Pilots Share The Mid-Flight Scares That Passengers Aren’t Made Aware Of
We are often told that there’s nothing to be afraid of when flying in commercial airplanes. In fact, more car crashes occur than plane crashes, according to the statistics. However, no matter how far technology has come in the past few decades, we can never be 100% safe. Instruments can fail, severe storms arise, and even the pilots themselves can make grave errors. A hundred things can go wrong and result in the passengers and staff on an airplane being put in serious danger.
Thankfully, only rarely do such dangers result in the loss of life, owing to either the miracle of technology or the skill and bravery of people. Here are some stories told by airplane pilots and airline staff of times that they came far too close to lethal dangers, as well as the secrets they kept from the passengers.
#1 The Backup Backups
I was only a month or two out of IOE (Initial Operating Experience) at my first airline job, flying in the right seat in a Regional Jet. I had just come back from the bathroom when the captain pointed out that several flight instruments on his side had failed. He had reverted to using data from my side. Soon, however, THAT went bad too—the autopilot disconnected and we were at 25,000 feet or so.
We declared an emergency, asked ATC to point us in the direction of better weather, and tried to figure out what the heck was happening. There was the icing on BOTH primary pitot tubes, though that shouldn’t have happened since they are heated. In any case, we ended up making a perfectly safe landing after a diversion, and the passengers never had any idea that, for a few minutes, we were really concerned that things were about to turn very, very bad.
#2 Secret Snake On A Plane
My father had a story about how in the 1970s a passenger brought a pet snake on board and it got loose in an aircraft during the flight. It disappeared somewhere on the aircraft. I’m pretty sure the airline crews all knew which plane was the “snake” plane but they sure as heck didn’t tell any of the passengers when they were operating it.
#3 Should Shift Sleep
An instructor told me that he and his training buddy BOTH fell asleep for about 45 minutes at the same time while gaining hours for licensing. The plane was in complete autopilot mode, flying in clear skies with zero turbulence. They both swore if they ever flew again, they would “handoff” sleep times like handing off the controls.
#4 Sudden Drop, Unscheduled Stop
The captain had a heart attack and passed away mid-flight. He was the reason we had to have an unscheduled stop. Obviously, we couldn’t tell the passengers what had really happened or else we might have caused a panic in mid-air. We simply told everyone that we had to make an emergency landing to refuel and no one questioned a thing.
#5 Circling, Waiting, Keeping Quiet
The landing gear got stuck, so we flew in circles for ages just waiting to find out if we needed to perform an emergency landing or not. Luckily, the gear eventually came down, and the passengers never knew something was wrong. We simply told everyone via the PA system that the flight would have a delayed arrival time due to last minute route changes.
#6 It’s A Small Sky After All
I’ve had one near-collision in my 11-year airline career. I’ve also had a few TCAS (Traffic Avoidance Collision System) warnings where the other pilot or myself (depending on who was flying at the time) had to comply with the airplane’s instructions to climb or descend in order to avoid another airplane. In that case, if ever a crash did occur, it would the air traffic controller’s fault, not the pilots.
#7 Old Dozer
I worked with a pilot who was really old. He couldn’t stay awake during the flight. The first officer kept having to poke him to wake him up. We kept feeding him black coffee but it didn’t help much. I asked him if he was retiring soon but he said he couldn’t afford it because our airline had no pension program and the pay scale was pathetic. Pretty scary.
#38 Self-Correcting Error
I’ve recently had technical issues two hours into a 12-hour flight. All of the passengers were absolutely clueless to the fact we were 30 seconds away from returning back home until the problem fixed itself. If for some reason the error was not corrected, I have no idea what I would have done, since I had never come across those technical issues before.
#9 Smelly Secret
The forward lavatory and the flight deck share a wall behind the captain’s seat (it’s an Airbus A320). The passengers don’t know this, but I know when people are going #2 because the smell makes its way into the flight deck. Sometimes, I can’t even bear it and have to put on my oxygen mask. It gets really, really bad sometimes.
