Flying is one of the more stressful aspects of traveling. While it's the fastest and safest mode of transportation, for some it can also be the most stressful. If you have a fear of heights or just flying in general, even light turbulence can be enough to bring you close to a panic attack.
However, most of the time, when passengers become frightened, there is actually nothing wrong with the plane; it's just normal sounds and turbulence. Many people who are scared of flying are often advised to look toward the flight crew when they are scared to gauge their reaction.
That said, just because everything works out in the air the vas majority of the time doesn't mean there aren't occasions when pilots actually do run into tough situations. Below are stories of times when pilots actually averted a disaster without the passengers having any idea.
45. Close Call
Half the passengers in this story had no idea, while the other half likely crapped themselves.
My father was a captain for Eastern Airlines and told a story about almost being at takeoff speed when another commercial jet taxied across his runway. He was going too fast to abort so he had to pull up early and cleared the other plane by feet (don't remember the exact amount). His passengers had no idea, but the other plane's passengers saw everything. I don't know what ended up happening to the other pilot, but my dad got an apology call from him that evening.
44. The Blow Out
My father is a commercial pilot and has been for decades. Used to be a 747-400 co-captain, then a 757 captain; not really sure what he flies these days.
He was in Brazil, or Buenos Aires, or some such place (South America), and on takeoff, the tire blew. It ripped a giant hole right through the wing of the plane. He had to dump thousands of gallons of fuel and managed to land somehow. The write-up that made the news was something like, "A plane had to do an emergency landing after an event today, no one was hurt."
HOWEVER, all the mechanics and people involved said they absolutely couldn't believe he managed to land that plane in the condition it was in. They claimed he should have crashed and couldn't believe it. Dad was very angry that they didn't tell the passengers and didn't want to fly again for a couple months. He was very shaken. He even sent the pictures of the damage to me and said I should leak them somewhere... but, the fact is, no one cares.
43. Missing Dirt Strip
I fly an older Dash 8. We have lots of little problems: sometimes the nav system blanks out, minor electrical issues. I fly in an area with non-precision ILS so sometimes we only fly VFR approaches, I was landing on a small dirt strip on Baffin Island when a crosswind pushed the aircraft off the approach and we had just enough power to go around. If the plane had been a little heavier I may not be here to tell the story.
42. Blinded By The Light
My dad and his friends were flying in his Piper Cherokee Warrior in the early 80s. They were cruising westbound at night near Atlanta and were on the horn with ATC at Hartsfield Jackson. The tower assured them that they were clear at their current altitude and heading. They hadn't heard from any other planes in the area where my dad was flying.
My dad and his friends are chatting and having a good time when they all feel a sort of low rumbling from their left. Suddenly massive landing lights are shining directly at them. They're so bright they can feel the heat coming off of them. It's a C-5A outta nowhere.
My dad plunges to about 1000 feet and levels off, then gets back on the horn and asks the tower if they're sure they're clear because they almost got crushed by a cargo plane.
Tower comes back with something like, "Oh. OH-uh... roger that we are seeing some activity in that area on radar, maintain heading and altitude."
Turns out military planes sort of do whatever they want and don't really talk to anyone much about it, or at the very least that's how this one was.
41. The Cockpit Knockout
I have been a commercial airline pilot for 12 years. A few years ago, during the middle of a transatlantic flight, we got into some bad turbulence. Nothing I hadn't experienced before, but definitely something that's not fun. My co-pilot was getting back into his chair, and right as he sat down we hit a bump and his elbow went flying into my face. Knocked me out cold for about 30 seconds. Thankfully my co-pilot was able to hold everything down and he didn't panic. When I came to, it was the worst last stretch of a flight I've ever experienced. Terrible headache and bad weather.
40. Self Shredder
I was on a flight with our squadron as a maintainer, and the primary hydraulics pump decided to shred itself in engine number 2. 3/4 of the fluid was leaking out of the drain mast and the loadmaster was nervously staring at the engine for about 2 hours. Eventually I told him that everything was fine because there's a second pump in the engine, the minimum amount of hydraulics was still in the system, and even if that all fails there are 6 other pumps that can take over for that pump.
