Pilots have bad days just like the rest of us. The only difference is, we aren’t thousands of feet above the air, responsible for the lives of our passengers. While the captains in these stories will have you on the edge of your seat, their passengers at the time were snacking on pretzels, none the wiser.
35. When A Plane Lands On Top Of Another Plane
When I was getting my pilot’s license, the airport I was training at had one of the oddest collisions I had ever heard of. On final approach (the final straightaway where planes come straight into land), two small planes at different altitudes collided mid-air preparing to land on the same runway. The plane at the higher altitude actually landed perfectly on top of the lower plane. The instructor in the lower plane was able to safely and successfully land his plane with the other plane sitting on top of it. That has got to be a one in a million chance of that happening successfully.
34. When Your Dad Is A Super Hero
My dad is a pilot and owns a Piper Saratoga seven-seater. We have exactly seven people in our family, and as the kids (me included) grew up and weighed more, taking off for family trips became more and more precarious. In the later years, we’d have to edge up and squeeze together in weird places so our weight would distribute in the right way, and even then we’d chew up every foot of runway in order to get off the ground. But none of this phased me— a child’s blind trust that Daddy was a perfect god-like pilot. One time, we were flying south and went through some weird weather, and ice began to build up. My mom and dad were in the cockpit, and me and my four sisters were in the back. I woke up right as we landed, and I was told we were in Kentucky. We got a hotel room that night and I remember my dad getting a 12-pack of beer and looking shaken. When I got older, the story came out: the ice built up on the wings and eventually covered the window and made it so my dad couldn’t see. It also was weighing the plane down so that we were losing altitude, and for some reason, it wasn’t melting even as we sank. We had to do an emergency landing, and there was an airport nearby, except now my dad couldn’t SEE the runway to land the plane. He had to circle around the pattern several times, missing the runway once, then twice, losing altitude each time. His third and final try, he managed to look through his little side window thingy that opens up and somehow landed. If he hadn’t made it that third time, we would have died. My mom told me that she didn’t wake us because she wanted us to die in our sleep, not in fear.
33. Close Call, Iowa
My father was a corporate pilot. Was flying over Iowa at about 12,000 ft when they flew into a downdraft. They lost control of the plane and started losing altitude fast. They fought for control of the aircraft for about 15 seconds and managed to regain it where the altimeter read about 1100-1200 feet. They lost 10,000 feet in about 15 seconds. The part that freaked my dad out was something that he didn’t think about until a few minutes after they regained control. The altimeter measures altitude at feet above sea level. The ground in Iowa is around 800-900 feet above sea level. That meant that when they regained control they were only about 300 feet above the ground.
32. Do Or Die Time
Ex CH-124 pilot here. Here’s an old war story for you. I was the aircraft commander on exercise with the fleet far from shore and started having bad tail rotor vibrations. We called in the emergency and went through our checklist procedures while turning back towards our ship. The bad vibrations continued and by the book, I should have elected to ditch the helicopter in the drink as a land-immediately type of emergency. Really bad things happen to helicopters when you don’t have a tail rotor.
At that point, we were already alongside the ship as they were finalizing prep for Emergency Stations. To the ships credit, they annihilated the minimum time to get ready by half. Just shows how a real situation puts folks into high gear compared to an exercise. However, we still did not have clearance to land. It’s literally do or die time though.
At that point, I made the call to take the deck anyway as a judgment call. It worked out and we landed without further incident but boy did the ship’s captain tear a strip out of me for that later.
I distinctly remember shaking a fair bit after it was all said and done and the helo was shut down on deck. For the first time, it occurred to me that I really had the fate of five crew members in my hands and it was solely my call about putting their lives in jeopardy by going in the ocean. Very interesting life experience for me to be sure!
31. If They Only Knew
I fly 737’s for a major airline. Scariest by far was doing the circling approach to land on a runway in Innsbruck, Austria. We do a lot of training for Innsbruck. Basically, it’s in the middle of a very tight valley with mountains rising up to 13,000 feet. It is very demanding and we actually require three pilots (rather than two) to go as there is so much to take in. There are three different escape maneuvers if we get into trouble (as we can’t out climb the mountains) and if we were to lose an engine it would be a bad day out but something we train for. Anyway, the circling approach takes us VERY close to terrain on our left, and at the end we basically have to dive down over power lines on a ridge just a few hundred feet beneath the aircraft while turning onto short final (our briefing material actually says, once you’re clear of the power cables, increase rate of descent to over 1000 feet per minute). When I flew the approach (only done it once) the winds were crazy, the aircraft was all over the place but somehow we kept it stable and landed. When the aircraft came to a stop my heart was literally pounding in my chest and I was sweating profusely— not a good feeling. When disembarking, the passengers gave lots of good comments like “awesome approach” and “great landing”— if only they knew all three of the pilots just peed themselves!