#10 Confused But Alive
My dad is a pilot and he had a full engine failure on takeoff one time. The mechanic said it was the worst contained engine explosion he’d ever seen. My dad said he just looped around and landed the plane. It probably confused the passengers a bit, but none of them had any clue that they were in grave danger.
#11 Preferential Tissue Transport
Sometimes the passengers will be having a nice quiet flight in the back while the pilots are upfront dodging thunderstorms and yelling their heads off. We will not only transport lifeless bodies but also live transplants, like hearts and lungs. I particularly like the transplants because we get to cut to the front of the line for takeoff and we get all the short cuts to our destination.
#12 Quiet Burn
My father is a pilot for an airline, and the other day an indicator went off warning about a fire in the cargo bay. He deployed the retardant to stop any fire that was there and told the passengers they needed to stop at Salt Lake City due to an indicator. He never once said “emergency” or “fire,” and when describing it to me today, he said it was pertinent that the passengers stayed calm in that situation.
#13 Leftie Is Locked
We thought our left brake was stuck in the fully applied position. If we landed it, it would have been completely locked up, which is bad. We eventually noticed it and called maintenance in the air. They worked through the problem with us and figured out it was an indicator problem. We landed without any incidents.
#14 Crack In Safety
My dad was a pilot and had a layer of windshield crack mid-flight. They didn’t say anything to the passengers and luckily, my dad was able to fly the plane to the destination without any other issues or disturbances. Only when they landed was it revealed that they had been flying the whole time with a windshield crack. It only got a small article in a newspaper.
#15 Pretending It Didn’t Happen
On one flight, somebody backed the plane up without someone watching the wings. The wing hit a pole that everybody who worked at the station knew was there. Nobody said anything and the plane took off, flying for two hours to its destinations. When the passengers got off, somebody told the pilot about it, so he didn’t say anything because he really had to get to that city. They ended up passing the flight and flying back in a little more altitude with no passengers on the plane. Several people were fired.
#16 Smoke But No Fire
The cockpit filled with smoke. There was a shorted wire. Everyone in the crew, including the flight attendants, was very uncomfortable for 30 minutes until we landed at our scheduled airport. The cabin never knew. Had it caught fire, it could have ended very differently. The issue was reported upon landing and the plane was inspected shortly after.
#17 Toughen Up And Ignore Everything
On my first day as a flight attendant, I noticed the emergency lights would flicker on whenever we landed and took off. I mentioned it to the captain, telling him that it made me nervous that there was an electrical short somewhere on the plane. His exact words were, “Shut Up Flyboy and do your job. You will see a lot of stuff here and you had better toughen up.”
#18 Eight Times The Recommended Ice
There was freezing rain in Ottawa one night and due to the direction of the rain, it fell behind the prop covers. Overnight it froze, and due to its location, it was missed during de-icing. As soon as we took off, I felt the entire plane rattling. I watched my coffee cup dance as it sat in a cup holder in front of me. I remember the plane leveling off very quickly, and then the blinking red light came on that read “EMERGENCY.” We went through the TEST briefing and the captain sounded incredibly stressed, though he did say it would be a non-emergency landing. We landed without incident and later found out that there were over two pounds of ice built up behind the props. Four ounces alone was considered bad for balancing.
#19 He Keeled
My friend is a flight attendant for Malaysia Air. She told me a man was clipping his toenails during the flight when he ripped one of them badly and lots of blood gushed out. I’m not even sure if nail clippers are allowed on planes in the first place. The man next to him passed out from the sight of the blood. The toenail man limped out of his seat to approach her for help with his hands covered in blood.
He patted her on her shoulder, leaving a bloody handprint on her clothes. The toenail man said to her, “I’m bleeding,” then pointed to passed out man. She and other passenger panicked thinking he had hurt him before he said, “He ‘keeled over’.” They turned the plane around which was already in flight for 30 minutes after takeoff.
