Revealed: Pilots Talk About Their Most Terrifying In-Flight Experiences, Including Near Misses
Traveling is great, but flying can be downright terrifying. Just ask your pilot. Keep reading for some shocking first-hand stories from pilots about things airline passengers — and flight attendants — might not know about that happened during a flight. Then thank your lucky stars you remained blissfully ignorant.
Warning: If you’re a nervous flyer anyway, make sure you’re sitting down when you read this. The Reddit thread, “What’s the closest disaster you’ve averted while on a flight that the passengers had no idea about?” generated stories that are not for the faint-hearted.
1. A near crash
According to one Reddit user, the son of a former Eastern Airlines captain, his dad was almost at takeoff speed when a commercial jet taxied across his runway — and he was going too fast to abort. Instead, he pulled up early to clear the other plane — and he made it by a few feet. His passengers didn’t have a clue about what was going on, but the other plane’s passengers saw it all. At least the pilot received an apology from the other pilot who taxied across his runway.
Next: The pressure was on.
2. Cabin pressure fail
Another Reddit user, a commercial airline captain on an Embraer 175, told a story about the plane’s cabin pressure control channels failing — and the cabin pressure rapidly dropping.
“Our pressure controller has two channels and automatically switches to the second if one fails,’ said the user. We were flying along, about to start our descent and briefing our arrival and our ears started popping like mad.” The pilot started a deep descent and flipped the pressure switch to manual, then back to normal. The passengers experienced a lot of ear popping and about a minute or two of a scare, but that’s about it.
Next: Coming up empty.
3. The fuel tank was empty
A Reddit user reported that he noticed his right fuel tank was empty five minutes into the flight. The pilot tried to lean the air/fuel mixture to get the best fuel economy, but when he did the plane’s engine stopped and went dead silent.
The captain remembered his emergency checklist and used it to get the engine to roar back to life, thankfully. The passengers were completely oblivious to the situation.
Next: Pilots never tell passengers about potential disasters.
4. Pilots keep mum on near misses
According to the Daily Mail, pilots rarely alert passengers to any kind of onboard disaster. “If there is a malfunction the passengers can’t see, hear or smell – and if it doesn’t have an immediate effect on the flight – it is best not to tell anything, as it can only cause panic,” wrote one pilot.
That said, don’t assume that every flight you’re on is going down. At least there’s this from the person who revealed pilots don’t tell: “In seven years and 6,000 hours of commercial flying, nothing close to a disaster has ever happened,” he wrote.
Next: Out of control
5. This was a bad mechanics’ mistake
A Reddit user wrote about his father, a retired pilot who was in a plane with controls that got so hot he was using clothing as an oven mitt to touch them. The flight was from Orlando to Boston and as the pilot was taking off he noticed there was hot air pouring into the cockpit.
Instead of wiring the engine valve shut, the mechanics wired it wide open, which allowed the wrong amount of hot air from the engine into the cockpit and rendered the controls untouchable. The pilot made an emergency landing in Jacksonville, Florida; he said he and his co-pilot were drenched in sweat.
Next: Circling in darkness
6. The plane went black
Another Reddit user described the time he was flying from Toronto to Los Angeles when “The lights began to flicker and the plane went into complete darkness.” The plane was almost touching the runway when all the lights went out and the plane went into complete darkness. Next, the engines went into overdrive and the plane pulled up into the sky again, then circled for 20 minutes before the pilot said they were having some technical issues and they were trying to land safely.
The plane circled in the dark for an hour before it could land — the aircraft had lost electrical power and the pilots couldn’t get flight information, so they had to land it with no outside help. The passengers might not have been afraid, but the pilots certainly were.
Next: Water on fire
7. A freak accident
According to the Daily Mail, one pilot reported this incident to Callback, the Aviation Safety Reporting System’s newsletter, which is the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) voluntary confidential incident reporting website. He said that he and the captain were at 11,000 feet when they both smelled smoke in the cockpit.
The pilot felt his left leg burning and noticed the smoke was coming from his pants. He had been drinking a bottle of water stuck it between his legs, where the sunlight was beaming in through a window. The pilot quickly dealt with the situation and no passengers were the wiser, thankfully.