30. Off A Cliff
Landing in Jersey (UK). Jersey is a very short runway, the shortest runway we land on by far, with one end of the runway leading over a cliff and into the sea. 737’s can just about land on it but we are quite limited to certain weights and winds. It is always interesting. We usually use max brakes and max thrust reverse. With a headwind, it is no big deal really but it’s never 100% comfortable. On one particular day, we had the maximum tailwind we were allowed to accept (means a longer landing distance due to increased groundspeed) at the maximum weight— right on the limits. The captain floated the landing for only half a second but still managed to touch down just inside the landing markers. I have never been so sure that we would not stop in time, I thought we would end up in the sea. We just made it. The passengers in Jersey are used to braking hard so they were none the wiser. It might sound dodgy but our performance calculations are very precise and it worked out okay.
Jersey is also very safe to fly to, I fly there every few weeks and it is usually fun and a non-event. 95% of the time we will be landing with a headwind and will stop with room to spare. Landing with a tailwind is not ideal on a short runway but it was our only choice this one time at max weight. One more knot of tailwind and we wouldn’t have landed if our wheels didn’t touchdown inside the markers we would have aborted the landing— no risks are taken. The cliff at the end of the runway in Jersey makes no difference to the safety of the runway. There are lots of runways that end over cliffs (Dubrovnik) or sloping terrain, or towards the sea. If there is grass or buildings at the end of the runway instead it is just as dangerous, in fact, having buildings or obstacles in the approach/takeoff path is more limiting.
29. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s A Sky Diver About To Hit Your Wing
I’m an airline transport pilot instructing in single-engine Cessnas and I hate skydivers. Not as people, mind you, but as aviators. They don’t seem to follow the rules. I was practicing holding over North Florida that happens to be on the field of a very popular skydiving airport. We were on a flight plan and there were some clouds over the airport. In fact, we were punching in and out of them during the hold. Air traffic control advised us about skydivers in the area and we kept a lookout. The plane I was flying had a skylight, two oblong windows above our heads— and thank goodness. As we were about to cross the fix, we popped out of the clouds and I saw two black figures drop right in front of our nose. Like someone above us was dropping sacks of potatoes. I immediately looked up through the skylight window to see a parachute canopy unfurling and a very scared skydiver being jerked back as his canopy inflated. I would guess he missed hitting our tail by about 10 feet. Note to skydivers: Don’t jump through clouds, or even near clouds. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
28. Only One Engine Loss Away From Going In The Drink!
My aunt is a retired flight attendant from United Airlines who used to regularly fly a route to/from LAX – Hong Kong. Aircraft was 747. On one flight returning from Hong Kong, they lost two engines. The flight was mainly in the dark and most of the cabin was sleeping. Rather than waking everybody up to tell them that they had lost two engines and upsetting everybody by saying “We’re only one more engine loss away from going in the drink!”, they just kept quiet and hoped nobody would notice. The plane could still fly but airspeed was significantly reduced. They kept on flying, planning to land in Honolulu, but their arrival time would be around the same time or slightly later than they would normally arrive at LAX. The navigation display continued showing the plane flying over the mostly empty ocean, occasionally passing a small island. A few night owls stayed up. The stewards were anxiously watching people to see if anyone twigged to the fact they were running so far behind. When they were about an hour out from Honolulu, a couple of guys started squinting at the navigation display and pawing through magazines, trying to look up latitudes/longitudes. They had to ask asked the one awake passenger to shut up and keep calm, gave him a double cocktail, indicated they were about to start their emergency landing procedures which they did. Most people didn’t realize they were only landing in Hawaii rather than LAX as the plane came in on final approach.
27. Who Let The Dog Out
During a one-hour flight, one guy suddenly felt something poking his elbow. He turns around and there is a GERMAN SHEPHERD just standing there waving his tail and looking at both pilots. He somehow freed himself from the cage he was being carried in and just went to the cockpit. It was hot so they left the cockpit door open (of course they shouldn’t but a lot of people do it) and the cargo is just behind the cockpit. The same guy a few months later had a huge crocodile on board. That would be quite a twist if it managed to free itself too.