He still checked the engine every 10 minutes.
We landed in Tenerife and partied our faces off until the mobile repair team showed up with parts and tools. When we removed the pump, the drive shaft inside the pump was literally falling apart in our hands. It was amazing to see that even though it had destroyed itself, everything was contained in the unit and didn't affect the engine.
39. Immediate Descent
My Dad is a pilot and has had some interesting experiences. The worst was when he was taking off (or maybe landing, I don't remember too well) from Manchester in a DanAir charter jet.
There was a trainee air traffic controller on duty. Whatever caused him to do it I'm not sure, but he had accidentally sent my dad's plane and a British Midlands jet on a straight course toward each other. Dad got the message on the radio saying, "Descend immediately," and as he did so the British Midlands jet passed over them, filling up the entire windscreen. I don't think any of the passengers ever really knew what happened at the time due since they couldn't see out the front of the plane. but they very nearly collided.
38. The Anonymous Crack
Something smashed into the windshield and there were many visible cracks. We had no idea what we had hit. Thankfully it didn't go through every layer and we remained protected from the 600 mile per hour winds, but with the sound it made and damage it did to the windshield I bet it was pretty close to breaking through.
We had absolutely no clue what had smashed into us; it was way too big to be a bird. My copilot guessed that we ran straight into a meteor and honestly I believed him, since I couldn't think of any better ideas.
37. Winds And Waffles
I went to an aeronautical university so the majority of students were either aerospace engineers or pilots. My boyfriend is an engineer and our good friend is a pilot.
Our pilot friend offered to fly the three of us to a large city an hour away. We flew in, ate some Waffle House, and started flying home. My boyfriend was in front, next to the pilot, and I was in the back.
We were just coming over some large mountains when the air traffic controller lets us know the winds are crazy strong down on the flight line. Our pilot hadn't been cleared to land, so we flew in circles... Until we started to run low on fuel.
The pilot has one of his instructors on the radio, and they decide he can land, even though he doesn't have that qualification.
We prepare for landing. The wind casually bats the plane sideways. We're swaying back and forth, caught in the struggle between wind and pilot. Finally, we touch down and land safely.
I was taking a nap the whole time. After we landed, my friend talked about how scared he was.
36. A Bit Off Course
I personally witnessed what was very close to a commercial airline collision north of Austin.
I was at a driving range, hitting golf balls, just off of I-35 in the afternoon. There was a small prop plane pulling an advertising banner, roughly following along the north-south route of the highway, at the usual altitude, whatever that is.
Then I notice a Southwest plane — a 737 — coming in from the west, towards the highway, perpendicular to it, obviously on the approach flight path to come in for a landing. It was happening really slowly in my mind, but I was mentally tracing the directions of both planes, and it looked like they were going to cross each other's path at the exact wrong moment. I just stared.
Then when the Southwest plane had gotten really close, the prop-plane starts rolling its wings side to side, oscillating really fast. It dropped maybe 50 feet. The planes passed each other, the Southwest flight passing over the prop plane almost exactly in the same spot. Considering the prop plane was carrying a long banner, well, it was a pretty big target. It was amazing to see the whole thing unfold and then come out okay.
35. Smoke And Mirrors
I'm an airline pilot. There were loud, explosive sounds coming from one engine. We know this means an engine stall but passengers sure don't. We immediately followed the checklist which states you must reduce that engine's throttle to bellow stall threshold and operate the engine at that threshold (approx 40% power in our case).
The cabin fills with smoke so we turn the pack (air conditioning) and bleed on that engine off. Cabin crew report sparks coming out of the engine. I go and check. There are indeed sparks but no fire.
We turn back for base station. 15 minutes into our return, we hear banging on that side again. We decided to shut down the engine and operate with just one. We make a nice smooth landing despite the asymmetrical thrust. Everyone's safe. Happy ending.