#20 Baddest Grandfather In The Business
I’ve been thinking about my grandfather’s experience flying B17s in the early part of WWII. One of his planes was so shot up, only one of the four engines was working for most of the trip across the Channel. When he landed at an emergency strip on the coast of England, the plane broke in half at the radio room. His tail gunner was shot up, and two of the crew got severe burns after spending 22 minutes extinguishing fires inside the plane. Luckily, everyone survived.
That was only one of his worst of several landings with planes. Each time, he had to get in a new plane and fly another mission, sometimes the very next day. The idea that a whole crew of an airplane would quit after an engine failure would sincerely make him laugh out loud. Weeks before he passed, Sully made that heroic landing on the Hudson. When a nurse asked him if he had heard about the pilot that landed a passenger plane on the Hudson, he simply answered, “Yes.” The nurse pressed, asking, “Aren’t you impressed? He landed a plane on the Hudson with no engines, and everyone survived.” My grandfather dryly replied, “Sure, but he didn’t have anyone shooting at him.”
#21 Hold Hands And Pray
The captain had us secure the cabin early for landing as we were expecting some bad crosswinds which could lead to crazy turbulence. I took my jump seat with another flight attendant in the back. On approach, the wind was gusting so bad that my seatmate and I were being whipped from side to side pretty severely. We were both pretty scared as this was the most violent landing either of us had experienced. We held hands until we were sure we weren’t going off the runway.
#22 Flying The Noisy Skies
If you fly around Asia, you’ll hear the Japanese, Chinese and US militaries challenge each other every few minutes. For example, the Chinese military, very stilted with a heavily accented English, will report: “ Aircraft in position XXX.XX North, XXX.XXE, you are in the Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone you must leave immediately!” Pause. Japanese military aircraft will then respond: “This is the Japanese Self Defence Force. We are flying in international airspace in accordance with international law.” This goes on all day.
#23 Indents And Intense “Turbulence”
Back on Christmas day of 2007, just months into starting to fly, our A319 was on its way back from LAX to YYZ. We were on the ground delayed for almost an extra two h0urs because the maintenance crew noticed there were three huge indents on the right engine. We then found out that someone in YUL drove their truck into the right engine and failed to report it.
After being assured by maintenance in LAX that we were safe to fly, we finally departed. Then, approximately one hour into the flight, the plane plummeted downwards to the right wing. After a good 10 seconds of falling, we felt the plane ascending at incredible speeds. We were climbing so fast that the bar trolley lodged the service director to one of the open seats.
The other flight attendant was on the ground, trying to climb up on her jumpseat, and I had to use my arms and legs to wedge myself between the two lavatory doors. The other flight attendant grabbed my hand and tears were streaming down her face. I just kept on telling her, “We’re not going to die on Christmas day.” After drastically climbing for another 30 seconds or so, we finally evened out. The captain came on the PA saying we had issues with “turbulence,” but when we landed and passengers deplaned, the flight operator looked at us and lowered his head, saying, “We all knew why that happened.”
#24 Smoking Battery
When I flew in the Navy, we had smoke and fumes in the cabin. I went down to check it out and found that one of our batteries was pouring smoke. We were over the Pacific, a little over halfway to Hawaii. Luckily, we caught it in time to prevent thermal runaway, but just barely. We were preparing to drop the battery out of the radio access door on the bottom of the plane by dropping to below 10,000 feet.
I’d strap in using a harness specifically for that task, and drop the battery out of the hatch. By that time, we had made it to Hawaii, declared an emergency, and landed. I had never seen so many emergency vehicles in one place. The emergency crew ran over, yanked the battery out, and threw it in a big barrel of water.
#25 Nearly A Belly Flop
My sister is a flight attendant. They were flying into an airport in California from Hawaii and during the pre-landing checks, it was discovered that the landing gear wasn’t functioning. After circling the airport to burn off fuel, fire and emergency personnel were put into place at the airport and the cabin was secured. They then began their descent.