Next: Risky runway business
8. A snowplow on the runway
“I saw a snow plow on Taxiway A,’” wrote one pilot wrote in the Callback newsletter. The pilot said that no ground vehicles had declared their presence on the traffic advisory frequency so he visually checked his final approached and started to take off.
All of a sudden, a snowplow appeared on the runway — facing the aircraft. The pilot had to take off at that point so he did. He pulled the aircraft up sharply and missed the snow plow by about 100 feet as he flew over it.
Next: User error
9. This pilot revealed his mistake
One pilot revealed he had made mistake that could have led to a catastrophe, according to the Daily Mail. He was approaching the runway to land and called ahead for taxi clearance. He began following the green lights for “Runway 9” and suddenly realized he was not on the right runway, but in an intersecting path. Lucky for him, the runway was closed when the incident happened, but he was horrified that the lights altered his judgment.
Next: A crop duster at 8,000 feet?
10. Another near miss
One pilot was terrified when a crop duster passed about 300 feet in front of his aircraft while he flying at approximately 8,000 feet, according to the Daily Mail. The pilot, who was coming from the 11 o’clock position, said he felt the wake turbulence when the crop duster flew by him at about 100 feet above his flight path.
The FAA investigated the near miss and found that the plane’s collision avoidance system was at fault — it wasn’t showing other aircraft in the area.
Next: Who’s flying the plane?
11. A pilot has no idea who’s handling the aircraft
During a Boeing 757 flight, a pilot was shocked when he realized that nobody was flying the plane, according to the Daily Mail. The pilot got up to use the restroom and one of the flight attendants locked the cockpit door when he left. The pilot knocked on the cockpit door, only to be met by the first officer, who was rushing past him to use the restroom as well. For a second, no one was flying the plane. Yes, it was on autopilot and yes, they were in level flight, but that moment gave the pilot quite a scare.
“Nobody was at the controls for maybe five or 10 seconds. In his zest to be efficient and minimize the opening of the cockpit door for security reasons, the First Officer forgot he was leaving the aeroplane unattended when he got up to let me in and himself out. This was an embarrassing situation,” said the pilot.
Next: You can run but you can’t hide.
12. This pilot found a stowaway
During a flight, according to the Daily Mail, a pilot had to leave the cockpit because a flight attendant told him she found a stowaway in the bathroom. The man in question had just been released from a drug rehab, and he looked “nervous and wide-eyed.”
The pilot continued the flight to its destination while the staff kept the stowaway in the back of the plane. Clearly, the staff had not checked its boarding passes well enough — or they were rushing passengers to get on the aircraft to make the departure time.
Next: Pilot and co-pilot temporarily blinded
13. Lightning struck this aircraft
One pilot was landing his plane during an ice storm, according to Insider, when lightning struck the aircraft. He and his co-pilot experienced a bright flash — and explosion — right in front of where they were sitting. Both of them lost their sight and hearing for approximately 20 seconds, and the passengers were none the wiser. When they regained their sight and hearing they managed to reboot the plan and make a safe landing.
Next: False alarm
14. A plane almost diverted to another airport because of this
Two pilots smelled something like paint thinner in the cockpit at 33,000 feet, according to the Daily Mail. Two flight attendants also smelled it and the pilot decided to divert to another airport by making a 180-degree turn. Just before he did that, however, one of the flight attendants called the cockpit to let the pilot know the odor was from two kids sitting in first class — they were using ink markers in coloring books.
Next: Tragic take off circumvented
15. This pilot averted an awful accident
According to the Daily Mail, one passenger plane was critically endangered by the jet blast from another. A pilot admitted that while he was taxiing in an Airbus 320, the jet blast from a Boeing 747 almost caused him to make a terrible mistake on take off.
The jet blast created turbulence on the runway and the Airbus violently buffeted left and right while the pilot fought to stabilize it. He got everything smoothed out at about 50 feet off the ground, however, and avoided what could have been a tragic take off.
Next: Air traffic controllers have stories, too.
16. An air traffic controller fesses up
Pilots aren’t the only ones with near-miss stories. According to Insider, an air traffic controller had the “closest call of his career” when he gave clearance to two airplanes landing and got another landing request from a medical evacuation helicopter carrying a critical casualty.
The controller approved the helicopter to land and then heard the alarm that notifies staff of an imminent collision. One of the planes was at the same altitude as the helicopter — less than a mile away. The aircraft came within 100 feet of each other but passed safely.
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