26. Don’t Hit The Snooze Button
A pilot was flying a small plane to Atlanta. He put the plane on autopilot and fell asleep. The autopilot will keep your plane on a straight path at the same altitude. He wakes up a few hours later, sees water in every direction. He radios for help. He’s over the Gulf of Mexico. They tell him to make a left and head for Florida. He runs out of gas and has to do an emergency water landing. Coast Guard is waiting to scoop him out of the water after he lands. Plane sinks into the bottom of the Gulf. True story.
25. Survival Mode
Flight instructor here. The scariest situation I’ve been in was when I was teaching a student how to get out of a stall. Normally if you go into a stall you try to keep the wings level, drop the nose, and increase power. Also, keep the plane coordinated. If you do not get out or fail to do the above you can go into a spin. Spins are not a big deal on training aircraft but instructors/students have died from them. Usually, it’s in the form of the student freaking out and white knuckling the controls. I’ve always daydreamed about punching a student in the face in a bad situation but I never thought it would happen. So, this student is going into a stall but as soon as it stalls he freaks out. The plane does make some pretty abrupt movements in a stall so most students get nervous their first few times. This student decided to white knuckle the controls, increase the power, and kick the rudder/ailerons in the direction of the bank. You’d think this guy was doing aerobatics he was so good at spinning. So I’m screaming “get off the controls!” etc. to no avail. He’s just kinda screaming “Oh no, Oh no”. My brain goes into survival mode and I whip my arm across into his chest and keep yelling. Finally, he drops the controls and the plane more or less gets out of the spin itself (love me some Cessnas). I explain what he was doing wrong and we try it again. Same results. I think I gave it one more try before I was like “oh well, let’s go home… we need to talk”. Flash forward to today and the guy is a good pilot and still adding ratings. For whatever reason people think planes are fragile pieces of metal, so it takes some time for them to realize they are very sturdy and can take quite a lot of stress.
24. I Should Just Crash This Thing
Airline Transport pilot flying a cargo (twin engine piston, single pilot). I picked a bad winter to fly in Florida. It was El-Something or La-Something. It was the first time I had picked up icing in a small plane. I started picking up moderate rim ice somewhere over Orlando and kept asking ATC for a lower altitude. They finally let me down to their minimum vectoring altitude but it was no help. I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if I should just crash this thing. At least it would be a controlled crash vs. an iced up stall. I ended up making it but I don’t know how. Also, while flying cargo I got stuck in a downdraft while on a location approach that I was unable to overcome with full power and about 15 degrees nose up. I recovered at about 400ft AGL. Insane.
23. Don’t Forget To Tighten Every Screw
Best story I’ve heard went something like this: The gentlemen had just got his plane out of maintenance and was flying his family to vacation. Somewhere over the mountains, he started hearing some odd noises from his plane. I believe what happened next was a piston rod shot out of the top of the engine cowling and oil splattered all over the windshield. Being unable to see he found a spot on the windshield that the oil had not really covered. As he tells it there was a hole on the side of the plane too and as he’s trying to figure out what to do, chunks of the engine are just falling out. “there goes a mag, there goes a piston”, etc. As it turns out he was right above an airport when it happened so he managed to land it but he’s lucky. At the rate engine was falling out his plane’s balance would have been off pretty quickly which would have inevitably resulted in death. The maintenance guys repaired the plane at no cost… don’t forget to tighten every screw!
22. When You Have To Go At 1,500 Feet
Scariest story I have as a pilot occurred just after I landed. One year just after the semester ended, my buddy (now an airline pilot) and myself rented the cheapest airplane we could find for a long cross country. The airplane is called a Citabria— a cheap, aerobatic tail-wheeled fun machine. We had planned everything, down to the last nickel, and were planning to camp out at a distant grass strip (we’re broke college students). The problems with a cheap airplane are that it’s small and usually underpowered. No problem, as we’re building time towards a commercial license, so off we go. Just as we finish our climb, and set for cruise, my bladder decides to let me know that I should pull over and take a whiz. Check the map and flight log and realize I’m about two plus hours to our next stop. I’ll hold it. Two hours go by, and we’re at a reasonably sized, uncontrolled airport. Normally, a pilot will cross over the field at 1500 ft and check the runway, descend 500 ft to join the circuit and land. I have to pee, real bad… crossing the field, it’s deserted, I’m in an aerobatic airplane so 20-year-old me rolls the airplane almost inverted, pulls hard on the stick, and makes the landing in one, nearly smooth motion. Hi-speed taxi to the terminal, belts off, buddy is left shut down the airplane, and I’m running to the can for the most glorious pee known to man. Angels from on high are singing as I’m floating on a cloud of bliss, finish up, start walking out of the room when my buddy comes in, letting me know that there are 4 RCMP (Canadian federal police) vehicles with lights on outside. I get scared, really scared… go up to the police, ask them what’s going on… some poor farm wife saw my rather aggressive approach, assumed someone had packed it in and called the cops… I told them that I was just up flying, hadn’t heard anyone, but said hey, why don’t one of you hop in the airplane and we’ll go see what we can see… and we buzzed the town searching for my aircraft.