She was sitting in the jump seat and she said there was a fellow mechanic onboard within eyesight of her. He looked her directly in the eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, letting her know the situation was very dire. As they were coming down to land, she and the other flight attendants were in their seats, yelling at the passengers at the top of their lungs: “BRACE, BRACE, BRACE, BRACE!!!” She said it was the one time she thought for sure she’d never see her son and husband again. Miraculously, the landing gear deployed at the very last moment, saving them from having to land on the belly of the plane.
#26 Fire Down Below
I was working a flight into Minneapolis when I started noticing a slight burning odor. I felt the heat through the floor and my shoes. I didn’t see any smoke but I knew we had a potential fire on the plane. We let the pilots know, and assured the passengers in the rear of the plane as best we could. The other flight attendant asked if I wanted to sit up front, but it was a completely full flight and I felt like I needed to stay in the back to keep an eye on the situation.
I never did see any smoke, so we taxied to the gate normally and maintenance came to check out the aircraft. I continued to feel the heat through my shoes, which was pretty scary. We switched planes for our next flight. I had no qualms about going right back on a plane, just as long as it wasn’t the one we just left.
#27 Not Doing This Again
When my mom was younger, she worked for a company that was merged into Delta. During one flight, right after takeoff, a bird hit the engine and it caught fire. Luckily the pilot was able to turn around the plane and managed to land in time before it caused a crash. Anyway, long story short, everyone working on that plane, including the pilots, quit right away, except my mom.
#28 Say Goodbye Just In Case
My mom’s been a flight attendant for 25 years. She says the worst experience she had was a time when there was catastrophic engine failure. The captain came over the intercom and told everyone to call their loved ones one last time because he wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to land safely. He managed to land the plane in the end, thankfully.
#29 Nobody Dies On A Plane
I was learning to be cabin crew at college and learned that, in the event that someone dies onboard, the cabin crew makes it less obvious that they have passed. They put glasses on them, or maybe a hat. Essentially, they dress them up as subtly as possible as to not alert and or panic the other passengers. Sometimes they even move the body to the back.
#30 The Secret Frequency
There is a radio frequency we are all required to monitor. It’s called the guard. It’s for emergency use, designed for maydays and for air traffic control to reach aircraft that may have lost radio contact. Every day, this frequency is abused. You will hear hundreds of professional aviators meowing, yelling obscenities at each other, and making fun of one airline or another. Often times, what will start it is some poor guy accidentally transmitting his PA announcement to passengers on the guard frequency.
#31 Only Paid In The Air
We only get paid when the doors are closed and the push back has commenced. If we’re delayed or sitting with the door open, we’re just as annoyed as you are. I wonder if passengers would act differently towards flight attendants and crew members if they knew about this. Put yourselves in our shoes first before you go running off your mouth on us.
#32 Confining The Stink
Often, we’d have someone on board with terrible body odor. You can set the temperature at one end of the cabin hotter and localize the smell to one part of the plane. If you see coffee filter bags hanging anywhere, its because someone smells bad somewhere on the plane. Flight attendants will often refer to the passenger as the “hot guy in 23B” or whatever seat he’s in.
#33 Civilians Are The Dangerous Ones
Bad civilian pilots flying VFR have almost mid-air crashed into me multiple times. In general, the IFR environment—that is, what every US passenger flies in—is extremely safe, but if your old buddy from high school asks if you want to go up in his Cessna, think twice. I’ve almost been killed twice by two random civilians operating at fields and not talking to anyone on radios.
#34 High White Lies
Most of the time, the passengers are not given the full answer on why a flight is delayed or canceled. Airlines will typically blame cancellations on unrelated events (weather) instead of mechanical issues so they don’t have to pay for hotel rooms, meals, etc. It’s the highest form of a white lie that passengers can be told.
#35 The Truth About Landing
One split second of instinct combined with piloting skill decides if you land on the runway or on the side of it. Most of the runways are 45 meters wide, and on a dusty summer afternoon or during thunderstorms, I say God’s name more than the pope himself. Most pilots have decent skills, but some are just absolutely terrible at landing.
