Pilots Share The Airplane Mishaps They Were Lucky To Survive

Pilots Share The Airplane Mishaps They Were Lucky To Survive

I don't know about you, but I've always had the sense that if I knew half of what happened behind the scenes on airplanes... I'd never fly again. If you're looking to dissuade yourself of that, you've likely come to the wrong place.

These pilots recently went online to share the major midair mishaps they managed to survive. Some were truly dangerous, others just a moment of pure panic. But in any event, they remind us how difficult it can be to live and work above the clouds.

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21. Against the wind

This was about seven years ago now. I took my brother and two cousins up for a short sightseeing flight one morning in a Cessna 172. I knew there was some weather coming in so I wanted to get it over with quickly.

About twenty minutes in, I notice the clouds getting worse and then some lightning off in the distance. Definitely time to head back. Heading back I radioed my intentions, and someone radioed back with the current winds. It didn't compute what they said, and in retrospect I should've asked for clarification.

Get back to the airport and as I'm on final approach, I realize just how bad the wind is. Having a hard time keeping on centerline and eventually go around on the first try. By now I'm starting to sweat bullets and planning on rerouting if the next attempt doesn't go well. I make sure to turn the intercom off so my cousins in the back can't hear how panicked I'm becoming, though I did keep my cool through the whole thing.

On second attempt I've got the rudder pegged to the left and manage to get the wheels on the ground safely. I taxi to park, shutdown, jump out, and start shaking with adrenaline and let out a huge sigh of relief. Cousins had no idea what just happened, it was just an exciting flight to them. My brother kind of knew what was going on, and I let him in on what I was thinking later.

Apparently I had an audience of guys from the FBO watching me as well, probably yelling at me to go somewhere else. I'm honestly surprised sometimes I managed that landing with no incidence, especially since that was basically my first crosswind landing.

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20. Picture imperfect

Uncoordinated turn and all the fuel went to one side of the plane. Choked both engines... sputtered and cut out. 3,000ft high, so brought back the coordination and pointed down a bit. They started back up. Yikes.

To be clear, I'm not an airline pilot. I'm an aerial photographer. My one passenger didn't notice because he was listening to a podcast.

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19. My door is always open

Commercial pilot here. I was flying myself and three passengers over the Appalachian mountains on a clear day. We hit some mild turbulence and the door of the cabin opened. The passengers all started panicking so I basically said “chill out guys this happens all the time” and tried closing the door. I couldn’t get it shut while also flying the plane so I simply landed at a nearby airfield and closed it on the ground.

After the trip was over I told the passengers that was the first time that had ever happened to me and I was slightly panicked as well. But if you act calm, most people will just assume you know what you're doing, and that's a good thing in an emergency situation. Panic helps no one.

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18. Thank god for redundancies

Once, departing Burning Man in a private plane with a couple of passengers, my engine conked out. I didn't even follow the engine-out checklist. I glanced at the fuel pressure gauge, didn't like what I saw, hit the switch for the auxiliary fuel pump, and it came back to life. The whole incident was over so fast the passengers never even noticed.

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17. Earth and wind, but thankfully no fire

I was in the process of getting my PPL (private pilot licence) and I was flying circuits solo. Before I took off, the CFO of the flight school asked me if "I was sure it was a good idea to fly, it's pretty windy". I was flying a Cessna 152 on a day with wind pushing 15 knots and turbulence around 20. I honestly don't know what I or anyone at the flight school was thinking letting me (16 years old) take off.

Anyways, a few bumpy circuits go by with no problem. I actually got some great practice landing in turbulence. So the last circuit of the day, I'm on final with full flaps doing the ABSOLUTE minimum speed for approach in a 152, not taking into consideration that the air is super turbulent. For those who don't know, when it's bumpy you should be going a little faster on approach than usual. Anyways I'm quite close to the ground, maybe 300-400 feet and I can HEAR the wind blowing over the sound of the engine.