21. Taking A Joy Dive
I’m training in a glider 2-33A. The kid in the back seat doesn’t speak English or understand it. 1,200 feet about to pull release. Release with no problem and start my ascending right-hand turn… but nose continues to drop… pull back on the control column to raise nose… no tension. Check forward and pull back again… still no tension. Start thinking oh no, what happened to my elevator. I start to panic as we are in a nose dive towards the ground at 1000 ft angle going just over 100mph make a panicked mayday call to the ground while frantically pulling on the control column. Next, there’s a loud bang like a shotgun when off in the back seat and I instantly have tension again. Pull out of dive and land glider. My face is white as a ghost and I look back at the passenger to see if he’s fine. He has the biggest smile on his face and yells out a big woohoo! I just about peed myself and he had the time of his life. He thought the dive was part of the flight. Had maintenance check the glider and they said there was nothing wrong… okay maintenance… okay.
20. Smooth Operator
300-hour private pilot here. Took a girl on a date in my 1957 straight tail 182 at night to see the lights of the city and to fly over her house, you know the usual stuff. We were out for about 40 min and decided to return to the airport. At this point, it had been dark for about an hour so there was no horizon to reference. As I got the lights turned on at the airport I started my landing checklist and got to the part about the landing light, pulled the button and nothing. Checked the circuit breaker, wasn’t popped. Tried the button again.. nothing. Well, this will be fun. My date had no idea what was going on and I wasn’t going to clue her in. I turned the runway lights up to full and headed in. As I got to short final, I kept the runway lights in my peripherals and flared about where I thought the runway would be. Softest….landing…ever. No ground-effect, three-point landing… nothing. One of the best landings I’ve ever had and the date was none the wiser. She had a great time!!
19. When Your Pilot Doesn’t Have His Headset On
Student pilot here. A friend of mine decided to tag along during one of my lessons. He offered to pay the extra charge for renting a four-seater plane instead of a two-seater. While the four-seater one was much easier to keep steady, it was a pain to do the maneuvers. It felt so heavy just trying to move it around. Just a few minutes into the lesson, I had to pull up as I was getting too low and the restricted airspace above me increased in altitude limits as well. However, I pulled up too much and the plane stalled. The plane then went into a nosedive with the engine still roaring and accelerating our fall. For the first time in my life, I seriously thought I was going to die. My flight instructor yelled “PULL UP” and we both pulled up. I think he may have done something else as well, but I’m not sure what. I wasn’t that far into my lessons yet. I was pretty shaken up after that and couldn’t properly do the lesson. After we landed, I found out that my friend had his headphones turned off the whole time and didn’t hear the whole thing. He also thought that we were just practicing some special maneuver.
18. Don’t Worry, I’ll Find The Runway
Private pilot here, with just one passenger. Actually, my first passenger after I got my license, so I was a little nervous.
Just moved to a new area and only flew out of the nearby airport twice before taking my friend up. The airport itself is flanked by a class C airport, and an Airforce base; so not much room to fly around on approach.
In any event, when I headed back to land, I couldn’t find the airport. I had the bearing from my GPS, but I just couldn’t spot it by eye… which is a problem. Normally you climb, but if I did that, I would cross into unrestricted airspace.
My friend was already nervous about being in such a small plane, so I didn’t want to make them panic. Instead, I asked them if they wanted to give the controls a try before we landed. I let them do a few slow 360 degree turns until I was able to locate the runway, and they were none the wiser. It may not sound scary, but trust me, nothing is more nerve-racking than not having a safe place to land.
