Airplane Pilots Share Their Biggest On-The-Job Mistakes
The miracle of flight is a privilege, not a right. Such was our takeaway from these tales of air piloting going horrifically awry. These pilots (and their victims) deigned to share their biggest up-in-the-air boo-boos. All it takes is a little hole to make someone’s trip their last one ever…Sit back and enjoy these thrilling stories about airplane pilot flubs.
1. Better Later Than Dead
Not a pilot but a flight attendant. We landed, everything went smoothly, but as we’re deplaning the pilot steps out of the flight deck and goes, “Wow, I’m glad we made it, we lost 2 hydraulics on the way down.”
2. Welcome to My Sick, Twisted Web
I’m a CFI 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. 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.
3. We’re Going Topless
Not completely on topic, but I was an aircraft mechanic for the Navy back in the day on A-4 Skyhawks. Student pilot notices his canopy light is on, indicating his canopy isn’t all the way closed and locked. He decided it might help if he cracked the canopy open just a little bit and close it again. I remember seeing it land as a convertible. We sent a couple of guys out in a pickup truck, where they found the missing canopy in a farmer’s field.
4. Filled With Hot Air
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. Flying a CH47D Chinook helicopter in Iraq mid July 2008 when the temperature 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 joystick 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 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.
5. What a Gas
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.
6. Not the Best Place for an Open-Door Policy
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 opened to the cabin. 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.
7. Ice, Ice, Baby
I’m a commercial helicopter pilot. Probably the closest moment to “we’re screwed” I ever had was a few years ago. 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. Under normal circumstances, a VFR helicopter unintentionally entering clouds 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 who 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, it was the only time I was actually scared. I’m glad I didn’t have any passengers on board at the time.
8. Not Enough Room for the Both of Us
Half the passengers in this story had no idea, while the other half likely pooped 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.
9. You Don’t Need to Tell Family Everything
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, uncontrolled airport but with an FBO, 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 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 incident, especially since that was basically my first crosswind landing.
10. Talk About Hot Wheels
I am a pilot (single engine, small aircraft only), but one flight I was a passenger and the pilots avoided telling us about a disaster until we were about to land. On a flight to Florida, one of the front wheels fell off during takeoff. Luckily, the front of the passenger aircraft had 2 wheels, side by side, so we weren’t doomed.
But no passenger knew about the problem until we were 15 minutes from landing in Florida. The pilot told us that the wheel fell off, and we had to do an emergency flyby. They had ambulances and firetrucks lining the runway, and as we landed, we pulled a really long wheelie, keeping the only remaining front tire off the ground as long as possible.
11. Breaking Under Pressure
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. I would like to add that the mechanics were NOT being reckless. These channels rarely fail, and having 2 is already a redundancy. They are absolutely able to defer them with very little concern for safety.
I was being overly cautious in my request for an inspection and they accommodated me without question. A few mechanics out there must have very charged relationships with pilots, this is rarely the case in my workplace.
12. Face-Off on the Runway
In flight training, we were practicing stalls. While doing a power on stall, pulling back to lose airspeed, I notice another plane coming at us, probably 100 yards away. I immediately throw the nose down to avoid death, and my instructor looks at me with a weird look. He didn’t see the other guy. He tells me that not even close to the stall speed, and I tell him about the other airplane.
He says, “Oh yeah, good call.” On the way back to the airport, I ask him if he’s had any experiences like that. He said he’s come so close that he could see the whites in the other pilots’ eyes. Flying can be fun.
13. Burying the Leak
My father is a commercial pilot and has been for decades. Used to be a 747-400 co-captain, then a 757 captain, not really sure what he flies these days. Anyway, a couple years ago, he was very upset at exactly what this post is asking. 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 he 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.
14. How Low Can We Go?
I’m a pilot, but I don’t have passengers normally. A few years ago, I was flying pretty high in the clouds (36,000 feet or so) around some very high mountains (about 26,000 feet), and our GPWS (ground proximity warning system) started having an electronic seizure. “TOO LOW TERRAIN, TOO LOW GEAR, TOO LOW FLAPS, TOO LOW TERRAIN.”