34. Finding Fire
Flight attendant here. You know what's scarier than seeing a fire on a plane? Not seeing it but knowing it's there. (Turns out it was an electrical fire.)
33. Near-Miss Mishap
I was on a plane that had a near miss. We were flying to Chicago and about to land. Right when the landing gear would normally pop out, the plane shoots straight back up in the air. I looked at the flight attendants, as they know what's normal and what's not. They looked scared. I honestly thought it was a terrorist attack.
We got back up to altitude and the pilot came over the intercom. He told us to stay buckled and it would be just a few more minutes. I was still freaking out at this point, but in a little bit we actually did make a safe landing.
Turns out two planes were attempting to land at the same time and on the same runway. Very scary but everyone was okay.
32. Forgotten Fuel Tanks
I was flying into Oshkosh for the big air show with my (then) girlfriend in a Piper Archer. This was the first year that they had closed the field for being full. Everybody in the pattern diverted to nearby Fond du Lac. I was on short final and remembered to do a quick pre-landing checklist. One of the items was to check the fuel on the fullest tank. I looked at the fuel gauges and I had forgotten to change tanks and was sucking fumes.
I quickly turned on the fuel pump and switched to the fuller tank and landed uneventfully. Lesson learned on distractions. We have been married for 29 years now and I never have told her how close I came to plastering us into a field in Wisconsin.
31. Trapped Wasp
About halfway through a short ferry flight, I realized I had a stowaway wasp that wasn't too happy. It made for an interesting approach and landing. I'm usually a stickler for checklists, but the shutdown one got ignored just pulled the mixture and ran.
30. Bird On Board
I was invited into the cockpit of a flight from Corsica to Paris because the pilot happened to be one of my dad's old coworkers (my father worked in many airlines and had many friends who were pilots). Anyways, I got to sit inside the cockpit from takeoff to landing.
During takeoff, there was a certain point where the plane was going too fast but there was no turning back -- we had to take off. About 0.5s after that point, right as the plane's nose is lifting, a bird flies across the runway and HITS THE SIDE OF THE RIGHT ENGINE!
I know that planes can fly after having struck a bird but apparently at that point if the bird had entered the turbine the plane would have veered right and we would probably all be dead.
29. Struck By Lightning
My cousin was a pilot for one of the feeder airlines. He was descending at night into Pittsburg during an ice storm when there was a bright flash and explosion right in front of the cockpit. He and his copilot couldn't see, couldn't hear. Blind, they increase power and start to climb out of it.
After 10-20 seconds, their hearing and vision start coming back and they're terrified by what they see. All the flight instruments are spinning randomly.
So they start going through the checklist to reboot the plane. Ten minutes later, they make an uneventful landing. Ground inspection reveals a hole the diameter of a pencil in the nose of the plane about a foot in front of the windscreen and another smaller mark on one of the prop blades.
They were struck by lightning.
28. Flying Too High
One time I was flying into Hawaii with really really heavy turbulence. Like, I'm taking if you didn't have seat belts on you'd be rolling around the aisles turbulence. We're bumping up a ton and all of sudden we bank left and drop for about 5 seconds.
Everyone starts freaking out and clutching their seats. Some little kid behind me asks, "Mommy, are we going to crash?"
The same thing happens again about a minute later and now everyone on the plane thinks they're about to die since the pilot hasn't said anything at all to indicate what is going on.
We finally touch down with a rather smooth landing and everyone is super relieved. The pilot comes on the intercom and says, "Sorry guys, we were... Uhh... A little too high... On the descent... and needed to be lower."
I'm not a pilot, but it definitely sounded like nonsense to me.
27. Collision Control
I've been in two instances where Air Traffic Control dropped the ball and had us on a collision course with another aircraft in zero visibility conditions. Both times an almost certain mid-air was averted when the the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) Resolution Advisory kicked in and told us to fly opposite vertical paths in order to stay out of each other's way.
Out of all the safety devices in a modern day jet, TCAS is the one I revere most. I can only imagine how many mid air collisions it's prevented since becoming mandated equipment.