Suddenly, the wind dies.

I had just lost 15-20 knots of almost direct headwind on final approach with absolutely no airspeed to spare.

I remember my shirt sleeves looked like they were inflating and the plane's stall warning started screaming at me. The controls became totally useless, like a limp computer joystick. Thankfully, I had my hand on the throttle like my instructor taught me and for whatever instinctual reason (good instructor probably), I gently pushed the throttle all the way and slightly lowered the nose.

All of this took place in the span of about 5 seconds. I remember what I did, but not thinking about doing it. It was like when you drive somewhere and you suddenly realize you've arrived without remembering driving.

Anyways I landed the plane just fine and went home and took a nap. My parents said I was pale as a ghost when I got home.

Flying is fun until it isn't.

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16. The air is the true enemy

This entire story occurred in less than 10 seconds and should’ve ended with headlines on CNN. Military pilot and not commercial but it still could’ve ended in a disaster.

I was flying a CH47D Chinook helicopter in Iraq in mid July 2008 when the temp was over 130 degrees. Packed full with 36 passengers at an altitude of only 100 feet and speed of 140 knots, (lower and faster than you’d ever fly in the US).

We hit a thermal (pocket of warm air) that pushed us up, so I nosed the cyclic (looks like a joy stick between your legs) forward to maintain altitude. I was a brand new pilot flying with a combat vet who wanted me to maintain altitude of 100 feet almost exactly, so no higher than 120 or lower than 80 feet.

Nosing the aircraft down kept us from going higher, but we immediately hit a downdraft and the aircraft started to fall like a rock. I pulled back on the cyclic as hard as I could to get the nose up but it hit my body armor and wouldn’t go back any further. I watched the altimeter drop all the way to 19 feet and miraculously we started falling and began to climb at the last possible second.

During the debrief the other pilot (now one of my closest friends) who had well over 1,000 combat hours told me he’s never been so close to dying before. I wasn’t shook up until I heard that. Even typing this today gives me chills.


15. You'll know where I am when I hit you

I wasn’t carrying any passengers but my flight instructor. He and I were headed back to our home airport (KDEW) after my first flight to an international airport.

As the airport comes into view, we hear a glider towing plane announce that it’s taking off, with a glider, from the airport’s second runway. Which we will pass over at pattern altitude in about 5 minutes. The glider pilots there always release directly over the runway, and my instructor and I realized we were on a collision course.

This was at an uncontrolled airport, mind you. So he announces where we are and what we’re doing, and asks where the glider is. He doesn’t respond. My instructor does this 5 more times and gets no response. Suddenly, I see a glider maybe 500 feet directly ahead of us. We are rapidly bearing down on him. My instructor and I both freak and yank the airplane to the right.

We shot by the little blue Blanik L-23 about 100 feet from its wingtip. We could see the pilot’s shocked expression as we passed him and he worriedly turned left. My instructor let out a stream of curses about “old guys” never announcing their position and that they’re “going to make a dent in a mountain some day.”


14. Spiders on a plane

I was a Certified Flight Instructor at this point and I'm flying with a student. We see a spider in the cockpit. I'm ok with spiders but I don't want it distracting the student so I mash it.

Student missed the spider but saw my movement and asked what it was. I responded "It was a spider, I killed it" as I'm glancing into the backseat area. I manage to casually add "...why, are you scared of spiders?" without the student noticing the break in the sentence. Turns out the student is scared of spiders. Like, deathly afraid.

For the rest of that flight I squished spiders behind my student's back as they came forward from the nest I had just spotted in the back of the plane. He never knew.

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13. Cratering

My buddy has a private license, and we fly together often, just for his hours. I buy lunch, he gets hours, it's fun. I live in the Pacific Northwest and wanted to fly over Crater Lake one winter. Ceiling 8,000 ft., Crater lake is at an elevation of 6,000 ft. He doesn't have his instrumental yet, so we can't break ceiling. We fly over, have an easy time, take great pics, etc.

