6 Staggeringly Huge Problems (Everybody Somehow Survived)
You've heard it a million times: flying is just about the safest way to travel (assuming you're doing it in a modern airliner and not, you know, on the back of a dragon or something). You're more likely to die on the way to the damned airport than you are on the flight. But the reason flying makes people nervous is that if something does go wrong in the air, well, you'll soon be nothing more than one more piece of charred debris scattered in a random corn field.
But even that isn't true -- sometimes things can go spectacularly, amazingly wrong, and (almost) everyone can still walk way:
A Civilian Airliner Survives A Missile Strike, Evades Soviet Fighter Jets
On April 20, 1978, Captain Kim Chang Ky was whisking 109 passengers from Paris, France to Seoul, South Korea with a quick stopover in Anchorage, Alaska -- a route which you may recognize as "the long-ass way." That's because he had to avoid Soviet airspace -- airspace which, thanks to a slight navigation error, he soon found himself smack dab in the middle of.
Pictured: slight navigation error.
But what he lacked in navigation skills, Captain Kim was about to make up for in "pull a massive civilian airliner through a goddamn Top Gun dogfight" skills. Soviet radar quickly detected the plane and two interceptors were dispatched to investigate it.
"Launching investigation missiles now."
The fighter pilots soon realized that what they were encountering was a passenger plane (possibly because of all the passengers mouthing "PLEASE DON'T SHOOT US DOWN" at their windows), but their commanders were adamant that the capitalist aircraft must be given the ol' Michael Bay treatment. Soviet pilot Alexander Bosov reluctantly launched two missiles.
The first missed; the second knocked off a largish chunk of KAL 902's left wing. Shrapnel from the blast perforated the cabin, killed two passengers, depressurized the plane, and knocked out one of its four engines ... but KAL 902 kept flying. Captain Kim kicked the Boeing 707 into a terrifyingly steep dive to get his passengers to a breathable altitude, dropping from 35,000 feet to just 5,000 before plunging into some clouds and completely losing the pursuing interceptors. It's not entirely clear whether or not he was trying to lose them, but if a commercial airline pilot actually managed to evade fighter jets without even trying ... well, that's even more impressive.
An dramatic re-enactment of Kim's escape.
Kim literally flew under the radar for 40 minutes with half a left wing and one altogether missiled engine before making a nighttime, gear-up crash landing on a frozen lake in the frigid bumfuck of Northern Russia, less than 90 miles from the Finnish border. With the exception of the two passengers who were killed by the actual missile strike, everyone on board survived.
Of course, the remaining 107 were quickly conscripted into the White Walkers' army.
Helicopter Crashes Are Surprisingly Survivable (Even When Crashing Into A Live Volcano)
When a plane loses power, you at least have the option of gliding. Helicopters, however, do not have this luxury. When a helicopter loses power, your best option is to disengage the motor and allow the airflow through the rotors to slow your descent. That's how, in December of 2014, a National Guard helicopter crew survived falling a mile in less than a minute when their bird decided that its purpose in life was to mate with the ground.
Possibly because a Shatner-hating gremlin had been gnawing on its rotors.
But that's falling onto a nice, cushy field. What happens if you're falling into, say, the gaping maw of a constantly erupting volcano? It sounds like something that would only happen in a Hollywood movie, so it's perhaps fitting that it's exactly what happened to Chris Duddy and Michael Benson when they were filming aerial shots for a Hollywood movie in 1992.
Pilot Craig Hosking was coptering the duo over the Puu Oo cone of Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano when his helicopter took one whiff too many of the poisonous gas that the volcano was incessantly belching out and said, "Nope!" The engine promptly died and plunged the three men directly into Satan's asshole.
Just in case you thought we were being dramatic, there.
Incredibly, all three men survived the crash, but the helicopter's electronics were properly screwed, making a mayday impossible. Duddy, Benson, and Hosking attempted to climb out of the crater, but quickly found it to be impossible on account of its sides being sheer cliffs of sharp and spiky volcanic rock.
Duddy and Benson clung to the side of the cliff where the air was somewhat less than murderous, while Hosking returned to the crash site and rigged a camera battery to the helicopter's communications panel to put out an SOS. It worked, and Hosking was soon on the receiving end of a daring helicopter rescue in nine-foot visibility, just minutes before he would have succumbed to suffocation. Duddy and Benson, on the other hand, weren't so lucky, thanks to that whole "being hidden behind thick clouds of Hell's farts" issue.
