Survivors of Airplane Emergencies Share Their Stories
If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, there’s a fair chance your stomach has lurched at turbulence, take-off or landing due to a subconscious fear of a crash. This is a reasonable terror: If there’s one place you never want to find yourself, it’s on a plane that is going down.
Unfortunately, more people have found themselves in this frightening situation than you might think. From plummeting into the forest to landing in a busy lake, plane wrecks are horrifying experiences that often put passengers inches away from death. Luckily, many have survived to tell their tales of woe and share how they felt moments before the impact.
Here are some of the most terrifying experiences from travelers who have survived emergencies in the air.
A Direct Descent Disaster
I was in a commercial jet that fell from cruising altitude. It was a small plane flying for a now-defunct airline, and we had just started the descent when the plane tilted and then dropped out of the sky. The nose was pointed nearly straight down. I was sitting in the aisle. People were screaming, yelling out — but I can’t remember the words. All kinds of stuff was flying through the cabin, and the flight attendant was nowhere to be seen. My brother and dad were in the seats behind me. I remember thinking about how sad my mom was going to be when we were all gone. And then looking out the window as the ground got closer and closer.
After what seemed like an eternity, the pilot was able to regain control and the plane started to right itself again … for about 15-30 seconds, before starting another uncontrolled descent. It was more terrifying the second time around — the ground was far closer. I was certain that I was going to die and looked over at a blonde woman about my age sitting next to me. We hadn’t spoken the entire flight, but I reached out in some impulsive desire for human contact at the end… and we held hands as the plane fell out of the sky. I can remember looking at her face briefly, she was crying.
As the ground started approaching and you could make out things like trees and houses, I felt a sense of peace fall about me. The end seemed to be certain, but I didn’t care. It seemed like it was going to be quick and painless — but I remember being surprised that it was going to all end this way.
Then we started to feel the pilot struggling with the plane, and it started to right itself again … and for a second time, the plane pulled out of the dive. It was still incredibly bumpy, and people were crying and screaming out at every round of turbulence — everyone was waiting for the next and final dive. When we landed, the young woman and I were still holding hands. People were dead quiet.
What was surreal was that the flight attendant got on the microphone when we reached the gate and thanked us for flying on that terrible airline and ‘hoped we would fly again.’ They brought a bus out, and one of the pilots came out with us. He didn’t say a word, but his knee was shaking uncontrollably.
Insanely Lucky Crash Landing
I was pretty young, only about four or five, when I was in a plane crash. It was a small one-engine prop plane with just me, my dad and the pilot, who was a family friend. It was caused by engine failure. I don’t remember much except my dad’s actions. He was sitting in the front copilot seat and reached back to me in and pulled my winter coat snug around me. (It was winter in Cleveland, Ohio). Then he made sure my seat belt was fastened securely. After making sure I was safe, he buckled himself in tightly as well.
It is important to note at this point that my dad is a devout Christian. He recounted his perspective to me when I got older and said that he was certain he was going to die. He said that he was quiet and praying that God would allow his son to live, even if he didn’t. Both my dad and the pilot were knocked unconscious on impact, and both severely injured.
My dad regained consciousness first and heard me crying in the back of the plane. He told me that his first thoughts were a mix of panic and relief. He panicked, thinking the pilot was probably dead and he has to get out of the wreckage, but he had some relief because my crying meant I was alive. In the end, all three of us beat the odds and survived.
A Christmas Tree of Alarms
I’m flying back after Christmas from rural Victoria to Brisbane. The first leg was a twin-engine Beech, and it seated about nine people. I was young, about 15, and I was one of two or three people on the flight. The pilot let me sit up front in the copilot seat as I was in the air cadets at the time and heavy into aircraft. About halfway through the flight, I notice a few engine warning lights start to flash. Then an oil pressure alarm started going off. The pilot glanced over at the right-hand engine just as there was a bang and oil started pouring out of the engine cowling and over the wing. The pilot quickly shut the engine down as it started to smoke and said we have a small problem, but that it was fine.