We get back to the airport, go to the bar, and he proceeded to tell me that was the most frightened he's ever been piloting. Why? The single engine Cessna we were in could glide 2-3 miles in an emergency. Crater lake is 8+ miles in diameter. In the middle, we'd be screwed. I asked him what he would do. He said, "I'd nosedive into the water. You want to swim in that freezing water and drown, or die quickly and mostly painless?"

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12. There's never enough runway

Once when landing on a short runway out in the northeast, I was carrying a little bit too much speed and caught a gust at the wrong moment in the landing flare. The plane lifted maybe 10' higher and I slowly lowered the nose. I realized at this moment that where the plane will touchdown will not give me a whole lot of opportunity to stop before the end of the runway. As a matter of fact its probably not going to stop until we get into the trees at the end. I pushed the power up and we did a go around maybe 20-30' feet off the ground. The controllers vectored us around and we landed safely on try #2.

In the simulator we do all the "oh crap" stuff and even when a training event goes sideways, we still try to fly the thing until it hits something solid. I can't imagine ever giving up on the plane in flight. There are thousands of decisions made every day on flights by pilots that prevent a difficult situation from becoming dangerous. Flying these days is very cautious and conservative. Safety is always first and nothing is allowed to ever slide.


11. I would quit if I were you

About 4 years ago, most airlines stopped overflying the Syrian airspace due to security issues and reported “missiles” spotted by pilots without any NOTAM (notification to airmen) provided by Syrian civil aviation authorities. My airline was one of the few ones that kept overflying Syria - they accused the other airlines of refraining from overflying the airspace to put some pressure on the Syrian regime for political reasons.

A couple of weeks after the news we started to hear a few pilots in my company reporting seeing missiles at night. After asking one of them, he said it was distant, bright and scary. He couldn’t tell how far it was because it’s very dark over the Syrian inhabited desert at night and the pilots have very few visual cues.

A few days later (this was during the harsh times of the Syrian war), I was on a day flight which overflies Damascus at about 30,000ft. I was very curious given the news and looked outside a lot. And suddenly I see this large vertical smoke and a bright object with a fire tail emitting all this smoke. It was climbing at a very fast rate! I scream to the other pilot: “LOOK AT THAT MISSILE!!”

It took about 5 seconds for that missile to get from close to the ground to somewhere around our altitude. And its trajectory to switching from vertical to what it seemed to be TOWARDS US!! We both look at it through the front windshield and the other pilot slurred “get your camera.” I tried to reach my phone for proof but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The missile seemed to be coming slightly from our left side and slightly below us - and being the first officer I asked: “Shall I turn right?” He answers: “Don’t do anything.”

A couple of seconds more, the missile passes abeam us to the left side, at a VERY close distance! And probably less than 500ft above our altitude. I could clearly see the details, the colours, the head, body, tail and the fire trail during daylight.

After we landed I protested and refused to operate and I was about to be in real for putting my managers in a bad position. The passengers and the cabin crew had no idea what happened and I remember the cabin crew on galley position that day was wondering why some pilots seemed sad and angry.

If only they knew... At least our company re-routed our flight paths after this incident.

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10. They're not made of mashed potatoes either

The dumbest mistake I made was thinking that if a cloud was WHITE, it was safe to fly through; BLACK or GRAY clouds were to be avoided at all costs.

Imagine my disbelief when I entered a beautiful fully developed white cumulonimbus cloud as I leveled at 9,000 feet, eastbound, after departing Bowman Field in Louisville, KY. In rapid succession I experienced light, moderate, then heavy rain and probably hail. As I was wrestling (gingerly) with the Skylane’s controls, ice cold water was streaming onto my lap from the wing-root outside air vents. The altimeter was climbing like I’ve never seen before or since, but I let it happen rather than putting unnecessary stress on the control surfaces.