17. That Was A Close One
I had a friend who was really interested in flying, but never really had the opportunity. So one year for his birthday, my Dad offered to take us all up in his plane (small prop). The liftoff capacity was ~600lbs, and all three of us together was just under that, but we should have still been fine. Anyhow, on take off, I notice we’re up to speed and the end of the runway is getting awfully close, but we’re not exactly what you might call airborne. Dad starts pulling back on the stick more and more, and right as I feel us start to catch air, I hear the stall buzzer go off.
At this point, I’m pretty sure my friend has no clue what the buzzer is or what it means, but I’m mentally going through the checklist of what to do when we hit the pine trees at the end of the runway. By some miracle, we barely clear the trees by mere feet, buzzer going off the entire time, up until we get up high enough where we’re not trying to climb so fast.
We waited until the flight was over to fill my friend in on what just happened. Can’t imagine why he hasn’t asked to go back up since.
16. Adult Beverages Needed
I’m just a private pilot, so no (non-aviation) passengers yet. My scariest so far was a wind shear event while turning final (the last turn to align with the runway) at KGKJ, Port Meadville Airport, in PA.
The wind was gusty and varying in its direction, but was mostly down the runway, so we (my instructor and I) decided to at least attempt a landing. The airport is on top of a rather tall hill, and on the adjacent hill is a cluster of very tall (>600′) radio towers. The towers necessitate a ‘short final’ if the wind is just right, meaning you turn in line with the runway closer to it than you might normally, and because of terrain, at KGKJ, that can mean a somewhat steep descent to the runway.
So, we turn in line with the runway, directly over the valley between the hill with the airport, and the hill with the radio towers. In the case of wind blowing over hills and mountains, you can get what’s called a ‘roller’ over the valley. This is a big horizontally rotating current of air that sits in the valley. The motion looks a bit like a tire turning while stuck in a rut. Normally in smaller mountains and hills like what is around Meadville they’re fairly mild, but the wind was just right for this one, and it had some teeth.
As near as we can figure, we flew into the downward motion of the roller just as the wind shifted abruptly from a headwind to nearly a 90-degree crosswind. This not only applied downward force on the aircraft but also stole some of our forward airspeeds, with the wind not contributing to the airflow over the wings anymore. The aircraft dropped very suddenly nearly 100′ (we were only about 500′ above the hillside) and rolled to about a 30-degree right bank. The motion was violent enough that my instructor hit his head on the window from the jolt.
Needless to say, we aborted the landing, climbed to 3,000 feet, and went home. Then we went out and had several adult beverages.
15. Don’t Ignore The Warnings
Commercial helicopter pilot here. Flying tourists around in a JetRanger, I hear a funny whining noise (over all the other whining noises), but all temps and pressures look good. No warning lights. Decide to cut the flight short anyway. Land, passengers disembark, and during my two-minute engine cool down all hell breaks loose with hectic grinding noises. I kill the engine, and as I open the door I just see a massive pool of transmission oil on the ground under the aircraft.
Turns out the freewheeling unit went bad and subsequently the transmission oil got pumped out through it. It was a maintenance error that occurred during installation.
Remember kids, little-whining noises can be warnings of bigger things to come, don’t ignore them!
14. Luck Of The Irish
Taking off from Dublin, I had a full instrument failure at the rotation. We declared pan-pan and held over the sea, trying to sort it out, but as it deteriorated further, decided to shoot for a straight in approach (can’t remember the active runway right now). It was pretty tense up front for those twenty minutes. We also briefed the cabin crew. The 167 SLF (Self Loading Freight) in the back were blissfully oblivious that we had all the instrumentation of a broken down Cessna at that point. But once we landed, we told them what happened, and there was not a single complaint. You’ve got to love the Irish.
13. Bumps Ahead
I was crewing one of the first planes into Nassau after Hurricane Sandy ran through. Lowest pressure I had ever seen at 29.30 on the ground. (standard atmosphere is 29.92 and it rarely deviates more than .3 from that unless you are in some serious weather). I have never been in wind like that. Station was reporting 25 knots gusting to 30 something. The last time I looked inside was about 200 feet and winds were something like 50 knots (GPS readout). The winds also favored a runway that did not have a straight in instrument approach, so we had to fly an approach to a perpendicular runway and circle at about 700 feet (not easy with 50 knots of crosswind).