#36 Bad And Worse
When I was flying to Chicago, we had some mechanical problems. It sounded like an engine went out. The pilot got on the mic and said that the reverse thrusters went out in one of the engines and we needed to make an “unscheduled” stop somewhere in BFE. The plane landed but took a really long time to stop. We all were put on another plane going to Chicago and were told to just grab an open seat.
I later asked a pilot friend of mine about that. I wondered why a problem with the reverse thruster in an engine would be a cause to make an emergency landing. He told me that it wasn’t. The reverse thrusters get pressurized when the landing gear goes down so they can’t be used mid-flight. There is nothing serious about them going out that would require an emergency stop. He then told me that the pilot lied to us as it was probably something much more serious like the engine going out.
#37 Literal Target Practice
My uncle was a BA First Officer (the captain’s right hand, as he put it) on Concorde 1987, North Atlantic just south of Greenland, 1140 IAS, 55,000 feet. Per military radars, a flight of Soviet fighters was practicing intercepts against it. The captain himself didn’t know until they were informed on the ground. Scary stuff.
#38 It Happens, Why Fight It?
Turbulence. Unless you work for an American airline where the company is petrified of being sued, most of us don’t do anything about it unless it’s particularly bad. Quite often, I’m just sitting there sipping coffee watching it bounce around. I always imagine passengers think we’re wrestling with the controls or something.
#39 Digging Into Trouble
I remember an instance where a plane had come back for an emergency landing because they had some electrical issue. As they were starting to unload it, they got to the front cargo door and found a large dog loose inside that had broken out of its kennel. The dog had tried to dig its way through the bulkhead and damaged several electrical wiring and other components behind the wall.
#40 Ash And Dust
My dad is a pilot. He told me of a pretty terrifying experience he once had on a flight back in the ’90s. Basically, he was flying a plane over the Philippines, and due to inaccurate warning systems, he had to fly very close to an ash cloud from a volcano. The ash got into the engine propellers and solidified, causing one of the engines to break down. Despite horrible visibility and a very real threat of volcanic debris, my dad still managed to fly onwards and land the plane safely. After he landed, he said that the entire plane had turned a blackish-grey color due to the ash.
#41 You Are The Final Test
Some of the flights you are on are IOE Flights (Initial Operating Experience) for a new pilot. It’s a new-hire pilot’s first few times operating the airplane under supervision from a very experienced Captain. It’s safe and both pilots are trained to do their jobs, it’s just a new hire is on the job training. The passengers will never know about it, so chances are you have been on one.
#42 Manual Is Illegal
My dad is a commercial pilot in China. He said the Chinese pilots will sleep in the cockpit while the plane is on autopilot and put newspaper over windows to block sunlight. Also in China, it’s illegal for pilots to manually fly once up in the air, and can only keep the plane on autopilot unless there’s an issue. So now there’s an entire generation of pilots who only know how to take off, land and turn on the autopilot switch.
#43 What Is Actually Frightening
The things that scare passengers don’t phase the pilots one bit. We don’t give a heck about turbulence or having to do a go-around. The things I don’t like are things you generally won’t know about—thunderstorm dodging, microburst alerts, ice, maintenance issues, etc. For the most part, passengers have no clue what the real dangers of flying are.
#44 Sleeping Above You
I fly long haul and spend a considerable amount of time on each flight getting paid to sleep in bunk beds right above passengers heads. Even single decker aircraft will have a small, hidden upstairs area. I find it quite comical that there will be someone sitting in row three with no idea a pilot is sleeping above them.
#45 Broken But Still Flying
Planes often have broken equipment onboard, it’s just the nature of the business and things break. Can’t always fix it, so there is an approved list of things that may be broken, and how long they may be broken before they must be fixed. It could be something that doesn’t affect us much, like a brake temperature sensor isn’t working, or be something that requires some of the crew to account for it, like a thrust reverser being inoperative, or navigation GPS inop. Not stuff that makes the flight unsafe, just maybe more work for the pilots.