Alarms are going off everywhere. The other passengers are aware we have lost an engine, but other than that, are none the wiser. I could see what appeared to be a Christmas tree of alarms. The pilot radioed in and diverted to the closest airport for an emergency landing. The closest airport was about 20 minutes away. I was starting to freak out a bit as the pilot fought the aircraft on one engine. As we got closer, I glanced over at the pilot and see he is filling out a maintenance form, strongly worded. Even at 15 I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation.
Fast forward to the landing, he nailed the touchdown, and we all got off. The pilot bought us lunch while a maintenance crew looked at the engine. It turns out it was a cheap valve or something that had failed. About 2 hours later, we were cleared to fly and finished the trip (albeit while quite nervous!)
Breathtaking Blown-Tire Strike
I was on a plane to Tegucigalpa, Honduras from Florida in 1997. I was about 11 or 12. The plane had a tire blowout on contact with the runway. I imagine the pilot had a quick decision to make about whether to abort the landing or continue. He apparently elected to decelerate the plane and finished landing with a blown tire.
It was absurdly violent. We were seated near the front of the plane. I think it was about 4 seated to a row, not a large plane but not a small one either. Somehow the pilot brought the plane to a stop.
We all exited via stairs brought to the plane on the runway. Guards were brought in just for the purpose of telling us that we could not take pictures. I tried to get a picture of the mangled landing gear with the blown tire, and I just had hands up in my face. I remember the snapshot very well, though. It was very scary.
As for reactions, everyone on the plane immediately started clapping and screaming as the plane came to a stop. The pilot came on the intercom with a very shaky voice, explaining a tire had blown.
Eight years ago, I took a Boeing 747, and most of the flight was uneventful. When we reached my destination, I was looking out the window, and everything seemed fine. We started seeing the runway. All of a sudden, the plane started shaking uncontrollably, and I saw the wing almost hit the ground. At that moment, the lights went out, and a piece of luggage flew from an overhead compartment that hadn’t been closed correctly. It made a very loud bang, and everybody started to panic.
People were screaming like crazy, and you could hear every deity being called by name. This lasted less than 10 seconds, and we were back in the air normally. A couple of minutes later, the pilot told us in a totally calm voice that unexpected weather in our destination had lead to us circling for another half hour. I convinced myself that the pilot’s calmness was proof enough that we had overreacted and was just happy to see my family after the trip.
From the airport to my home, most areas were blacked out. (It was a large city and long drive. Highly unusual.) Trees were pulled out of the ground like it was nothing, cars were damaged, etc. This is common in tornado areas or the like, but I hadn’t seen this in my city in my 20 years up to that day. It turned out that the unexpected weather referred to winds that broke every single speed record for my city ever measured. There were news reports about the storm on TV the next day, and they explained it was completely unexpected. It just happened out of the blue in a matter of minutes and was gone just as fast.
What they never mentioned is that our plane was trying to land as this unfolded. I convinced myself that it just hadn’t been that close or important. Some weeks later, I’m at a party for a friend, and one of his uncles mentions something about working for the airline in passing. I asked him about my flight, and he was really thrilled and nervous to learn that I had been on that plane. “You’re kidding me, aren’t you?” he said. “That was so close for you guys. They’re doing a whole investigation and evaluation of the whole incident.” I was floored.
I never really learned the whole truth about that night, but I believe it was one of the closest calls a jumbo has had in years.
Scary, Smoky Plunge to the Sea
I was flying to Iraq when a C5 (military aircraft) caught fire. It was some electrical problem, and smoke started to fill the cabin. A C5 is a huge bird, and it’s also weird because you fly facing the back. So the cabin is filling with smoke, and we are somewhere over the ocean. The whole time I’m thinking we have tons of weight in machines in the belly, and if we hit the water, we are sinking immediately.
Some air force guys are walking around the cabin and tell us to reach in to the pocket in front of us to grab the oxygen bags. I was expecting a yellow cup that resembled a muzzle, but I pull out a red bag with an elastic band around the neck area. I place it over my head and pull the string. Then my eyes start burning like heck.