"Dude, he'll be back. Hosking said he was just going outside the cloud to take a leak."
Twenty-seven goddamned hours after the crash and a few failed rescue attempts by ground crews later, Duddy scaled the steep crater wall, cramming his hands deep into the razor-like gravel of its face after coating them in a thick layer of sheer willpower. And so it was down to Benson, who spent another entire day clinging to the side of a volcanic cone and assuming that both of his companions had pulled a Joe Versus The Volcano.
Just when it looked like all hope was lost, the weather cleared and a helicopter was able to toss a rescue cage down to him. That's right -- his reward for clinging to life was that he got to ride in another freaking helicopter.
A Pilot "Fixes" A Broken Wing ... By Flying Upside Down
Having one of your wings snap off is easily, like, the third worst thing that can happen to a pilot. So you can imagine how Neil Williams felt when, while zipping along in a Zlin Z-526 one sunny afternoon in June of 1970, he felt a bowel-shaking jolt, followed by an ear-punishing increase in slipstream noise. Oh, and he could suddenly see his left wing gutting up past his window.
The world lost a great flight suit that day.
Now, we should mention here that Neil Williams was a professional aerobatic pilot, which is easily, like, the third most badass type of pilot. Still, it's safe to say that most of his expertise with making jaws drop at air shows was gained in a plane with two firmly attached wings. On this particular flight, however, the bottom support of his left wing had separated, and as a result the broken wing was now sitting at an angle that made it useless for flight.
This is approximately when most people would be expected to bawl out one last cry for Mommy while transforming the cockpit into a terror-poo Jacuzzi. Williams, on the other hand, recalled the obscure story of a Belgian pilot who had been in the opposite situation (the top wing support had failed), and positive G forces had kept the wing in place long enough for him to land the plane. So, obviously, it was time for some negative G. In other words, he needed to fly upside-down, so that the lift would push the wing back into place.
"Here's hoping that anecdote wasn't missing some crucial piece of information!"
Williams rolled the plane over and, as he'd suspected, this slammed the gimpy wing back where it should be. Then the engine died, because the universe wasn't quite finished screwing with him yet (and fuel gets all confused when a plane's being steadily flown upside-down). After Williams managed to switch to reserve fuel and restart the engine (again, while flying upside-down), he approached the airfield to land and, at the last possible second before impact, flipped the plane upright and landed just as the left wing flicked up like a switchblade. He was so low when performing the maneuver that the wingtip scraped the grass as he rolled.
It's OK, though, because Williams was soon giving the injured grass a lengthy kiss.
Antarctica Eats Planes For Breakfast
Back in the 1970s, French scientists established a base near the South Pole known as Dome Charlie and asked the U.S. Navy to pretty-please fly them supplies. How does one fly supplies to the friggin' South Pole, you ask? Well, you equip LC-130 cargo planes with skis instead of wheels, perform the sign of the cross, flip the nearest abominable snowman the bird and ... crash horribly. Again and again.
"Look, I thought all the ice and freezing temperatures and generally inhospitable
environment made it pretty clear that y'all aren't welcome here."
The first crash happened on January 15th, 1974. A Jet Assisted Take-Off rocket (JATO) exploded on take-off and blew most of the plane's right wing clean off. One of the propellers disintegrated and sent a giant, flaming shotgun blast through the front of the plane while, simultaneously, a fire started at the ass-end of the plane. Incredibly, no one was injured, but the pilots' feet had to spend a very long night at the South Pole in street shoes.
The following day a rescue plane arrived. This time the pilots decided to forego the JATO and take off the old-fashioned way. Everyone piled in and ... gravity slapped that bastard right back to the ground. Luckily snow makes for a fairly cushy crash-landing surface, and no one was injured in this crash either.
"Well, I'm feeling a sense of adrenaline-induced invincibility. Who wants to wrassle some penguins?"
Then a third LC-130 showed up and ... promptly flew everyone out of there without further incident. Third time's the charm, right? Not quite. You see, there were only five of these ski-equipped LC-130s in existence. That's why the U.S. Navy decided to re-enact Flight of the Phoenix.
"We'll just replace all the snow with sand in post."
The Navy shipped in parts to repair the wrecked LC-130s on their un-wrecked LC-130s, and -- say it with us now -- one of those crashed, too. This time, a JATO rocket came loose, flew into a propeller, and peppered the fuselage with high-speed shrapnel. Astoundingly, no one was injured this time, either.