By the time I got turned around and exited back into bright, smooth sunlit skies, the aircraft was at 11,000 feet. I then told the center (pre-mode C days) of my new altitude, and I suspect he raised an eyebrow at my close call. No worries, he thanked me for the update, and I requested a vector to descend for a landing at Lexington to inspect for damage, etc.

I later came to realize that all clouds are white; the darker clouds are white clouds that have been blocked from the sun by…other clouds! The more blocking clouds, and the thicker they are, the darker is the color of the cloud you are looking at. Re-read this, learn from it, and understand that intelligence and “smarts” is no substitute for good old common sense! Cloud TYPE trumps cloud COLOR, every time. I got very lucky that day.

Larry Bruce


9. Distracted by the passengers

One fine day as a Second Officer on a 727, on a long leg from LAX to DEN, I noticed a fuel imbalance between left and right tanks. Not much, a few hundred pounds, that could be remedied with 5 minutes of cross-feed. I set-up cross feed.

Mistake 1: I needed a cup of coffee. I asked if anyone needed anything and exited the cockpit. (Never leave a cross-feed unattended.)

Mistake 2: A most attractive 25-year-old female passenger got out of her First Class seat and began a conversation. (You can see where this is headed.)

Eventually I make my way back to the cockpit, after 10 minutes or so. Now I have the opposite problem, right side heavy. We start descent and approach and visual landing at Stapleton. On final captain is trimming like crazy and says, "This airplane is bent out of shape," while I am blocking the fuel gauges so he can't see them and realize how dumb I am.

It was never out of safe limits ,but 300 pounds is noticeable on a swept wing aircraft.

Never leave a cross-feed unattended.

Joel Hyland

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8. How often does this happen?!

I was learning to fly when I worked for the government. So on my first flight with me taking off, we've been climbing for about 5 minutes and we're going through some gentle turns when instructor says, "We're going to head back. I don't feel well." He takes over the stick and he looks ashen. He then starts to breathe erratically and says I need to help him control the plane.

He radios the tower and up till now I'm thinking it's a prank. Mayday mayday. He talks me through the whole thing, I'm trying to talk to the tower, repeat info, read gauges, remember lessons, listen to him and hope he doesn't pass out. I was crapping myself. Take off is one thing, but landing?

We land like a kangaroo with a rocket up its butt. I'm surprised the wheels didn't fold. Must of been 4 big bounces, but it's a big runway. Scrub speed, finally get the plane to stop and instructor passes out. He had an heart attack. He survived but only for a few months before I heard he passed away in his sleep. But he got us down. I never continued the lessons.


7. Get in the chopper

I'm a commercial helicopter pilot.

To set it up, I was ferrying a helicopter by myself to another location about 200 miles away. The helicopter I was flying was set up for IFR (instrument flying), and I'm a fairly experienced IFR captain. The helicopter I was in does NOT like ice. That means that flying in the clouds when it's below freezing is basically impossible. This was in the high arctic, in the early spring. So basically always cold.

Weather wasn't great, but I still wanted to give the trip a shot. If it was bad, I would just turn around and come home. About 50 miles out, the cloud ceiling was coming down, and visibility was dropping. I was over a small frozen lake, and I could see at the other end of the lake that the clouds were right to the ground. At this point I'm at about 300 feet above ground.

I make the call to turn around, and start a left-hand turn, but as I'm half-way through the turn I enter a cloud bank. Under normal circumstances, a VFR helicopter unintentionally entering cloud is often a death sentence, but I'm a trained IFR pilot in an IFR helicopter. I start a climb, as I know there is rising terrain on the side of the lake.

I don't mind flying in cloud. What I do mind is the fact that my helicopter starts icing up instantly. I'm not talking about a bit of ice, I'm talking about a MASSIVE amount of ice, in a helicopter that doesn't like any ice. There is no way I can make it the 50 miles back to the airport to shoot an IFR approach, and I know the clouds are too thick to climb above them. I also can't descend because the ceiling is so low that I risk impacting the terrain if I don't pop out of the cloud soon enough.