26. Just A Leg Cramp
In the late '90s, in Indiana, a flight instructor at my university was shot while on a flight with students. There was some crazy farmer that hated planes even being over his land and would fire at them with a .22 rifle whenever he saw one. One day he just happened to get lucky with a low flying plane.
The guy lived and was fine; he described it as thinking his leg had suddenly cramped until he realized he was bleeding.
25. Conflict Of Interest
My most recent one was in a holding pattern. I was listening to ATC clearing another plane to land on the same runway in the opposite direction that another plane was taking off. I immediately went on the radio and informed the other planes about the conflict. The plane taking off aborted the take-off and the landing plane aborted the landing. Very quickly another ATC took over for the one that goofed.
24. Any Runway Will Do
As a passenger, I had a good view of this, but not many other people seemed to notice. We were landing in a wind storm and were lined up on one runway (still a couple of hundred feet from touch down) when a giant gust of wind blew us off that runway and the pilot successfully landed the plane on the next runway over. It was either incredible foresight by the pilot or sheer luck combined with good reflexes and piloting skills.
23. Honoree Pilot
My son has a degree in professional piloting and went back to school to become an air traffic controller. He works out of the MSP sector, in Farmington, MN.
Once he was a passenger on a flight from Alaska to MSP and "something didn't feel" as he said. He told the flight attendant to ask the pilot if they had turned off the yaw adapter, whatever that means. The flight started sounding better, and since the flight crew had an empty seat in the flight deck, he was invited to sit up in the cockpit with them. He loved it.
22. Hard Brake
I believe not many other passengers realized how close we came to disaster on a flight a few years ago. We had just landed in Detroit and were taxiing along at a pretty good clip when suddenly the pilot hit the brakes hard. I look out my window on the left side of the plane and see a jet touching down right in front of us on the runway we were just about to cross. Would have definitely been a collision.
21. Passenger To Passenger
I was a passenger flying over Miami from Belize and out the window, I saw another plane climbing through our altitude probably 200m away. I could see passengers in the other plane and they looked alarmed. I'm guessing there were alarms going off in the cockpit!
20. Sharp Turn
On my flight in January from Orlando to Long Beach (JetBlue) the plane all of a sudden yanked up HARD. It felt so weird... almost like going down for a split second, then very quickly shooting upward. The engines got real loud too. People started yelling, and the girl behind me started shrieking and crying.
A few seconds later we leveled out... and people began nervously chuckling. The pilot came on the intercom saying that another plane had come close to hitting us, and didn't know why the ATC hadn't told him anything.
That was some white knuckle stuff.
19. That Back Fired
My dad is an airplane pilot for Southwest Airline. The worst story he told me was when the back of the plane caught on fire before take off. Apparently there was an electrical problem that started a small fire. Everyone was evacuated and got out safely. The runway was closed for about 2 hours because of it though!
18. Too Late To Notice
Actual airline pilot here, 4000+ hours. The only incident I've had was a precautionary engine shutdown during flight. It occurred on a quite popular turboprop at night. We had a duct overheat and, per the QRH, shut it down. Fortunately, it was at night time and the passengers did not notice.
17. Banking Right
My friend is an Air Traffic Controller. One time he looked on his radar and saw that two planes were at the same altitude and heading straight for each other, and were only a few miles apart (which is nothing for two planes traveling 500+ miles per hour). He immediately contacted both pilots and instructed them both to quick bank right so they would miss each other. Luckily they did and the passengers probably never knew. This haunts my friend.
16. Dust Clouds
In the deserts of the southwest you can get severe downdrafts associated with convective activity that don't involve a lot of precipitation, so if you're down low (about to land) and one forms, there may be little evidence of it on radar or visually.
We were about 1200' up when a smallish dust cloud appeared directly ahead and below us (maybe 100' above the ground) and almost simultaneously the bottom dropped out. Modern aircraft tell you when they think there's windshear; ours started yelling at us in the most serious way it could. We increased power as much as possible and still descended at several hundred feet per minute.