Resulted in one of the hardest landings (the captain was flying) I have ever experienced. During the landing flare, we were all over the place. Came close to calling the go-around a few times I can say that was the most afraid I have ever been in an airplane. I’m sure the passengers had an idea of what was going on considering how rough the approach was.
12. When You’re Thinking Of Your Funeral, You Know It’s Bad
I was renting a 152 for a pretty cheap price and about five minutes after take off the oil temps were in the red. I nosed over to get some air in the engine and out of nowhere the whole engine caught fire. At this time I was still very near to the airport so I declared an emergency and landed straight away. Even though the flames were scary, the part that really hit home was being asked by ATC how many people there were on the plane just while I was on short final. I figured at that point that I wasn’t going to have an open casket after I crashed.
11. Words You Never Want To Hear From Your Captain
Well, the passengers knew about it, but it happened while in Philadelphia. The standard separation between airliners is around five miles, and I was watching the preceding traffic on our Multi-Function Display as ATC vectored us behind him. Being a good little Boy Scout, I decided to cheat a little and slow the airplane an extra five knots just to let him get farther in front of us, and keep us out of his wake. Little did I know that on that day, with the wind exactly where it was, I found exactly the wrong part of the sky to be in.
Just as I rolled the wings level and joined the approach, my captain looked up and said, “Oh my God.”
The clouds in front of us twisted into a sideways tornado. We were flying directly into the wake of a 757. For a good 10 or 12 seconds (which seemed like an eternity), the airplane was rolling from right to left and back again, up to about 70 degrees, and I couldn’t counteract it with full control deflection. As suddenly as it started, it stopped. We landed normally and everything was fine.
We discussed the severity of the wake turbulence encounter and contacted maintenance for an airframe inspection. The maintenance manuals contained graphs which allowed them to compare things like airspeed, bank angle, altitude, temperature, and pressure to determine the actual load placed on the aircraft. The numbers they came up with were confirmed by the Fight Data Computers. No damage had been done, other than to the nerves of more than one passenger.
Aircraft don’t contain any instrumentation which will give us the exact location of the wake from another aircraft. We use standard separation and best practices to avoid being in the places where it is most likely to be, but there are times when we are not successful at predicting it. That was one of those times.
10. An Oil Spill Can Never Be Good
I was out aerial filming last summer. We had a nose-mounted camera on the helicopter with an operator seated next to me and a producer in the back seat. We spent about four hours flying low level (all under 500′ AGL/ASL and most under 100′) over the North Atlantic filming the coastline, birds and all that good stuff.
On short final for the hangar, I noticed the oil pressure start to fluctuate. I continued on in and landed without incident. When I got out, I noticed a rather large pool of oil on the ground. I helped the camera operator and producer out of the machine and stayed between them and the hangar and kept chatting to them so they would keep their eyes in the opposite direction of the growing slick.
The helicopter lost 3/4 of its engine oil in about one minute and the passengers were never the wiser.
9. When Everyone Gets Quiet
I was finishing up on my instrument rating and I was flying to Willow Run, MI (KYIP). The tower there kept reporting that the winds were fluctuating and changing runways on me (you land into the wind). Eventually, we settled on one. The approach was rather gusty but pretty much down the pipe. Once we hit about 500 feet off the ground the winds were swirling around the airplane. You could feel it, and our airspeed was fluctuating up 15 knots, and down 15 knots (15 knots slow on your final approach speed is pretty significant). When I’m holding five knots above normal approach speed and one second later the stall horn is on it’s a bit frightening.
My flight instructors girlfriend was in the back and had no idea that both he and I nearly peed our pants. After we landed she says: “Why are you guys so quiet?”
8. We’re Headed For The Trees
When I was a new pilot, just had got my PPL, I took some friends flying. I was checked out in a Cessna 172, had a bunch of friends that wanted to go, so I took three guys with me to the airport. The 172 really isn’t made for four adults.
So I’d flown the thing, knew we weren’t structurally overweight or anything, and figured we were good. There was a long main runway and it wasn’t an issue at our weight. Well, that day the main runway was closed. The 4000-foot crosswind runway was open with a row of windbreakers at the end. Never gave it a thought.
My buddies hadn’t been in a small plane and were trusting that I knew what was going on, so they were oblivious during the takeoff roll that we weren’t accelerating like usual. I noticed that fact but didn’t think ‘shorter runway’, until we were nearing the end. Now the rotate speed isn’t much in the 172, maybe 65kts if I remember correct, so I could have brought it to a fairly quick stop at almost any time. But I pushed it instead, too young and dumb to admit defeat and stop the thing.
