Flying is the safest way to travel. There are numerous steps taken, to make sure that anything that can go wrong during a flight, can be quickly and easily fixed.
But that doesn’t mean mistakes don’t happen.
Pilots and air traffic controllers of Reddit shared the most dangerous situation they’ve experienced, that the passengers probably didn’t know about.
The closest I’ve come to a disaster was almost a decade ago when during cruise the thrust reverser suddenly unlocked on engine 2. This was one of those near hypothetical failures we trained for in the simulator but you’d never expect to see in real life. After a short consult with maintenance we decided to leave engine number 2 running at low power: allowing us to continue the flight to our destination, while not being at risk to overstress the airframe should it deploy. Shutting the engine down completely would have meant we had to divert to an alternate airport because the remaining engine can’t provide enough power to generate the electricity, pressurization and thrust required to continue to our destination at cruising altitude.
Passengers may have noticed a reduction in engine noise from the right-hand side of the aircraft and a slight delay, but apart from that there was nothing that could indicate something was amiss.
I am a commercial airline captain on a newish Embraer 175. Probably one of the scarier things I have had happen was when one of our cabin pressure control channels failed and we started to rapidly lose pressurization.
Pressurization is important because the air is so thin in the flight levels, specifically above 30,000”. The higher up you get the less “time of useful consciousness” you have, down to about 30 seconds. So it is a pretty scary thought and it is a problem requiring immediate action, usually a steep emergency descent, during which you will not hear from the pilots because we are suuuuuuper busy.
Our pressure controller has two channels and automatically switches to the second if one fails. We were flying along about to start our descent and briefing our arrival and our ears started popping, like mad. I looked over and the pressurization was climbing very fast. We started a steep, but not quite emergency descent, while I flipped the pressurization switch to manual and then back to auto. This manually switched the channel to the working one and we could continue without problem.
Pretty sure all the passengers noticed were their ears popping. It gave us about 80 seconds of a scare though.
The funniest part was that when we landed our maintenance control wanted us to “defer” the pressurization channel over the phone, meaning we will fix it later (generally a very safe way to get flights out on time with something minor or redundant broken). I told him I was going to have to insist that someone come over and actually look at the plane to say it was safe to fly.
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.
I’m an air traffic controller, for the record.
Had a pilot go NORDO (that’s when, for whatever reason, they aren’t on my frequency anymore. They didn’t get the right one, misheard, or their radios crapped out). It happens fairly often, and there are a number of things we can do to get you back in the right place.
This particular guy, however, went NORDO at precisely the worst time. He was going eastbound, which means he was at an odd altitude. He lost his radio, and his flight plan then had him turn southbound. That means he was supposed to be at an even altitude, which he obviously wasn’t.
There were about a dozen different planes going northbound that were at his altitude, so he ended up running one heck of a gauntlet through all these people as I was descending and climbing them to get them out of his way.
Then, apparently in an act of sheer ignorance on the pilot’s part, he decided to choose an even altitude all by himself, knowing he should probably be at one.
Remember all those planes I had to move out of his way? He managed to put himself right back into them. When you have closure rates of over 1,000 knots an hour, that’s not a lot of time to react to those things. At the end, my butt was clenched so tight that when I stood up, the seat came with me.
I used to fly vintage biplanes and take people up on “joyrides” effectively. We would do aerobatics, let them fly it for a bit, and come back for tea and medals. We also did air displays and we did wingwalking (although my DA didn’t allow me to do those)
As these aircraft were built in the 30’s/40’s, there was several times where the crap was hitting the fan, and as the cockpits are separate, they were blissfully unaware. Always was a chuckle at the end having to explain that what just happened wasn’t normal!
Some good examples:-
- Engine exploded during flight (big end failure, blew a hole in crankcase), landed in a field. Passenger was french and just thought landing in a field was what we did at the end… He couldn’t understand the mayday on the radio.