I'm running through the options in my head, but my heart rate is going up. This isn't something that normally happens. I'm not the type of pilot that gets into situations that scare me. I'm rapidly running out of time, so I head to a larger flat area (as indicated on my GPS and maps), set my radio-altimeter (a device that tells you exactly how far above the ground you are) to beep at me when I reach 250 feet, and start descending. I figure if I don't break out by 300 feet, I'm in some serious trouble.

As I'm approaching 300 feet, I break out of cloud. Good visibility, and a clear path all the way back to the airport. I do a normal approach and landing, and shut-down at our hangar. The blades are covered in ice. After I change my underwear, we pull the helicopter into the hangar to let the ice thaw. The next day, the weather is beautiful, and the trip goes off without a hitch.

After flying for 10 years and thousands of hours, this was the only time I was actually scared. I'm glad I didn't have any passengers on board at the time.

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6. Get some coffee, boys

I once woke up 40 minutes before landing to find my co-pilot sleeping too. I mean, planes nowadays basically fly themselves, but it's important to have someone awake and monitoring the situation.

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5. A banner achievement

I'm an airline pilot now, but my first job was flying banners. One day as usual I was given the job of heading to a fairly distant location, unpacking and setting up my banner, and picking it up and flying it. Setup went like it usually does, and I took off to pick the banner up.

In banner towing, the way it works is you've got a grappling hook at the end of a cable that's attached to the tail of the aircraft. You take off without the banner attached, and come back around, swooping down steeply toward a loop of rope you have set up on the ground held up between two posts, running down to the banner. At the last second, you yank the plane back skyward, and the hook is supposed to swing between the posts and hook the rope.

On my pickup, I felt the satisfying pull of the banner as I levelled off, but something was wrong. It was pulling hard to the left side. A quick look to my left showed that I had missed with the hook, and instead caught the banner rope loop with my left main wheel. Even worse, instead of sliding up the gear leg to the fuselage, the rope had caught down near the wheel. I had been provided a steak knife for the purpose of cutting the rope, but there was no way I was going to be able to reach that rope.

The plane was yawing hard, but it was under control, and I flew slow circles around the airport while I thought about my options. I could always try to land the plane with the banner attached, but from what I'd heard, that usually results in the plane tipping over onto its nose, ruining the engine and propeller at the very least, and probably causing a lot more damage, not to mention the risk to my own life. I couldn't cut the rope because I didn't have the reach.

Then I remembered what I did have -- a small tool kit and a roll of duct tape in the pocket behind my seat. I thought about what I could use those to do, and it occurred to me that the empty second seat behind me also had a metal tube control stick. Well, it would be worth a shot.

I controlled the plane with my knees while I reached behind my seat to get the tool kit. Only a single bolt and nut secure the control stick to the tube below, but I had to access it blind, reaching below and behind me while also controlling the plane. After a couple of guesses as to which size socket to put on the ratchet, I had a good grab, and managed to get the nut off and extract the screw. A brisk pull up dislodged the control stick, it was working!

The stick was a couple feet long and I figured it would be enough to reach out the window and down to the rope. Still flying with my knees, I stuck the steak knife handle into the bottom end of the control stick, and wrapped a bunch of duct tape around the joint until I felt it would be secure. It was time to give it a try.

I lined back up for my pickup site and reaching as far out the left window as I could, while fighting the slip stream, I could just contact the rope. When I reached my target, I started sawing wildly at the rope, but it sliced through with surprising ease. I felt the plane lurch as the banner dropped back down to earth. I landed the plane and took a few minutes to breathe, thinking about what had just happened, and then what to do next.

It occurred to me that I could tie a knot in the rope and just pick it up again. And that's what I did. Suffice it to say I was a bit more careful this time, and everything went as planned. From the ground, the only thing anyone would have noticed is that a banner plane picked up a banner and just stayed in the area for a while, dropped the banner, then picked it up again and headed off.