After freaking out for a few moments, we remembered we were higher than the tallest mountains in the world, let alone in the area, and released the seat cushions from our butt cheeks. I then told one of the crew to pull the circuit breaker for the GPWS to turn it off.
15. Birds of a Feather Almost Crash Together
I’m a helicopter pilot. I was doing a tourist flight and was flying low (~ 50 ft) in between rock formations to impress my passengers and give them a nice time. I’ve done this flight multiple times, everyone always loves that low pass, and I usually love it, too. Except this time I saw a prey bird flying higher than us right over our flight path, and I was unable to diverge as I was lower than the walls around me.
You have to know that most birds usually try to avoid a big noisy thing flying near them. They do so by swerving left, right or down. Prey birds are also known to sometimes attack big noisy flying things by diving at them. It all went pretty fast, and thankfully the bird didn’t do anything stupid like throwing itself into the main rotor.
We landed safely a few minutes later, and my passengers went on their way without suspecting anything. I’m more careful now when I make this flight.
16. Blast From the Recent Past
The first time I flew a plane, I nearly crashed into a helicopter I had gone Heli-skiing on the day before. For some reason, they only operate on their own frequency, so we didn’t know they were there, and they didn’t know we were there. The flight instructor took over and it ended up being fine. Quite a shock, though.
17. Time for a Power Nap
Passenger and pilot here. You’d be amazed how much your brain explodes when you’re in a nosedive where your only option is to pull up, but you’re gaining incredible amounts of speed and your G tolerances can only go so high. Started to grey-out, but got it under control. Had I not strained hard enough, I would have just passed out and plummeted 7,000 ft. Scared the heck out of myself.
18. A Crash Course in Mortality
In flight school (for KingAirs), my instructor pilot was like, “I’m gonna demonstrate a full engine shutdown.” Well, the engine shut down fine. When he went to restart it, it did not restart. So, we declared an emergency and he landed it. Crash rescue was there waiting for us and everything. It was kinda cool in hindsight, seeing how ATC treats you when you have a real-world emergency.
19. A Life Well-Lived Isn’t Over Yet
Not commercial, but hobby flyer. I was out with a couple of mates on a nice day, and we decided to all go out. I don’t have my pilot’s license, but a mate offered to let me take over. Anyway, we’re flying at a medium kinda altitude, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed our altitude drop significantly—my heart leaps into my throat and I panicked.
My friends didn’t notice. I started remembering things in my life: my first bike ride; my dad walking in on me shoving a chessboard in my butt and telling me we got a new puppy; my first love. I told my friend, a more experienced pilot, who politely told me that the dial was just broken, and the altitude was fine.
20. Don’t Trust the Machine
Altitude indicator freaking rolled over and died. It was VMC, so it wasn’t a hazard, but it certainly was interesting as a new pilot to look down and see an instrument claim that I was in an inverted dive towards the ground. Just squawked it when I landed, but my passenger (a girl I was in vain trying to impress) thankfully didn’t notice.
21. The Future Is Automated and Anxious
Flying a Cessna 310. Auto pilot is nonoperational, so it wasn’t part of my pre-landing check. First time I had a full plane of 5 passengers. On final to land. Everything nice and trimmed. All of a sudden, flight controls lock up. My mind starts racing “abort landing and try to troubleshoot” or “try to land.” Plane is setup to land, and I decide if I do a go-around, there’s no telling what’s going to happen.
So, I decide to land. With all my might, I was able to get some control back and flare. Plane lands hard. Everyone’s fine and no one has a clue as to what just happened. So, as I’m taxiing in, I noticed my passenger’s knee hit the auto-pilot switch, which is why I could barely control the plane. Come to find out a mechanic was messing with the system and left the breakers on.
22. Mystery Meat Landing
Not a pilot, but one time on a Transatlantic flight, I think I ate some tainted meat. I was so gaseous that my butt was basically just leaking a fart the entire time. Whenever the smells got particularly bad, I would just mean mug the guy sitting next to me and try to make eye contact with others in the hopes they would see me mean-mugging this guy.
I’m pretty sure everyone thought he was the source of noxious gas, but it was definitely a “oh no, this not good” moment.