- We used to land on a grass runway, had a tyre blowout (one and only time), we mustve stopped in about 50m (normal run on is about 200m ish). Passenger had no idea until I had to get fire crew out to help push aircraft back to the hangar and he thought the whole thing was great.
My father is a commercial pilot and has been for decades. Used to be a 747-400 co-captain, then a 757 captain.
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 the plane. 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. He 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 to me of the damage and said I should leak them somewhere… but, the fact is, no one cares.
I managed to find them in the old email, so HERE YOU GO
My friend was a co-pilot on a commercial flight I was on from Toronto to Los Angeles and it was the scariest flight I have been on and getting the co-pilot’s perspective after the flight made it even scarier.
The flight went very smoothly until we were making the decent into Los Angeles airport (LAX) just after 10PM. I was looking out the window and it seemed as if we were 20 metres from touching the runway when all the lights began to flicker and the plane went into complete darkness! Immediately, you could feel and hear the engines thunder into overdrive and we pulled back up.
Plane continued rising and we began to circle the air in complete darkness as everyone begins to share concerns. The flight kept circling for about 20 minutes before the pilot came on explaining they were having some technical problems, and they are discussing with the ATC to resolve the issue and make a safe landing. The circling in the air continued for nearly an hour but it seemed like an eternity in pitch black. Lights never came on, and we were notified we were going to make an attempt to land. People say this all the time but I can assure you, THIS was one scary decent! The bumpiest decent I have ever been part of. We were constantly being lifted from our seats, the seatbelt light really had merit this time. People were screaming each time and I was actually holding onto the arm rests and we kept defying gravity and swaying left and right. When we saw the lights on the runway inch closer, the plane slammed onto the runway and we once again heard the engines roaring as we slowed down on the runway. As we came to a stop, the plane just stayed there and waited on the runway for a tow to the docking area. You could feel the relief within the cabin. If everyone was sitting on toilets, I can assure you, each one would need a flush.
After we arrived, I met with the Co-Pilot a few hours later, as we had planned to meet for a day before he had to fly out of town. He explained they lost electrical power and had lost several forms of communication and flight information was not available to the pilots. Ultimately, the pilots had to land the plane manually with nearly no assistance or outside help. Considering it was night time, poor visibility and limited flight information available, this made for a very scary landing. He admitted as well it was the scariest flight he has been on.
Tops my list of Moments I thought I was dead.
This was years ago and I had taken the chance to fly back from Alaska to the Lower 48 in a Cessna 150. This thing was basically a riding mower with wings. 17 year old me thought that it would be fun to take longer flying the distance than driving it (which was true in terms of time, but that was because of storms that grounded us in BC for 2 days).
We were flying into a regional airport in the north (name not given to protect the involved). It was a standard X-shaped 2 runway affair, with 3 controllers and a supervisor in the tower. We are on base approach, tooling along at about 75 mph, and watching for other aircraft. TeenMe is thrilled to see a pair of FA-18 Hornets from the Canadian Air Force also in the pattern. After the obligatory jokes about “Canada has an Air Force, eh?” we concentrate on landing.
Now, the 150 we were in has a stupidly short landing distance, so we are on the ground fast and just derping along to get to the taxiway. After 3 hours in this tiny plane, I take off the headset to try and get comfortable. Thus, I don’t know what was said by the tower, but the pilot goes white as a sheet. “OH CRAP.”
All of a sudden, we are turning around on the runway, which is NOT something that is EVER supposed to happen. Confused and terrified, I start to ask what is going on when I look up.
At a distance of “Too Freaking Close” are the Hornets. Flaps and gear down, going right over us.
They go to afterburner and go around as our Cessna putts over and parks. Dead silence in our cockpit. We stop, tie down everything, and stand there for a second. “Pilot, are you ok?”
“Yeah…. are you ok, Bronan?”
“Yeah. Did that just happen?”
Any further reply is stopped by the sounds of idling jet engines. The Hornets are on the ground and parking. They get out of their planes and do their checks. They powwow for a minute and then all 4 come over.
