The 6 Most Badass Airline Pilots To Ever Stare Down Death
Admit it: At one time or another, you've thought, Man, being an airline pilot seems like a pretty easy job. And even they'll tell you that airliners pretty much fly themselves. For most of the trip, the pilot is there to make sure nothing goes wrong.
But sometimes, things do go wrong. Way wrong. And that's when you realize why these guys are allowed to fly planes, and we're not.
British Airways Flight 5390
In 1990, British Airways Flight 5390 had just taken off from London on its way to Spain. However, right as the flight attendants were about to wheel out the food cart, the windshield of the plane suddenly exploded. If you're wondering what happens to the pilot in that situation, here's a reconstruction:
It is incredibly difficult to fly a plane from this position.
That's pilot Tim Lancaster being sucked out of the plane -- the only thing keeping him from flying off into the distance and plummeting to his death was a flight attendant, who ran in and grabbed Lancaster by the belt.
This, by the way, is precisely the reason why planes have co-pilots. And here's where one Mr. Alastair Atchison stepped up to the goddamned plate.
It wasn't going to be easy. Aside from the flight attendant next to him clutching the pilot's legs with all of his strength, the sudden decompression also pulled the cockpit door into the cockpit, which blocked access to the throttle. When Atchison tried to get on the radio to declare an emergency, he couldn't hear the response due to all the chaos erupting around him.
"Will you lot stop bloody screaming! It's highly unprofessional."
It took several minutes to get emergency landing permission from an airport in Southampton, all the while with the pilot still outside the windshield from the knees up, being crushed against the plane at 500 miles per hour, suffering from frostbite and about to lose consciousness due to the thin air.
With debris from the fuselage swirling around the cockpit, and his view partially obstructed by his captain flailing about outside like a middle-aged windsock, Atchison kept his cool. He guided the plane to the ground, and gently landed 35 minutes after the windshield failure started the madness.
They then started the difficult process of peeling the pilot off the top of the plane.
Amazingly, the pilot not only survived, but had only a few bone fractures and some frostbite to show from his exterior plane ride. The only other person injured was the first flight attendant who hung onto him during the ordeal, also suffering from frostbite.
"You have to admit, Tim. It was kind of hilarious to see."
British Airways Flight 9
British Airways Flight 9 was flying from London to New Zealand in 1982, and was on one of the last legs of the trip, going from Malaysia to Perth, Australia. Ash from a nearby volcano soon started to fill the air. The airplane went through it with no problem ... at first.
"Fuck you, Eyjafjallajokull" -- the 80s
An electrical anomaly known as St. Elmo's fire suddenly erupted on the windshield. The passenger cabin began to smell of sulfur. Then, one by one, the engines began failing, clogged with volcanic ash. After all four engines had ground to a halt, the flight engineer yelled, "I don't believe it, all four engines have failed!"
"Well, thanks, Captain Obvious. Hey, how about you sort this out. We're going to the mini bar."
At this point, the falling aircraft had about 23 minutes of glide time until it hit the ocean. The crew frantically tried to restart the engines in mid-air. With a crash landing possibly only minutes away, the pilot, Captain Eric Moody, made a breathtaking announcement over the PA: "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 them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."
"Please keep all hysteria to yourself to avoid disturbing passengers who are sleeping. Thank you."
The plane continued to lose altitude and the oxygen masks dropped in the passenger compartment. The crew was about one minute away from having to make an emergency landing in an ocean with a 747 -- something no one had ever tried.
Then, in between bouts of frenzied cursing and pants-inflating bowel explosions, Moody and his crew tried one more time to restart the engines ... and it worked. The engines spun back to life, one by one. They climbed and leveled the plane at 12,000 feet, then starting racing towards the nearest airport in Jakarta.
On the way, the engines started clicking off again.
Lady Luck always uses loaded dice.
And even worse, the windshield was so fogged up that they had to rely on the lights on the tarmac they could only see through a small, clear part of the windshield. And so they headed down, speeding toward the pavement, squinting through glass caked with goddamned volcano ash.