The plane didn't start climbing until we passed through the thing about thirty seconds later at about 500' above the ground. We weren't in immediate danger or anything, but certainly very uncomfortable.
15. Fanning The Flames
I'm not an airline pilot, but my dad is. He's been flying commercially for almost 20 years and is a captain now.
I think the only disaster was when one of the engines caught fire and he had to quickly land the plane. I'm sure the passengers were aware of it, though, when they saw flames out their window.
No one was hurt and the landing went perfectly fine.
I have to say that my dad is a tremendous pilot.
14. Just Missed The Jet
I am not a pilot but was once on a late night flight that was at cruising altitude. I looked out the window to see a private jet swoop out from under us and our wing go through his fresh jet stream. Fortunately, no one else noticed or said anything and I just had a shocked look on my face.
13. The Little Engine That Quit
My dad is a pilot. He brought home a couple of stories over a bunch of years.
The one that really stands out was the time he had an engine quit on him near the destination. Since that's something that is apparently run ad nauseam in simulation, it was a non-issue. He said a few people might have noticed the fire trucks while on the ground, but really no one had any idea.
12. Half-Deployed Flaps
I flew United to China on my first leg from Providence to Chicago O'Hare, the flaps wouldn't fully deploy. Passengers didn't really understand what that meant but the pilot had to dump fuel and fly north of Chicago to do it.
We came in low and slow and they cleared the runways and lined our runway with fire/rescue. We went all the way to the end and I almost hugged that pilot.
What a great start!
11. The Skidded Plane
I was at LGA earlier this year when that plane skidded off the runway due to the ice storm. I was the next plane to take off when this happened. They were so close to going into the river. Half of the plane looked like it was out into the water. I watched the passengers of the plane get escorted through the airport and the look of pure shock on their faces was surreal. I would poop my pants so hard if that had happened to me.
10. Perpendicular Pathways
Another airliner passed beneath us, perpendicular to our path. This happens all the time, although you usually have a 1,000 foot separation between the aircraft at least. This guy had started a climb shortly before getting to us and was only about 400 feet underneath.
If you don't know much about flying, take my word for it: 400 feet is too close when you're flying at 30,000 feet.
9. But Rest Assured...
Commercial aviation is incredibly safe. Near misses or anything that is remotely dangerous rarely happens. When you're at altitude (20-30k feet up) there is nothing to hit. Also, anyone flying at that altitude is 100% qualified and is required to be requalified every 6 months to a year. You are always in communication with air traffic control as well.
8. The Really Long Wheely
I am a pilot (single engine, small aircraft only), but during this flight I was a passenger. The pilots avoided telling us about a disaster until we were just about to land.
On a flight to Florida, one of the front wheels fell off during takeoff. Luckily, the front of the passenger aircraft had 2 wheels, side by side, so we weren't doomed. But no passenger knew about the problem until we were 15 minutes from landing in Florida. The pilot told us that the wheel fell off, and we had to do an emergency flyby. They had ambulances and firetrucks lining the runway, and as we landed, we pulled a really long wheely, keeping the only remaining front tire off the ground as long as possible.
7. Frosty Friends
When I was <100 hrs as a training pilot, I took some friends out in the winter. I cleared the frost on one wing and they cleared the other. I was very specific about the wing being completely clean, but failed to check their work. Turns out they did a crappy job, and we barely made it off a fairly short runway, struggled to climb, significant banking tendency. I continued the flight and the frost melted off in the sun and everything was fine after that. Never told them anything was wrong and they had a blast. I just about soiled myself. Learned a very good lesson and didn't die!
6. Fire Pit
Dad retired with 36,000 hours in the sky. His closest call was a severe overheating in the cockpit.
He was supposed to fly from Orlando to Boston, but as he was taking off he noticed that there was a lot of super hot air pouring into the cockpit. What had happened was, instead of wiring the engine valve shut like the mechanics were supposed to, they wired the valve wide open.