As far as the reaction from us soldiers, we were in the 82nd airborne infantry, so we were used to jumping out of airplanes and wanted parachutes. But obviously, they didn’t have that many. We were all pretty calm, this being our second deployment, the first to Afghanistan no more than 2 months prior, and we were all pretty much expecting the end at any moment and were joking around. I think a few of the guys were playing keep away with the airbags.
We ended up making an emergency landing in Spain at an air force base and had to stay for three days while they repaired the bird. The entire time we were on lockdown because the Air Force didn’t trust infantry soldiers from the 82nd.
Shocking Dive Into a Lake
I’ve been in three plane crashes, mostly on the runway. My dad has been in many more. Two in one day, once (granted, one of them, he was in a helicopter). It’s part of the territory growing up when you’re around bush planes.
The most memorable was in a DeHavilland DHC-3 Single Otter on floats. It happened on take off. The engine was spooling up, and we started to work our way on up when a massive gust of wind picked us straight up into the air about 60-100 feet and dropped us. We ended up landing on the left side of the plane. Everyone was a little shook up, but the real danger was that the plane was sinking. Another guy popped the roof escape hatch and started pulling people up on top.
Luckily, this happened right around dinner time on a busy lake. Many boats came by to assist, and nobody was injured. One guy’s pants got wet, and the airline’s owner bought him new ones.
A Horrendous Landing in the Himalayas
We were flying from Kolkata to Kathmandu in the autumn of 1979. It was an amazing flight, weaving among the mountains of northern India, dodging thunderhead formations and heading into the foothills of the Himalayas. Lightning was striking around us, but the flight seemed steady and on course … like I said, weaving through the mountains.
The Kathmandu airport is barely an international airport, nestled between two amazing mountain ranges. The pilot of our Air India craft literally flew the plane onto the runway and then hit the brakes and reverse thrusters. The overhead compartments popped open, and anything loose began bouncing down the aisle. All the seats were thrust forward, and our bodies were jack-knifed around our seatbelts with our heads against the seats in front of us.
We were moving fast. Then the pilot made his turn, bouncing along. We could see out the window that we were at the end of the runway. Still moving quite fast. It felt as though the landing gear would collapse with the turn. The plane finally slowed and stopped. No one made a sound. There were no cheers, no tears. Just silence and wide-eyed glances.
A Newsworthy Emergency Landing
I was on flight landing in Minneapolis. The first thing that tipped me off that something was wrong was when I checked my phone and we were 20 minutes late and hadn’t started our descent, nor had we received an announcement from the cockpit. There was nothing I could do, so I went back to reading my book. A few minutes, later I saw something I had never seen before and hope to never see again.
The steward came running to the back of the plane where I was sitting at full speed with a look of panic on his face. A minute later, the steward announced that our flaps wouldn’t extend and that we would have to make an emergency landing in after we burned off some fuel.
While we burned off fuel, they had safety briefings for those in the emergency rows. Since I was in the very back of the plane and had an aisle seat, I would be responsible for opening the right-hand door while the steward handled the left-hand door.
I had time to get a signal and text my wife. Most everyone else was doing the same. It was quiet in the plane, no one freaked out or panicked. During the landing, they had us brace in crash positions. As for the landing itself, it was the smoothest landing I’ve ever had. The captain was a real professional and put the plane down with the lightest touch even though he was way above his normal landing speed. On the way off the plane, I saw him in the cockpit. He was soaked in sweat, and you could tell he was physically and mentally exhausted. I think it was then that it sunk in for me just how much danger we really had been in.
My landing made the evening news, and I saw it on TV that night in my hotel room. Funny thing was that a few months later, I received a letter from the airline denying any emergency took place on that flight.
Who Doesn’t Love the Smell of Christmas
I was in a helicopter crash. Everyone was silent during the ordeal other than the pilot, who was like, “Everything is fine, oh no, whoops, noooooo, nope it’s ok, oh no, nooooooo, look for the lake to ditch!!!!”