These were trainers. 2 new pilots, a new back seat… and a Full Bird Colonel to supervise.
They walk up, and the pilot and I are having visions of getting torn a new one by the long arm of the Canadian Law.
“You boys ok, then?”
Nervous laughter is shared by all and the Colonel says “Let’s go have a chat with the tower, eh?”
I was thus treated to the very first experience of getting reamed by a staff officer that I have ever seen. The controller failed to pay attention to our relative speed and stacked us WAY too close together. That officer was NOT happy and he let everyone in the building know it. We were excused, shot the breeze with the other pilots for a bit and continued on to America. Still probably the closest to death that I have ever really been.
I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England , with my back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe and the Iron Curtain when we received a radio transmission from home base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71 fly-past. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot, and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem, we were happy to do it. After a quick aerial refuelling over the North Sea , we proceeded to find the small airfield.
Descending to subsonic speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze. Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we were close and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw nothing.
Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from 325 knots we were at. With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said we were practically over the field—yet; there was nothing in my windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field. Meanwhile, below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the tower in order to get a prime view of the fly-past.
Walter continued to give me indications that the field should be below us but in the overcast and haze, I couldn’t see it… The longer we continued to peer out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart stopped and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full forward. At this point we weren’t really flying, but were falling in a slight bank. Just at the moment that both afterburners lit with a thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was) the aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower… [Continued…]
Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of fire-breathing titanium in their face as the plane leveled and accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of ultimate knife-edge pass. Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall without incident. We didn’t say a word for those next 14 minutes.
After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that some of the cadets hats were blown off and the sight of the plan form of the plane in full afterburner dropping right in front of them was unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of breathtaking very well that morning, and sheepishly replied that they were just excited to see our “low approach”.
As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight suits, we just sat there-we hadn’t spoken a word since the pass. Finally, Walter looked at me and said, One hundred fifty-six knots. What did you see? Trying to find my voice, I stammered, One hundred fifty-two. We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, Dont ever do that to me again! And I never did.
A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officers club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71 fly-past that he had seen one day. Of course, by now the story included kids falling off the tower and screaming as the heat of the jet singed their eyebrows. Noticing our HABU patches, as we stood there with lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, It was probably just a routine low approach; they’re pretty impressive in that plane. Impressive indeed.
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.
I was a doctor on a flight once. Both pilots came down sick. It was just me in the cockpit with autopilot on. Somehow the stewardess found a former military pilot on board.
The look on his face when he came in and saw both pilots out… “surely you can’t be serious?”
I replied: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”.
I was still a student pilot at the time and only my instructor and myself were on board:
While I was doing a random session of instrument training I had my blinder down. For those of you wondering, this literally means I cannot see out the windows, and can only see down to my instrument panel. My instructor is giving me instructions, and I am to only rely on the instruments. Which also means, that he was my ONLY eyes. So, if for any reason, he saw something he didn’t like, he’d say, “MY PLANE” and take control.
Well, we’re flying along, and he’s having me perform various maneuvers with the blinders down, to teach me about trusting instruments. At one point, my blinder goggles slip down my nose a smidge, and I catch a quick glance out the side window. About 40 feet off of my wing was a skydiver with parachute open. I immediately whip my goggles off and scream “skydivers!” and my instructor had no idea. He was my only eyes during my maneuvers, and he had me fly right into a the path of skydivers without knowing it.
Thankfully he quickly yanked the yoke and flew us out of the immediate area, but it still scared me crapless. Needless to say he was mortified afterward and kept telling me it “was an accident and he seriously didn’t see them”. I very well could have killed someone without even knowing it. Gives me the shudders every time I think about it.
Dad retired with 36,000 hours, closest disaster was a cockpit fire. 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 is 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.
Not a pilot but I work on the ramp at a major hub for one of the biggest airlines part time.
I once flagged down a plane that was taxiing to the runway with the cargo door open. There was a dog in there. That could have been sad.