Finally, with the sound of 248 unclenching passenger buttholes, the wheels touched down. No lives were lost, but in the captain's own hilarious words, it was "a bit like negotiating one's way up a badger's arse."
Chinese Airlines Flight 006
In 1985, Chinese Airlines Flight 006 was flying from Taiwan to Los Angeles when an engine went out on the side of the plane. The same engine had failed twice on previous flights but restarted shortly after going out both times -- which, according to traditional aircraft maintenance guidelines, is totally just as good as actually working (you'll find out as this entry goes on that back then, Chinese airlines apparently just did not give a fuck).
Third time's a charm!
After the flight engineer tried and failed to revive the engine, the autopilot kicked in and tilted the plane 23 degrees to compensate for engine loss. But it didn't stop at 23 degrees. Pilot Min-Yuan Ho, drawing from his years of experience, determined that commercial airliners don't normally do this and disengaged the autopilot. By the time he did, the plane had tipped up on its side, and was falling fast.
Planes should not do this.
So now he was plummeting toward the ocean, blinded by clouds and working with an artificial horizon system that was saying everything was OK (even though it plainly was not). Things became even less OK when the plane started diving and turning at the same time, doing a barrel roll heading straight down, losing 10,000 feet of altitude in less than 20 seconds.
It was trying to spell "AARGH."
The pilot managed to wrestle the aircraft under control with about 20 seconds to spare before it would have splashed down.
But they weren't out of the woods. The landing gear was now stuck down, and the drag that it was causing meant they wouldn't have enough fuel to get to Los Angeles. They diverted to San Francisco, limping along on one engine. But the flight crew didn't even announce their landing as any kind of emergency to the stunned air traffic controllers. We told you, the Chinese didn't give a single fuck.
"San Francisco, could you move that tower slightly to the side? Frankly, it's just in the way."
It was only after learning of injuries on board that the tower declared the spiraling jumbo jet to be an emergency. Incredibly, it landed with just a broken tail wing and only two seriously injured passengers which, given the operation standards of the airline, was probably well within normal guidelines.
American Airlines Flight 96
In 1972, American Airlines Flight 96 was on its way from Detroit to Buffalo. Just after taking off, there was the sound of a massive crash. Pilot Bryce McCormick, known for having the most piloty name in history, thought he'd just been in a mid-air collision.
Or it was just a really tall baggage handler.
One of the engines went down. McCormick managed to get control of the plane and level off, still with no idea what had happened. He decided to turn around and go back to Detroit -- which, to be honest, is probably the only good reason to ever go back to Detroit.
Then, in the passenger area of the plane, a fog suddenly formed. Just as the crew was realizing this meant sudden decompression, the floor of the cabin started to collapse into the cargo hold. What the shit?
"Um, can we start over? I feel like way too much shit is going wrong."
It turned out someone had forgotten to seal the cargo door, and the force of the takeoff had ripped it straight off and tossed it into the tail of the plane, disrupting the engine and the flaps in the back. And because the aircraft wasn't sealed, the inside began breaking up due to the sudden decrease in pressure. Passengers were told to brace themselves for an emergency landing, and to put their yellow oxygen masks on. Oh, wait, the oxygen bags didn't drop because they're only deployed when the plane is above 14,000 feet, and they were a few thousand feet under that window.
"So we're in agreement. 13,000 feet is for pussies and food trays should crush your sternum
whenever the person in front lies back. Brilliant work."
With shit officially getting real and the plane breaking up from the inside out, McCormick attempted a landing. They were coming in too hard and too fast, the sluggish controls putting the plane on a collision course with the hard surface of the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. McCormick fought to level out the plane, and got the wheels to the pavement, only to see the plane go skidding wildly off the runway.
He wrestled the big bastard back under control, the plane finally coming to a rest with two of the three landing gear sitting in the grass off the side of the pavement. The result: a few minor injuries. Amazing, considering an identical cargo door accident outside Paris resulted in the deaths of everybody on board. Either McCormick and his crew are damned good, or they're so lucky they shit rainbows.
We're not engineers, but we don't think this is a cooling vent.
United Airlines Flight 232
We'll warn you ahead of time, this one doesn't have as happy an ending as the rest.