We were coming down from a mountain cabin flying by sight when a fog rolled in. The pilot started swaying left and right to find something to get a bearing in the white out, and he found something … the trees. I will never forget going from total dizzying whiteness to cedar tree branches pressed up against the plexiglass window, the sound of chop chop chop, the smell of Christmas (smelled like fresh cut Christmas tree, I swear) and then the loudest horn ever and a big red light on the dash that said “stall.” I was in the copilot seat.
Somehow, we managed to spot a rock by the lake, and the pilot slammed it down hard, but amazingly nobody got hurt, and the smoke from the engine never turned to flame. We were dang lucky.
Blood-Curdling Plane-Wing Sled Ride
A friend of mine took me up in a borrowed Aeronca Champ, which is similar to a J-3 Cub in that it is a tube frame aircraft with fabric covering and a taildragger as well. The flight was totally fine and fun. however, on landing, the pilot;s airspeed on the final descent was about 70 mph with a right crosswind of near 10 mph. We touched down at 60 mph on the left main first. The right wing immediately came up, pushing the left wing within inches of the pavement. This caused the airplane to make an immediate 90 degree turn, and we bounded through a snowbank and off into a field.
As soon as the aircraft started to ground loop, my only thought was to brace for impact, covering my vital torso with my arms. After making it out okay, I helped the pilot dig the plane out of the snow bank and get it started again. Then, like the idiot I am, hopped back in and went for another ride around the pattern to let him redeem himself.
Horrifying Hot Air Balloon Accident
I was in a hot air balloon crash. We spent ages up in the air, and we kept trying to land at an oval or somewhere safe, but the wind picked up as we were flying and blew us into dangerous areas where we couldn’t land. The pilot (I think that’s what they are still called) told us that we might run out of fuel if things kept up.
This continued for a while, and we ended up all crouching down in the basket as he got the balloon as low as he could while the fuel ran out. We ended up crashing into the top story of a house in the suburbs and scraping most of the tiles off the roof. Someone almost fell out. Luckily, the house slowed us down, and the street was open enough for the car that had been following us to grab the drop rope and pull/winch the balloon down safely.
No one was hurt, thankfully, but scared the bejesus out of everyone. I’m unsure if I’d ever go on a balloon ride ever again.
We Need to Land NOW!
I was in a helicopter when the engine failed. I used to have a job which required me to fly in the helicopter every day as a passenger. One day as we were chugging alongm the warning lights started lighting up, and alarms sounded. Luckily, we were right next to the airport, and the pilot radioed that we needed to make an emergency landing.
We did what was called an autorotate, which means that even though the engine quit, there was still enough inertia in the blades to land if done immediately. The landing was pretty hard, but everyone was okay. I wasn’t scared or nervous when it was happening. It happened so fast that I don’t think I had time to be. But afterward, we were like, what the heck just happened?
Time Seemed to Stand Still
I was flying. Time slowed to a crawl. My friend and I had a conversation as the plane went into the trees and the wings came off one by one. I watched a ladybug take flight from a pine needle as we crashed past, spinning and toppling end over end. When the plane stopped, we calmly undid our seatbelts and got out. 10 minutes later, we were both shaking uncontrollably.
A Chilling Close-Call
I was a kid on some big Boeing jet. We were coming in for a landing, engines powered low, flaps extended. We were getting close to the ground when, without warning, the engines roared to full and the plane nearly went vertical. Once we leveled off again, there were confused murmurings from the passengers. The pilot apologized for the sudden maneuver, explaining that control had told them the runway was clear when in fact we were coming down on a taxiing plane.
A Frightening Slide From Safety
We crashed while on the ground! I was nine years old and flying as an unaccompanied minor, back in 99. This was the first flight of the morning leaving out of a Colorado airport in December. It had snowed the night before, and the roads were pretty icy. All was fine, though. They de-iced the plane, and we left the gate only 10 minutes later than we should have. We got into position on the runway for takeoff, and the pilot began taking off and getting up to speed. Instead of leaving the ground, however, we slid off the runway at full speed.