23. All Dogs Go to Heaven at This Rate
I was earning my private pilot’s certificate in 2002 in Florida. I was on my first solo flight (no passengers) that wasn’t just touch-and-gos. Took off from Melbourne and flew 30-ish minutes to a small, uncontrolled airport to do a few take offs and landings. I was on final approach, and probably less than 7 seconds before my wheels touched the runway, a pack of 4 or 5 dogs ran into the runway.
Thank God I was able to throttle up all the way and do a go-around. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at that point, so I got on the radio and warned other pilots at the airport and in the traffic pattern that there were dogs on the loose. I have no freaking idea how those dogs got there, but I surely would have been seriously injured or maybe even killed had I hit them.
I told my flight instructor about the near-disaster after I got back to Melbourne, and I think he thought I was either making it up or exaggerating.
24. Don’t Make Me Look Bad, Plane
Military helicopter pilot here. I sank with power approaching the deck edge of a ship, at the very edge of the flight deck. That means I was giving it all the power I could, but was still sinking. I had 21 Turkish soldiers on board (I’m American) in the middle of an international exercise. The only guy who sucked up a seat cushion was riding between me and the other pilot because he saw how low below the ship we got. Having the place where you want to land be above you=BAD.
25. All It Takes Is One Nut
Not a pilot, but operator in a police helicopter. One time we started, takeoff was fine. After going over to the runway, we heard a little noise from the engine, and the machine was turning for like 2-3 degrees for a short moment. After that, everything was fine, values were in range (one engine needed 0.5% more power than the other one, but that was it).
After a 2-hour mission, we came back and checked the engines. Turned out a screw had fallen off and got sucked into engine 1, screwing up the whole thing. Engine got swapped completely, was completely damaged, but still ran smoothly.
26. Burying the Lead in The Greens
The dinner salads arrived without salad dressing…with not a lot of time before departure, I drove to a grocery store, bought a couple bottles, snagged some plastic dressing cups from the salad bar, assembled as required, and they never knew.
27. So Much for Smooth Sailing
I wasn’t the pilot, but I was a passenger on a glider. For those who don’t know, gliders cannot get off the ground on their own. For this glider, we needed a tow plane, a 172. The 172 has a tow hook that they clip into our nose. When we want to release, we go through a release procedure. The pilot in the 172 dips a wing to signal the release.
He slows down, we dive. This creates slack. We nose up, then release the tow cable, the Cessna flies on its merry way, and we glide. Well, during the release procedure, something went wrong, and the cable could not be released. The glider pulled on the tail of the Cessna and caused a ton of chaos, as flying a 172 with a glider that isn’t synced with your motions is incredibly hard.
Luckily, we both made it back in one piece. But that could have very well caused the 172 to stall and crash, and we would be dragged down with them, watching helplessly.
28. So Much for Wingmen
I once woke up 40 minutes before landing to my co-pilot sleeping.
29. Never Too Young to Have a Close Call
When I was younger, I was with my dad, who pilots a small plane. We were mid-flight, and the engine just started slowing down and the plane started descending crazy fast. It somehow picked up again before hitting the ground. Mind you, this happened in under a minute. I didn’t panic or anything because I had no idea what was going on. I was like 3 or 4, so I only realised in hindsight what actually happened.
30. We’re Flying Dry
My friend’s girlfriend is a flight attendant, and they had one trip where they ran out of alcohol. They were worried people would get mad or freak out because some people heavily rely on alcohol to help with the nerves of flying, but none of the passengers noticed because after they served the last drink, nobody ordered anything else.
31. It’s All Muscle Memory, Right?
I’m a bartender, but a co-worker of mine who is a pilot said he landed a plane perfectly despite having carbon monoxide poisoning. The only thing he remembers is that he somehow managed to fly in under a phone line.
32. It Takes Just a Tower
Not the pilot, but as a passenger I noticed a close call. A few years ago, me and my father made a little “skytrip” to a small island that has a tiny airport. We flew with an old 2-seater Cessna, and the weather was very nice that day. However, when we approached the island, it was hidden in thick, foggy weather.