I estimate that we lifted off with around one hundred feet left, and that’s pulling it into the air prematurely, still too slow for safety, especially at our weight. Then we had the trees. I kept pulling seeing them come, which meant the speed was now slowing, already too slow. This was dangerously close to stalling. I suppose my buddies saw this happening but since I didn’t seem too panicked or didn’t say anything, just flying the plane, I guess they thought all was well. Obviously, we cleared the trees, but I’d say by 20 or so feet. Not my finest hour,
But, I learned something that most pilots do at some point: your confidence and perceived ability can sometimes bite you in the behind. Nobody mentioned it, so I didn’t mention the fact that I put their lives in danger.
7. Get Out The Barf Bags
Airline transport pilot here, flying a regional airline, 50-seat Embraer: I was flying in the Northeast US during a particularly severe NorEaster. The millibars were stacked so tight you’d think you were looking at the rings of an old sequoia. The flight was short, about 50 minutes or so, but the ride was miserable. Solid IFR conditions from about 500 feet to FL300. We never got out of the weather. Heavy rain, the wind so bad you could hear it buffeting the fuselage while at cruise. The turbulence was severe chop or worse from 15,000 feet to the surface. The autopilot was unable to keep up and failed somewhere over New York. Upon landing in the New York area, the tower controller asked me, “How was the ride?” I just laughed. The turbulence was so bad my eyeballs couldn’t focus on the instruments. Everyone on board had puked.
6. Dump Truck Ahead
Private pilot here. I’ve only been scared once in an airplane. Flying into Clarksville, VA, we were about to touch down when a big dump truck decided to lumber out onto the runway in front of us!
5. Not All Silence Is Golden
I actually am a commercial pilot. I fly a 767 for a medium sized charter/cargo company. I’ve been rather fortunate to not have any major systems failures in my eight years of professional piloting, however, I did have an interesting event a few years ago flying an Embraer 145 (50-seat regional jet).
Shortly after takeoff, we were struck by lightning with the simultaneous boom of thunder. After a quick instrument check the aircraft was performing normally, and neither myself or my first officer actually saw the lightning strike the airplane, so we continued the flight.
After about ten or so minutes of silence on the radio, we called Air Traffic Control (ATC) to ask if they had forgotten to change us to the next frequency. DEAD SILENCE. After a couple more attempts we changed to the secondary radio to find ATC had been trying to reach us all along. The lightning bolt had entered through the nose and exited through the #1 radio antenna, burning it severely and breaking it into pieces. The aircraft was grounded upon arrival until a replacement antenna could be found.
Not an altogether scary story as the aircraft is equipped with systems in place to counter the effects of a lightning strike, but the few minutes of radio silence was less than comfortable. Fly safely my friends, and if your dream is to fly, don’t give up. It’s the best job I could ever imagine.
4. No Fly Zone
My dad’s a private pilot and we live in Florida. We were going to see family on the opposite coast (East to West) and he decided he wanted to fly over there. Well we did, and we were not in any danger, but he did break a serious flight law or something like that. We ended up flying right over Disney World, which is a major no-fly zone. I guess he didn’t check his flight path and we didn’t know until we saw the Epcot ball beneath us. It was a pretty interesting flight, to say the least.
3. Everything Is Fine, Right?
I’m a private pilot with a small plane. I damaged a wing during a hard landing after a heavy crosswind gust, I started the go-around without realizing I had wing damage. I got in the air, realized I had damage since a few feet off the ground, was unable to climb fast enough to avoid rising terrain, crashed into the airport boundary fence. The passenger had no idea anything was bad until the last few seconds.
2. Wires Crossed
I’m a private pilot that’s been flying for almost eight years. The airport that I operate out of has electric wires at one end and a highway at the other. when I say at one end I mean literally at the end. there are only 15 feet of space from where the pavement ends to where either cars are or where thousands of volts of electricity are. Its also a really, really short runway (only about 1,100 feet) One day in the middle of summer a couple of years ago I was up in a C152 with my instructor and it was really hot out, let’s just say that those wires got really close to tangling us up on takeoff.
1. Anyone Home?
Commercial pilot here. One time I got no response from the approaching control at Dulles airport for five full minutes. At the same time, I started hearing the song from the movie Die Hard playing in my head. It was the scariest thing ever happened to my flying career.