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4. For the birds

I was a c-141 navigator for my first Air Force assignment. We were flying a group of families moving back to the US from Japan.

As we were in the approach at Travis Air Force base, we had a massive multi bird strike. It sounded like the world was ending inside the cockpit it was so loud. Shattered glass that was coated in blood and feathers, bent radome, you name it. Flight controls were fine but we declared an in-flight emergency and the co-pilot could see well enough out his window to land and I and the Flight Engineer were over his shoulder to help spot however we could. We landed without incident.

The passengers deplaned and even complimented us on the great flight. I will never forget the right side of the passenger bus driving away and the look of horror on those people’s faces when they saw what the front of that airplane looked like.

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3. Don't text and fly

During my first solo flight ever, I was really excited and wanted to video record the special occasion. So there I was, taxiing down the taxiway with one hand holding the my phone. One thing about old propeller planes is that they’re just like old cars, and don’t always drive straight. I suppose I was a little too concentrated on making sure my camera was properly angled and focused. Next thing I knew my plane ended up rolling off the asphalt...into a grassy ditch.

I PANICKED. How in the world am I supposed to get this plane out of here?!

Over the radio, there was a silence, as the controller likely saw what happened from the tower. After a few seconds, probably still speechless at this point, she casually checked on me to make sure I was doing okay

To save my embarrassment, I tried to power up and drive out of the grass back to the asphalt. Much to my surprise, it worked. I did my short flying as planned and returned to the hanger where my instructor was waiting. I have no idea how many people saw what happened, but from the look on his face, I’m pretty sure he knew too. And yes, that video of me driving a plane into a ditch still exists somewhere.

...I suppose this is the airplane equivalent of “don’t text and drive.”


2. You're the teacher now

Mine is from many many years ago when I was a student pilot. I was 14 I think at the time. I had about 15ish hours done and getting close to soloing for the first time but still had a few hours and more landings to practice. So I was doing some basics and getting ready to come back with my instructor to practice some touch and go's for a bit.

Coming back through we had to pass through DTW's bravo airspace (means we needed permission to go through it). A few minutes before I was about to call for permission, my instructor got really quiet. I looked over at him and he looked really unwell. I thought he was going to puke because he looked clammy and pale. But then I noticed he wasn't breathing.

I figure out where I am at and call up DTW approach. Declare a medical emergency and that my instructor was not breathing. I also told them I am a student and never landed on my own before, and never in a large airport.

Detroit approach was amazing at helping me. They gave me an option for DTW or Willow but Willow would have added a good 5-10 min since I was coming in from the SE. Opted for DTW and they were great at giving me vectors while also getting the big jets out of the way. I remember hearing them tell several planes to go around and order several more into a hold.

Anyway, did my approach and made the most butter smooth landing I have ever made in my life (even till this day). Ambulance was right there on the taxi waiting for me. Turns out my instructor who was only 25 had a heart attack. He ended up being okay. All in all from first call to him in the ambulance was less than 10 minutes thanks to ATC and DTW tower.

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1. These tools didn't fix anything

I'd rented a Cessna at the airport at Myrtle Beach while on vacation. I wanted to give a ride to a friend who had never flown in a small plane. He had asked about Gs, positive and negative. What I didn't know was there were some tools on the floor behind the front seats.

At about 1,000 feet over the beach, I gave a demo. Positive Gs, no problem. I built up a bit of speed to get a nose high attitude then pushed the yoke forward to get to about zero G. My friend freaked out and jammed the yoke on his side forward until we were negative. In the next three seconds I was almost knocked out from a large screwdriver slamming into the back of my head followed by the engine quitting from fuel starvation!

Suddenly things were not fun, particularly when my friend vomited. I regained control, the engine restarted on its own and we went directly back to the airport. Upon landing we had a big job of cleaning up the vomit and blood from the injury to my head.

My friend is very lucky I wasn't knocked out by that screwdriver.

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