As I understand it, the engine valve usually automatically regulates the amount of hot air that the engine bleeds into the cockpit. However, the wiring they did made it so the maximum amount of hot air was coming in continuously from the engine. He made an emergency landing in Jacksonville and by the time they landed they couldn't touch the controls; they were using clothing as oven mitts. He said he and his co-pilot were also completely drenched in sweat.
5. Wrench In The Plans
Even though it was pretty expensive, there were times that I'd take friends up for short flights in a rental plane when I was a flight instructor. Before every flight, you do a check of the plane to make sure that every component is where it should be and not broken. This includes looking in the air intake for any obstructions, which I did. I took two friends up on a flight, and when I landed and was tying the plane down and putting the intake covers back on I found the biggest wrench ever just resting there.
What had happened was that the plane had just come out of maintenance and a mechanic left the wrench on the top of the engine and put the engine cover back on. The vibrations forced the wrench to the front. It scares the crap out of me to think about what could have happened if it had somehow moved farther forward and struck the prop.
4. The Sound Of Lightning
I didn't have to say anything, because everyone definitely heard it. Coming into Indianapolis a month or so ago, there was some rain on final approach. It was showing green on the radar, which isn't a big deal. Air traffic control called it light to moderate. As we get closer to it, the color changed from green to yellow with a little red. It was too late by this point to turn around it. As we are going through it, I was just about to remark to my captain how this isn't bad at all when a GIANT bolt of lightning came down maybe 20 feet in front of the plane. The sound was deafening and scared the crap out of both of us. Somehow it did not hit our plane, but it definitely woke everyone up on the flight.
3. Flying In A Vacuum
My father was an airline pilot for 20 years. He recalls some of the worst incidents he has had in a commercial plane during crazy weather events that move direction and change unpredictably.
He once was caught in what is called a wind shear -- as I understand it, this is when many directions of wind can come together at the same time and form incredibly strong "currents" in certain directions in pockets of air. I guess it can be like trying to fly a plane in a vacuum. He said they were flying around what looked to be some bad weather when all of a sudden it was basically on top of them. It was on an approach, and the plane lost incredible amounts of altitude in seconds. He said he had to do some really intense maneuvering that "you probably shouldn't do with a commercial plane" to get out of it.
When he landed, he said there was a massive eruption of applause and cheering; people hugging him as they got off the plane and stuff. I guess it was intense. Not to be that guy that's like "my dad is so hardcore", but some background on my father -- he was a fighter pilot in the marines, and said without his military experience, that plane very well could have crashed.
2. Screaming And Spilling
Used to fly a lot as a passenger for work -- about 40 flights a year, almost half of those across the Atlantic. Experienced a lot of rough turbulence over the years but only two bad incidents.
The first one was pretty boring: the pilot decided to fly into a thunderstorm near Kansas City, so we saw lightning forking through the clouds right next to the plane. One annoying lady wouldn't stop screaming.
The second incident happened about 75-100 miles south of Greenland. The pilot made a sudden dramatic sharp right turn that tipped the contents of a drink cart on someone. When I looked out the window, I saw something very bizarre. To the left of the plane, there were two massive metallic spheres (less than a few hundred yards away), each one about the size of an aircraft carrier. They just sat there in the air at 35,000ft -- had a really shiny sort of wet appearance. The flight attendants asked everyone to close the shutters, but everyone had seen it.
That was about 8 or 9 years ago and I still wonder what they were and how close we came to hitting them.
1. Shooting Star
I'm an airline copilot. I know this is going to sound very hard to believe, but I had a cosmically close call with a shooting star. We were in a 737 cruising northeastward over the South China Sea towards Hong Kong when all of a sudden I see this bright streak of light out of the window. And I realize it's a meteorite!
This meteorite blazes past us and hurtles toward the surface of the ocean. I think it missed us by only a couple of kilometres. My Captain and I were shocked. It got me thinking: with so many planes up in the air nowadays, would one actually get hit one day? Shooting stars are very common. I can spot a few making bright "scratches" in the sky at night, but I never thought of ever getting so close to one. And no, we wouldn't have been able to avoid it had it come our way. It was ridiculously fast.