Everyone was screaming and losing their minds. I actually followed the procedures outlined in that stupid manual they tell you to read and put my hands on the seat in front of me, with my head between my arms. By the time we came to a stop, our wheel had dug into the ground, and we were tilted with one of the wings also in the ground.
Eerie Engine on Fire
Back in 1995 when I was 6, I got on an Air India flight from Kuwait to India. I was sitting in the middle and heard people screaming as the plane took off. I could see a bright light on the right side of the plane. I believe the engine caught on fire. They shut that off, took a huge turn, and landed back on the runway in about a couple minutes. I was pretty much laughing at what was going on because I had no idea how intense the situation was, but there were a lot of scared people on that flight.
Horrible Plummet of Panic
I was recently on a commercial flight which lost its cabin pressure at around 27,000 feet. The series of events put me in a scenario where I got to witness people’s reactions as if we were crashing.
We had no idea what was going on; the oxygen masks deployed, and we entered into a very bumpy nosedive. It was eerie when the masks first came down. Nobody put their masks on at first. We were all sort of just “frozen.” I looked at the guy to my left and said, “Well, this is a first.” I then proceeded to take a photo, all without putting my mask on.
After about a minute, the flight attendants yelled “PUT YOUR MASKS ON AND FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS!” After which they did the same, as did all the passengers (very quickly). We all had no idea what was going on and thought we were going to crash.
While many people were clearly panicked, generally, the demeanor was relatively calm. I took the opportunity to document the experience live on Reddit (while my girlfriend was screaming at me to hold her hand and tell her it was going to be okay).
Once we leveled off at 10,000 feet, the pilots finally came on the PA and told us what had happened. (We lost cabin pressure and had to initiate an emergency descent). We made a safe emergency landing at the nearest airport.
Preparing for the Worst
I was on a 757, and we aborted our landing at Heathrow. The captain comes on and says the indicator showing that the front landing gear is down and locked in place wasn’t turning on. We made a low-altitude pass in front of the control tower, and they confirmed the landing gear was down.
The second time around, we assumed the crash position, and we landed between two rows of emergency vehicles while the head flight attendant yelled, “HEAD DOWN! HEAD DOWN!” all the way until we stopped.
The woman seated next to me was flying with her kids and husband, but they were seated in another row. She was pretty upset on the final approach. I offered her my hand and she grabbed it HARD all the way down.
Everyone else was pretty calm. I remember thinking that I had good life insurance, so my family would be okay if anything happened.
Alarming National Guardsmen Rescue
I was flying with a friend in Northern Minnesota, and I had to make an emergency landing in a field. It was windy, and as he was making the descent, gusty winds screwed him up, and he came down angled. When we came down, he cut his face on the console or stick and was out of it. I was fine and got out of the plane, pulled my friend out and grabbed the go bag from the storage area. I tried our cell phones, but his had a cracked screen (bad) and mine got no service. He had called on the radio before the crash and told the emergency services guy that we were making an emergency landing. I got on the radio and said that we just crashed and my friend was hurt badly. National Guardsmen came get us.
I wasn’t so scared when he told me that we would have to make a landing, but I was nervous. I had the jitters, and my eyes were on my feet the whole time.
When he told me the wind was too strong, I got scared. He couldn’t get the nose back up and told me to brace. I had my hands on both sides of the plane (it was tandem style seating) and started praying.
Hair-Raising Reference to “Souls On Board”
I was flying from Colorado back home to New Jersey. The plane started to descend quickly in the middle of the flight. Everyone looks around confused. The flight attendant is talking to someone on the phone/p.a. system then immediately sprints to her seat and buckles in. The oxygen masks drop down. There’s more confusion, then everyone freaks out and puts the masks on. The plane is still dropping quickly.
I look around to see kids are crying. I see an older couple holding hands, and a man listening to something on his headphones. Apparently, there is a channel on the radio where you can listen in on the captain’s radio. I listen in and hear the captain refer to all of us as a hundred something “souls on board.” I think that was the scariest part for some reason. I’m sure it’s normal to refer to people as souls, but in that context, it was haunting. The plane ended up having to emergency land in Chicago. I never found out why the plane malfunctioned, but we all got free beverages on the next flight.