We couldn’t see anything, and asked the tower if it was possible to land (runway has no lights, etc.). Tower responded that it won’t be a problem to land, so we started our final approach. After seeing nothing, SUDDENLY I see the tower very close below us (100ft I think, maybe a little lower). Told my dad that we were flying dangerously close to the tower, and he decided to abort the landing.
The tower, however, insisted that it was safe despite the fact that you really couldn’t see anything unless you were at approximately 100 feet, which doesn’t give you hardly any reaction time at all. My dad didn’t see how close the tower was, but as a passenger I exited my soul out when I saw it next to me. So yeah, the tables were turned this time.
33. Gone With the Wind
Not a pilot, but I was a passenger flying back home from Florida and it was very, very windy. The plane came down to land and the wind was so strong that the plane lifted back up off the ground, hung in the air for a couple seconds, and then went back down onto the runway. Pilot slammed on the brakes and the whole plane vibrated to a stop just a couple feet from going into the grass.
I looked around and everyone looked like they just pooped their pants.
34. Just Remember What You Learned in School
I was in the process of getting my PPL (private pilot license), 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 kts 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, no wind. I had just lost 15-20kts 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. Darn scary. 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.
35. Will This Be on the Test?
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 breath erratically and says I need to help him control the plane.
He radios 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 pooping myself. Take off is one thing, but landing? We landed like a kangaroo with a rocket up its butt, and I’m surprised the wheels didn’t fold.
Must have been four big bounces, but thankfully it’s a big runway. Scrub speed, finally get the plane to stop, and my instructor just passes out right then and there. He had a 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.
36. Getting Hot in the Cockpit
Dad retired with 36,000 hours, closest disaster was almost a cockpit fire. So I got the short story from him: 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 and they were using clothing as oven mitts.
He said he and his co-pilot were also completely drenched in sweat.
37. What Did I Miss?
I went to an aeronautical university; the majority of students were either aerospace engineers or pilots. My boyfriend is an engineer, and our good friend is a pilot. Pilot friend offered to fly the three of us to a large city an hour away. We flew in, ate some Waffle House, and started flying home. My boyfriend was in front, next to the pilot, and I was in the back.
We were just coming over some large mountains when the ATC let us know the winds are crazy strong down on the flight line. Our pilot hadn’t been cleared to land, so we flew in circles…Until we started to run low on fuel. The pilot has one of his instructors on the radio, and they decide he can land, even though he doesn’t have that qualification.
We prepare for landing. The wind casually bats the plane sideways. We’re swaying back and forth by the struggle between wind and pilot. Finally, touch down and land safely. I was taking a nap the whole time. After we land, my friend talked about how scared he was.
38. Darn Those Pencil-Pushers
My cousin was a pilot for one of the feeder airlines. One night, he was descending into Pittsburgh during an ice storm when there was a bright flash and an explosion right in front of the cockpit. He and his co-pilot can’t see, can’t hear. Blind, they increase power and start to climb out. They hope it was the right decision.
After 10-20 seconds, their hearing and vision start coming back. They see: the flight instruments spinning randomly. Calmly, they start going through the checklist and reboot the plane. Ten minutes later, they make an uneventful landing. Ground inspection reveals a hole the diameter of a pencil in the nose of the plane about a foot in front of the windscreen, and another smaller mark on one of the prop blades.
39. MIA: Missing in the Air
Not a pilot—but was an air traffic controller. I have a million screwed-up pilot stories, though. One somewhat amusing story (yet also very sad) was a pilot who flew in on “emergency fuel” in his MiG he flew around to air shows. He was erratic and didn’t listen to instructions well, but landed safely. He left my airport a few days later, then went down in the mountains and was never found.
The finding was: Likely low fuel due to scraping his fuel tanks at an air show prior to arriving at my airport. He never even had it looked at while he was at my airport. He was aware he had scraped his fuel tanks, he came into my airport using emergency fuel, yet he pressed on after that, to his death. The truth is, pilots are just people. They’re flawed like the rest of us.
40. Flight for the Whole Family
When I was a teenager, my dad was earning his pilot’s license. It was the best, and we always got to go on lessons. We all liked his instructor and had him around for dinner often. He and my dad would make sports bets. Well, instructor Chris lost, and the payment was a ride with him on this twin engine just for fun.