In 1989, United Flight 232 took off from Denver for Chicago. About an hour into the flight, an engine's fan disk failed. If that sounds like a fairly important part of a jet engine, you're right -- the result was the engine blew out, damaging the tail fins and sending shrapnel into the plane's hydraulic lines.
That last bit is also important -- the hydraulics maneuver the flaps, rudder, stabilizer and pretty much every critical control of the aircraft, so this would be sort of like your bicycle partially exploding mid-pedal and taking off most of your right foot.
Detailed on this technical thing.
Since hydraulic fluid was now leaking at a pretty serious pace, the controls of the plane became weaker and weaker. Pilot Alfred Haynes began to pull the throttle to idle, but there was another problem -- the damage to the plane had the throttle stuck on full power. So now you're on an out of control bicycle, footless and hurtling downhill with no brakes.
The crew was finally able to cut off some fuel to the engine to get it to slow down, at which point they discovered that the yoke wasn't working either. In short, they now had no control of the plane whatsoever. Improvising, Haynes and crew had to manually rev the remaining engines up and down to try to manipulate the rudderless aircraft and get it back to something close to level.
We assume they did everything short of flapping their arms really hard.
An emergency landing alert was quickly issued to the plane at the Sioux City airport in Iowa. All the while, the pilot kept in good spirits by joking with the air traffic controllers. Hey, did we mention that at the time, no plane that lost all hydraulics ever landed safely? And that, in fact, no one had ever survived that situation?
As they came in to land, the crew managed to get the landing gear down and announced to the passengers that they should brace for impact. With no hydraulics, they were unable to control the speed at which the plane could land. A normal landing is at 140 knots, Flight 232 was coming in at 240 knots, which is less like landing and more like crashing at an angle.
Totally under control.
The wing of the plane hit first and burst into flames. The plane bounced violently and the tail section snapped off. After skidding further, the other wing came off and the plane ground to a halt, with fire and emergency crews rushing to the scene.
A third of the passengers lost their lives (many weren't because of the crash, but from inhaling the smoke that filled the cabin) but the efforts of Haynes, co-pilot William Records and engineer Dudley Dvorak, saved the lives of 200 people.
Miracle on the Hudson
In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, just after takeoff from New York, hit a flock of Canadian geese. The birds obscured the windshield, which would be bad on its own. But they also clogged up both engines, and the plane lost all power.
Nature has finally learnt kamikaze.
What makes this case different from any on the list is that there would be no limping back to the airport for a hard landing on the runway. They weren't going to have the power to get back to an airport. Captain "Sully" Sullenburger radioed traffic control and told them as much.
Presumably ending the call with "Yippie-kiy-yay, motherfucker."
He was going to have to set the plane down, which meant finding something other than a runway. In this case, all they had was the Hudson River.
If landing an airliner on a river already sounds like trying to float a boat through an iceberg, well, the situation was actually worse than that. Right ahead of the plane was a little obstacle called the George Washington Bridge. It happens to span the Hudson River right across the spot where Sullenburger's plane was going to make its descent. No one was more surprised than Sullenburger, by the way, who in all the excitement had forgotten the bridge was there (which is understandable because his windshield was covered in dead goose).
"Outta my way, asshole!"
At this point, his instruments started screeching warnings about how he was about to crash into something huge and bridge-shaped.
Amazingly, the plane cleared the bridge by less than 900 feet, which had to be a nice wake-up call to the drivers on the bridge who looked up to see this hulking plane suddenly blotting out the sun.
"Great, I'm given a full fat latte and now this. I hate New York."
Sullenburger guided the plane down. Finally it slammed into the river at about 150 miles per hour, crashing into the waves with an impact that inside the plane must have sounded like the goddamned world was ending. But the plane held together, and everyone survived.
Rescue boats rushed to the scene and pulled everyone out of the freezing water. Sullenburger was the last one off.
After his mustache.
For more on the world of piloting, check out 6 WWI Fighter Pilots Whose Balls Deserve Their Own Monument and 7 Planes Perfectly Designed (To Kill The People Flying Them).