A Paralyzing Last-Minute Impact Warning
When I was in my crash last summer, no one said anything until the pilot said something right before the wing started to hit trees. The cockpit was silent except for the sounds of the wing, the propeller hitting the ground, and the crunching of sheet metal when we ended up in the trees.
Upon stopping, the silence was broken when the “everyone okay” questions started. We forced the door open, got our gear out and walked back to the shack next to the runway. The pilot was very unhappy — their personal plane was totaled — but we all walked away. My buddy and I were so hopped up on adrenaline though, it was strange. I wasn’t sore until the next day, and an emergency room visit saying low back strain was my worst result.
It was particularly foggy in LA, and we were going in for a landing in a Boeing 737 that was pretty full. I couldn’t see a thing out the windows. Then we started accelerating and going back up. The captain came on and said that they couldn’t see the runway and had to execute a missed approach and go around and try to land again. I thought nothing of it myself because my parents were private pilots, and I knew enough about what it meant that it didn’t concern me in the least – in fact, I was thinking, “Oh, neat” – so I went back to reading my book.
So we circled around and went down again and landed quite normally, but when we touched down, there was a large audible sigh of relief in the cabin from the other passengers. I hadn’t even acknowledged until they sighed that it had been particularly quiet after the announcement. I guess “missed approach” could sound scary, and in all the time I’ve flown I’ve never had to go around again, so I guess I can see how that might be disconcerting for some.
An Ear-Shattering Explosion
When I was 11 years old, we were taking a flight home from Honolulu to Chicago O’Hare. This particular plane was a massive Boeing 777, with two seats on each side aisle and five in the middle aisle, spanning about 30 to 40 total rows back for a grand total of more or less 250 people.
The plane was fully loaded, ready to take off. We start to jet down the runway, probably three seconds from lifting our wheels off the ground, when an ear-shattering boom rings throughout the cabin and the lights flicker a bit. People are now gasping and looking to the left of the plane as the tires screech to a quick halt. Being 11 years old, I had no idea what was really going on. It wasn’t until we had to tow the plane back to a gate that we were told by the purser over the PA what actually happened.
So to my knowledge, commercial jet engines consist of large, sharp, thin fan blades that spin rapidly to push the plane forward. Well, one of these little blades became loose in the takeoff sequence and got sucked into the engine, hurtling out the back and ripping apart some crucial parts along the way. The entire left engine exploded on our plane. Should this have happened in the air a mere few minutes later, we probably wouldn’t have been able to turn around easily to return to the terminal.
A Horrendous Water-Landing Threat
I was in an almost-plane crash, on a flight from Newark to Istanbul. Something didn’t feel right as we were boarding, but I think because the flight next to us had just been canceled, they got us on board and hoped for the best. Anywho, about 1.5 hours over the Atlantic Ocean, something seems off. Then the pilot comes on saying there is a mechanical issue and they’re not sure what’s going on, but to prepare for a water landing. Everyone is confused, and it was dead quiet (it was also night time so some people were asleep). The flight attendants start wandering the aisles more and more frequently, making us more worried since we had no idea what's going on and we hadn't hear from the captain. A few minutes later, the captain comes on and says there is a problem with the engine and they’re turning around and going to attempt to make it back to land.
Meanwhile, the flight attendants are rushing back and forth and trying to get people to look at the safety instructions. By this point, everyone is awake (as far as I can tell). According to people I talked to afterward, one flight attendant went and sat down and put her face in her arms. Another one apparently told someone that “people don’t usually survive water landings.”
It was just me and my mom, and the whole time, I kept thinking about my little sister, and how she was going to have to grow up without a mom. It was pretty terrifying, but you would be amazed at how quiet the cabin was. After the worst turbulence I ever felt in my life, and the most silence I have ever experienced, we were able to make an emergency landing in Newfoundland.