It’s a clear night, so we go. Chris and dad are flying, and my mom, baby sis, and I are in the back. My sister fell asleep before we even get to the runway. We take off, and immediately something is very wrong. There are suddenly loud bangs all over the plane like metal is hitting it, and the plane pitches like crazy.
My mom had a headset, so I reached over and grabbed one side so I could hear. Chris is freaked out, but I heard my dad say, calm as heck, “We fly the plane first and panic later,” then start radioing others that we are circling back for emergency landing. At this point, my mom grabs the headset back and I just sat still.
They landed the plane perfectly. Turns out there was an outside compartment on the nose of the plane that was open, so on take off it flew open and a bunch of stuff hit the plane. We got out, all of us shaken, and then my little sister pipes up, “Daddy, are we going to fly now?” We all just lost it laughing, we could barely breathe.
My dad can’t fly now, but I’m saving up. Next time he comes to visit, I’m going to make sure I’ve had a few lessons, and I’ll take him flying this time. Those flying lessons were some of the best moments of my childhood.
41. Make Sure It Doesn’t Strike Twice
Not a pilot but a passenger. I was on a 16-seater turboprop when suddenly there’s a loud bang, all the lights go out, and we drop. We’re all looking around like what’s going on, is this how we die? After a few minutes, the lights come back on and the pilot comes in the PA, says, “Sorry about that folks, but we were just struck by lightning. No need to worry, everything seems to be working. Except for the radar. It’s fried.”
I may have worried a little.
42. The Heartbreak Kid
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 I was getting close to soloing for the first time but still had a few hours and more landings to practice. I was doing some basics and getting ready to come back with my instructor to practice some touch and gos for a bit.
Coming back through, we had to pass through DTW’s bravo airspace (which 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 bad. I thought he was going to puke, so I started looking for a bag. 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 have 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 minutes.
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 put several more into a hold. Anyway, I 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 ok. All in all, from first call to him in the ambulance was less than 10 minutes thanks to ATC and DTW tower.
44. Everyone’s Worst Nightmare
We were flying from San Francisco to Cincinnati. In the middle of the flight, the pilot requests for everyone to fasten their belts because they are expecting a bumpy ride. Apparently, there was a weather disturbance that had been reported. Just prior, he had casually announced that we were at 40,000 feet, due for the expected time, and so on.
After the announcement, we hear tons of these sort-of popping sounds, and we’re all like WTF is going on? It got really bumpy… and it turns out, it was giant hailstorm hitting the plane. Then it got really bumpy. The pilot again announces more sternly for all crew to take their seats and for no one to get up. Now it was getting really really bumpy.
Then, it happened. We fell right out of the sky. There is no other way to describe it. It was like you were just sitting in a chair suspended from a rope at the top of a cherry picker and someone cut the rope. We dropped like crazy, and then WHAM. It was like the plane landed in an enormous vat of cream filling.
I don’t know how else to describe it—it was like, kind of soft, but still a big jolt. The jolt impacted on one wing more than the other, so the plane went askance and all sorts of luggage went flying out of the overhead compartments on the right side. They flew over to the left side, smacking a bunch of people in the head.
Some people who were not completely or at all buckled up—not the smartest folks—flew up and hit the ceiling, then fell back into their seats. There was screaming everywhere. Absolute chaos. Then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, the pilot screams over the intercom, “Denver, we’re in serious trouble up here, I need…” and then a few other words we could not understand.
He freaked everyone out even more. He had forgotten to turn off the cabin speakers from the earlier announcement. It was super rough for a few moments, and then we drop like crazy again. The same thing as before, but a much harder landing. I mean, we dropped for what seemed like minutes but was probably only 10-15 seconds.
Wham! A much harder landing. More stuff went flying everywhere, more people were crying, praying, and screaming. It was nuts! We cruised through that, and it became smooth again. The pilot later announced he was sorry about the “mistaken” overhead announcement, and kind of downplayed that we were ever in any real danger.
He also said the current altitude was something like 18,000 feet. Whatever the exact numbers were, we had dropped about 10,000 feet, or 2 miles. It was the worst of the 500,000+ air miles I spent. You never heard so many people clapping upon landing.
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