caught solid air again, slammed into the ground, where she was promptly hit in the head by a floating hard case carry-on.
We turned back towards LAX, and she was carried out on a stretcher as soon as we landed.
9. Bumpy Drink Service
I was flying through the midwest when traveling to look at colleges, and we were in the middle of drink service when we start to hit some unexpected turbulence. It starts off as only a little rocking back and forth but seems to be getting worse. The flight attendant has stopped walking down the aisle. She’s holding onto a seat to keep her balance when we must have hit a pocket of air as the plane dipped so suddenly she flew right up off the aisle, hit the roof of the plane, fell back down, and ran full sprint down the aisle to her seat and strapped in.
I will always remember the gasp among the passengers and the silence as everyone looked around wondering if this is how we die.
8. Death On Board
Someone died. He was traveling alone so we just put a blanket over him until we were able to land. No one knew except for the doctor who had been helping us onboard. We had moved everyone sitting next to him in order for the doctor to help him, so the doctor just sat next to the guy for the rest of the flight. We had to make an emergency stop. The guests knew someone on board was sick cause we made an announcement asking for a doctor but they didn’t know the guy getting taken off the flight was dead. It was a crazy day.
7. Brace Yourself
I was flying to Okinawa. It was a very long but smooth flight. We were about two hours away from landing when it started to get bumpy… REALLY bumpy. The pilot said we were hitting some really rough air and told us we should be “okay if you remain seated and sea–”
Before he could finish his sentence we hear, “BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!” and we fell out of the sky. Literally, we dropped a few hundred feet before the pilots managed to regain control.
6. Bathroom In A Bottle
I once watched a fully grown man state that he couldn’t hold it anymore right as the seatbelt sign turned on for landing. He proceeded to whip it out and pee in a water bottle in the middle of a plane descending for landing. The dude just showed his junk to everyone.
5. Compensated With Chocolate
I was onboard an A343 Swiss Air flight from Cairo to Zurich back in 2011. The flight was lovely up until we were above the Alps. Of course, I was seated on a window seat right next to the wing towards the front, so I could see both engines. There were some mesmerizing clouds tens of thousands of feet high, and I was enjoying the scenery. Then out of nowhere, we drop 1,000 feet in a matter of seconds. The seatbelt sign was deactivated. Okay, fine. Flight continues peacefully.
We then become like a powerball number about to drop out of the plastic tube thing. All I see are the engines shaking violently and hearing what sounded like cracking. People who weren’t wearing their seatbelts flew out of their seats, personal belongings from the overhead compartments were flying all over the place… It was terrible.
We were probably mere meters away from the peaks of the Alps. Everybody started praying. The person next to me held onto me saying they didn’t want to die alone.
When we landed, the crew gave everyone little red chocolates that were some of the best I’ve ever had. Of course, I took a handful.
4. Paint Gun Pat Down
I was going from one paintball event in Toronto to another in NY but had to bring some gear with me because I didn’t have duplicates to send down to NY with my buddies. I didn’t want to bring any checked baggage, so I ended up carrying my paintball gun in a backpack.
Lucky me, I was selected for the random search while waiting at the gate. So I walked up to the guard and had to explain to them what they were going to find before opening my bag. They laid all of my equipment out on a table (gun, barrels, mask and some other misc stuff). I was pooping bricks while she was going through my pack. The she just let me go. No questions, just got to pack up and get on the plane.
Mind you, this was pre-9/11.
3. Problematic Passenger Door
I’m a flight attendant on small 50-passenger planes (CRJ100/200’s). When there are about 40 minutes left in the flight, I get a call from the flight deck that they have an indicator reading that my passenger door is not locked. So I double check the physical deadbolt indicators on the door and realize two out of the eight indicators are a little misaligned. The door is not locked.
So to be safe, I stop service and sit down for the rest of the flight directly next to the door, praying that it is just an issue with the indicator up in the flight deck. I’m sure that my face is flushed.
For the rest of the 40-minute flight, I am cracking down on every person that attempts to stand up and every seatbelt that I hear being undone. I don’t want any unlucky people being sucked out if the door happens to suddenly fly open.
People start getting annoyed and start asking questions as to why the seatbelt sign has been on for so long, and I just tell them that the pilots think there might be some major turbulence soon. Thankfully, all is well and we land with no issue. A few people getting off the plane are telling me how terrible the experience was and how badly they had to go to the bathroom and I wouldn’t let them. If only they knew… C’est la vie.
2. Lipstick Warning
My mom was once on a flight where a man got so drunk that he decided to pee on the two people sitting next to him. One being an underaged girl and the other being a dwarf. And when the Air Marshall arrested him, he asked, “Am I being arrested because it was sexual?” That comment tacked sexual assault to the charges.
Also, another time she walked into the bathroom and someone had written on the mirror “There’s a bomb onboard!” in red lipstick.
1. Dwelling On The Delay
I have been flying for a major Australian airline for the last five years. I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff.
The scariest was having a decompression and making an emergency landing back to Melbourne. Basically, the air conditioning pack that pressurizes the cabin shat itself so we were losing oxygen in the cabin.
We made an emergency descent and everything was fine. It was so hairy though. All the while, passengers were complaining because they were going to be delayed.