Pilots Share The Scariest Situation They Have Been In While In The Air
Pilots have bad days just like the rest of us. The key difference is that 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 of the danger they were in.
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 while 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. There has got to be a one in a million chance of that happening successfully.
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 — I had 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 some beverages and looking shaken.
When I got older, the story came out: The ice had built up on the wings and eventually covered the window, making 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 been done for. My mom told me that she didn’t wake us because she wanted it to happen in our sleep, not in fear.
Close Call, Iowa
My father was a corporate pilot and was flying over Iowa at about 12,000 feet 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, at which point the altimeter read about 1100 to 1200 feet. They had 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 to 900 feet above sea level. That meant that when they regained control, they were only about 300 feet above the ground.
Do or Die Time
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 — a CH-124 — 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 ship's 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 was literally do or die time, though. I made the call to take the deck anyway. 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 helicopter 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 to put their lives in jeopardy by going out over the ocean. Very interesting life experience for me to be sure!
If They Only Knew
I fly 737s for a major airline. The scariest thing by far was doing the circling approach to land on a runway in Innsbruck, Austria. We do a lot of training for that airport. Basically, it’s in the middle of a very tight valley with mountains rising up to 13,000 feet. It's 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.
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 approach. (Our briefing material actually says that once you’re clear of the power cables, you need to increase the rate of descent to over 1000 feet per minute).
When I flew the approach (only done it once) the winds were crazy and 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 had just peed themselves!
Off a Cliff
Landing in Jersey (United Kingdom). Jersey is a very short runway, the shortest runway we land on by far, with one end leading over a cliff and into the sea. 737s can just about land on it, but we are quite limited to certain weights and winds. We usually use max brakes and max thrust reverse. With a headwind, it is no big deal, really, but it’s never 100 percent comfortable.
On one particular day, we had the maximum tailwind we were allowed to accept (meaning a longer landing distance due to increased ground speed) 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 were very precise, and it worked out okay.
Who Let the Dog Out?
During a one-hour flight, one guy suddenly felt something poking his elbow. He turned around, and there was 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 that they had left the cockpit door open (of course they shouldn’t have, but a lot of people do it) and the cargo was 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 had managed to free itself, too.
Don’t Hit the Snooze Button
A pilot was flying a small plane to Atlanta. He put the plane on autopilot — it keeps your plane on a straight path at the same altitude — and fell asleep. He woke up a few hours later and saw water in every direction, so he radioed for help. He was over the Gulf of Mexico. They told him to make a left and head for Florida. He ran out of gas and had to do an emergency water landing. The Coast Guard was waiting to scoop him out of the water after he landed, and the plane sank into the bottom of the gulf. True story.
I Should Just Crash This Thing
I'm an airline transport pilot who flies a cargo plane (twin engine piston, single pilot). I picked a bad winter to fly in Florida — it was El-Something or La-Something. 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 400 feet AGL. Insane.
Don’t Forget to Tighten Every Screw
A gentlemen had just gotten his plane out of maintenance and was flying his family for vacation. Somewhere over the mountains, he started hearing some odd noises from his plane. 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. 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 was lucky. At the rate the engine was falling out, his plane’s balance would have been off pretty quickly, which would have inevitably resulted in a real bad situation. The maintenance guys repaired the plane at no cost … don’t forget to tighten every screw!
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. It goes off with no problem, and I start my ascending right-hand turn … but the nose continues to drop … I pull back on the control column to raise the nose … no tension. I check forward and pull back again … still no tension. I started thinking, "Oh no, what happened to my elevator?" I started to panic, as we were in a nose dive towards the ground at a 1000 feet angle going just over 100mph. I made a panicked mayday call to the ground while frantically pulling on the control column. Next, there was a loud bang like a shotgun went off in the back seat, and I instantly had tension again. I pulled out of dive and landed the glider.
My face was white as a ghost and I look back at the passenger to see if he was fine. He had the biggest smile on his face and yelled out a big woohoo! I just about peed myself, and he'd had the time of his life. He thought the dive was part of the flight. I had maintenance check the glider, and they said there was nothing wrong … okay maintenance … okay.
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. I 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!
When Your Passenger Doesn’t Have His Headset On
Student pilot here. A friend of mine decided to tag along during one of my lessons and offered to pay the extra charge for renting a four-seater plane instead of a two-seater. While the four-seater was much easier to keep steady, it was a pain to do the maneuvers in. 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. It 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.
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 were just under that, but we should have still been fine.
Anyhow, on take off, I noticed we were up to speed, and the end of the runway was getting awfully close, but we were not exactly what you might call airborne. Dad started pulling back on the stick more and more, and right as I felt us start to catch air, I heard the stall buzzer go off.
At that point, I’m pretty sure my friend had no clue what the buzzer was or what it meant, but I was 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 cleared the trees by mere feet, buzzer going off the entire time, up until we got up high enough where we weren't 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.
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 Pennsylvania.
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 was on top of a rather tall hill, and on the adjacent hill was a cluster of very tall (>600′) radio towers. The towers necessitated a ‘short final’ if the wind was just right, meaning you'd have to turn in line with the runway closer to it than you might normally, and because of terrain, that can mean a somewhat steep descent to the runway.
So, we turned 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 airspeed, with the wind not contributing to the airflow over the wings anymore. The aircraft dropped very suddenly, nearly 100 feet (we were only about 500 feet 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.
Don’t Ignore the Warnings
Commercial helicopter pilot here. While flying tourists around in a JetRanger, I heard a funny whining noise (over all the other whining noises), but all the temps and pressures looked good. No warning lights. I decided to cut the flight short anyway. I landed and the passengers disembarked, and during my two-minute engine cool down, all hell broke loose with hectic grinding noises. I killed the engine, and as I opened the door I just saw 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!
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, we 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.
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, and 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.
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 takeoff, 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.
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 flight 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.
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 feet AGL/ASL and most under 100 feet) over the North Atlantic filming the coastline, birds and all that good stuff.
On short final for the hangar, I noticed the oil pressure starting 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 while 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.
When Everyone Gets Quiet
I was finishing up on my instrument rating while flying to Willow Run, Michigan (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.) I’m holding five knots above normal approach speed, and one second later, the stall horn was on. It was a bit frightening.
My flight instructor's girlfriend was in the back and had no idea that both he and I nearly peed our pants. After we landed, she asked, “Why are you guys so quiet?”
Get Out the Barf Bags
I'm a regional airline transport pilot who flies a 50-seat Embraer. I was flying in the Northeast United States 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 thrown up.
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!
Not All Silence Is Golden
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 nor my first officer actually saw the lightning strike the airplane, so we continued the flight.
After about 10 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 that ATC had been trying to reach us all along. The lightning bolt had entered through the nose and exited through the number one 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 was 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.
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.
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, and I started the go-around without realizing what had happened. 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 and crashed into the airport boundary fence. The passenger had no idea anything was bad until the last few seconds.
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 that ever happened in my flying career.
What a Bad Landing
Not a pilot, but a loadmaster — the person responsible for overseeing the loading of cargo and passengers. While stationed at Dover, we had a C-5 crash. Split at the nose. The passengers and loadmasters in the back had no idea they'd crashed. They were on mic complaining about the bumpy landing.
Don’t Forget the Oil
I was in training — no passengers — in a Cessna 172. We had the oil pressure just drop on take off. We were too far down the runway to stop, so we had to go airborne. We immediately circled, declared an emergency and came in for a landing. On final the engine died, forcing a dead stick landing. Only my third flight.
Never did find out what caused it. But I noticed oil pouring out of the compartment when we landed.