7 Horrifying Aircraft Landings (in which no one died)


Many people board an airplane flight thinking that if anything goes wrong, they will probably die. We board anyway, knowing that the odds of something going wrong are pretty small. In these seven stories, hundreds of passengers thought it was the end for them, but thanks to skilled pilots and crew members (and a fair amount of luck), they all survived to fly again. If they ever wanted to.

1. British Airways Flight 38

Beijing to London
16 crew, 136 passengers
January 17, 2008

On approach to Heathrow airport, the plane began to drop faster than it should. The engines had lost all power, and pilot Peter Burkill had to glide the Boeing 777 in to avoid crashing into the houses of West London. Observers on the ground were horrified at how low the plane came in. There was not enough time to warn passengers before the plane hit the grass short of the runway, and crashed. Four crew members and 15 passengers were injured, but there were no fatalities. The most serious injury was a broken leg. The cause of the crash was later found to be ice crystals in the fuel. Procedures have since been developed to deal with such an occurrence. Image by Marc-Antony Payne.

2. British Airways Flight 9

London to Auckland
15 crew, 248 passengers
June 24, 1982

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On the leg of the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, the Boeing 747 ran into a volcanic eruption! Mount Galunggung threw a cloud of volcanic ash into the air, enveloping the plane. The ash was glowing with heat, and sulphuric smoke filled the plane. One by one, all four engines failed. Captain Eric Moody made an announcement:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.

Moody put the plane into a dive to restore oxygen to the cabins. One by one, the four engines came back to life, although one failed again. The crew had to land the plane at Jakarta, even though visibility was bad due to the damaged windscreen. However, the landing was perfect and no one was injured in the incident. An investigation revealed that the cloud of volcanic ash did not show up on radar because it lacked moisture. Pilots are now trained to look for signs of volcanic eruption.

3. FedEx Flight 705

Memphis to San Jose
3 crew, 1 hijacker
April 7, 1994

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Fedex flight engineer Auburn Calloway hitched a ride on the DC10 cargo plane, but did not plan to land safely. He planned to attack the crew members, crash the plane into the Fedex terminal, and let his family collect on his life insurance. Calloway knew he was soon to lose his job at Fedex and wanted to punish the company as well as provide for his family. Calloway entered the cockpit and attacked first officer Jim Tucker and flight engineer Andy Peterson with a claw hammer. Then he went for captain David Sanders, but the other two men, despite injuries, fought back and the three drove Calloway out of the cockpit. He returned with a speargun. Tucker and Peterson were seriously injured, and could barely fight back. As Sanders tried to control Calloway, Jim Tucker rolled the plane to throw Calloway off balance.

The DC-10 was executing a barrel-roll at nearly 400 miles per hour—something the aircraft had never been designed to do. Peterson and Sanders were shouting "Get him! Get him!" to each other, as the three struggling men were tossed about the galley area, alternately weightless and pressed upon by three times their weight in G forces. By now, the aircraft was inverted at 19,700 feet, and the alarmed air traffic controllers in Memphis were desperately calling for Flight 705

Tucker put the plane through more bizarre maneuvers to avoid more violence. He sent the plane into a dive past 500 miles per hour -faster than any DC10 had ever flown before. This was not intentional; Tucker's head injuries made his right hand useless at the controls. He managed to pull out of the dive. By this time, the Memphis terminal had cleared all runways for an emergency landing, although the ground crew did not know what was happening in the plane. Tucker landed the plane with Sanders and Peterson holding Calloway down on the floor. Calloway received a life sentence for air piracy and attempted murder. All three members of the flight crew sustained life-changing injuries and can no longer fly commercially.  The story was told in a book called Hijacked. Pictured is David Sanders receiving emergency treatment.

4. Air Canada Flight 143

Montreal to Edmonton
8 crew, 61 passengers
July 23, 1983

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The Air Canada flight took off as scheduled despite the notice that the fuel gauges were not working. Although there were manual checks, there wasn't enough fuel to complete the flight. At 41,000 feet, fuel pressure indicators went off, and captain Bob Pearson decided to divert to Winnipeg. One engine gave out, then the other, and the Boeing 767 was just gliding. The tiny airport at Gimli was closer than Winnipeg, so the jumbo jet aimed in that direction. Pearson did not know that one of the airstrips at Gimli had been converted to a public racetrack and was in use that day. As the plane landed and skidded across 2,900 feet, spectators scattered as fast as they could. The ten injuries from the rough landing were minor. This Boeing 767 later became known as the Gimli Glider. There was not much danger of a fire upon landing, as all three fuel tanks on the plane were completely empty. An investigation of the incident found that the pilots and mechanics were at fault and that airline management contributed to the chain of errors that led to the plane taking off with insufficient fuel.

5. British Airways Flight 5390

Birmingham, England to Malaga, Spain
6 crew, 81 passengers
June 10, 1990

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The quality of every part of an airplane is crucial to safety. Before flight 5390 took off, the left cockpit windscreen had been replaced by a technician who used the wrong size bolts. At 17,300 feet, the window blew out. Captain Tim Lancaster had just removed his seat belt and had set the plane to autopilot. The sudden loss of pressure sucked Lancaster out the window! His body was outside the plane while his feet became entangled in the controls, which disconnected the autopilot. Flight attendant Nigel Ogden grabbed the captain and tried to pull him back into the plane. Copilot Alistair Atcheson took control of the plane and sent it into a dive to an altitude where the pressure could be stabilized. Chief steward John Heward helped Ogden hold onto the pilot's legs. They could not pull him in due to the raging wind and cold temperatures at 11,000 feet. The crew, assuming Lancaster was dead, considered letting the pilot's body go, but decided that was too risky as it could be sucked into an engine or damage a wing. Besides, he was partially blocking the hole where the window once was. Atcheson landed the plane at Southampton, despite the fact that the airport's runway was shorter than recommended for the BAC 1-11 aircraft. Then the unexpected happened -captain Lancaster came to! He was hospitalized with a broken right arm and wrist and a broken left thumb as well as frostbite and shock. Minor injuries, considering he had ridden on the outside of an airliner at high altitudes for 18 minutes. Lancaster was the only person injured in the incident. He recovered and returned to flying a few months later.

6. China Airlines Flight 006

Taipei to Los Angeles
February 19, 1985
25 crew, 243 passengers

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Ten hours into its flight, one of the Boeing 747's engines failed. The pilots did not follow procedures to balance the remaining engines and the plane went into a dive from 41,000 feet. Passengers were exposed to a force of 5Gs as the plane dove 30,000 feet! They dropped six miles in two minutes. Pieces of metal flew off the plane as it rolled and dived. The pilots could not orient themselves with the horizon until they were under the clouds at 11,000 feet, and regained control by 9,600 feet. The failed engine was restarted, and the aircraft made an emergency landing in San Francisco. There were only two people injured in the incident. Jet lag is thought to have been a contributing factor in the incident.

7. US Airways Flight 1549

New York to Charlotte, North Carolina
5 crew, 150 passengers
January 15, 2009

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Just after takeoff from LaGuardia airport, the Airbus 320 ran into a flock of geese. Birds were sucked into the engines and they lost thrust. Visibility was down because of birds splattered against the windscreen. Captain Chesley Sullenberger requested a return to LaGuardia, then realizing they wouldn't make it, requested a landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Within seconds, Sullenberger knew they wouldn't make it that far either, and guided the plane into the Hudson River. The crew evacuated the passengers, who stood on the wings until they were picked up by the many commercial, private, and rescue boats who responded. Seventy-eight people had minor injuries, mostly from the evacuation. It was later called the most successful plane ditching ever.