We're beginning to think The Thing lied to us about the Antarctic's ability to murder people.
Despite the fact that Antarctica is apparently some type of dormant Titan with a relentless hostility towards aeronautics, crews managed to fix all three planes by 1977, three years after the first one went down. The repair operation was so brutal that the U.S. Navy awarded military medals to the civilians involved in the recovery effort. How they then managed to find pilots still willing to fly the planes is a mystery ... though apparently not one that's all that difficult to solve, seeing as how a Brazilian C-130H crashed there as recently as 2014.
No injuries. Again.
A Helicopter Takes On "The Perfect Storm"
Back in 1991, the so-called "perfect storm" in the North Atlantic proved that it's possible to become famous simply by swallowing George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. But while we all remember the fate of the commercial fishing vessel Andrea Gail thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster, this infamous nor'easter was just as efficient at gobbling down non-sea-based modes of transport.
No George Clooney is safe.
Air National Guard pilot David Ruvola and his four-man crew were dispatched in their H-60 helicopter to save a guy whose sailboat had been swept 250 miles off the coast of New Jersey by the storm. The crew arrived to find 40-foot waves and 50-mile-per-hour winds that, after multiple attempts and multiple mid-air refuels from a tanker plane, made an air rescue impossible.
Don't worry: a Romanian cargo ship eventually pulled Sailboat Guy to safety. Now, start worrying, because Ruvola and company were not so lucky. Ruvola pointed the helicopter toward home, a route that he didn't realize would intersect directly with a particularly assholish band of the storm. As he attempted to rendezvous with a flying tanker for one final refuel, winds picked up to 100 miles per hour, which is like 87 knots in Celsius. Refueling became impossible, and the copter didn't have enough juice left to make it to safety.
At which point, Sailboat Guy was thrown back on his boat to go find the helicopter crew.
Ruvola put out an SOS and hovered above the 100-foot waves. As the waves crested just below them, the crew jumped: co-pilot Graham Buschor went first, followed by pararescue jumper Rick Smith. The second pararescue jumper, John Spillane, mistimed his jump -- rather than falling 10 feet into the crest of a wave, he jumped in between waves, falling at least 60 feet and striking the water like a 50 mile-per-hour meat missile. The impact broke eight bones, ruptured his kidney, bruised his pancreas, and popped blood vessels in both eyes.
Ruvoli and flight engineer Jim Mioli stayed on board to ensure that the jumpers wouldn't be turned into chum by the helicopter's still-spinning rotors. Ruvoli set it down in the churning water, and it immediately flipped over and sank as he and Mioli scrambled to escape. Mioli, who didn't have a survival suit, quickly began showing signs of hypothermia, and Ruvoli tied their bodies together with parachute cord to share warmth.
"Look, I know it was awkward, but seriously, who is ever going to hear about that part of the story?"
Normally this is the part where slow music plays over images of posthumous medals being awarded, but the preposterously broken Spillane somehow managed, after three hours, to find Ruvola and Mioli. After six hours of being battered by 10-story waves and having gallons of seawater forcibly hosed down their gullets, the three were dragged out of the ocean by a Coast Guard cutter to discover that Buschor had already been rescued.
Despite a massive search, the final crew member, Rick Smith, was tragically never found. He left behind three young daughters who would go on to save lives while serving under the very same Air National Guard Rescue Wing as their dad.
Carlos Dardano Survives Two (Insane) Air Disasters
In 1982, 23-year-old Carlos Dardano, a third generation pilot, was running a small-time El Salvadoran air taxi service. If that sounds mundane, then you're forgetting that, in 1982, El Salvador was in the midst of a brutal civil war.
That's how it came about that, when preparing to board his plane as it sat on a small dirt runway, Dardano was shot through his goddamn face by goddamn guerillas lurking in the jungle. Tattered and bleeding and minus his left eye, Dardano still managed to get his passengers onto the plane and fly them 20 minutes to safety. While he looked like this:
Thank goodness his mustache was unharmed.
Dardano not only survived the incident, he survived the shit out of it: he went on to become a full-fledged commercial airline pilot, despite the fact that depth perception is sort of a job requirement. And that's a very, very good thing for the passengers of TACA Flight 110.
Six years later on May 24, 1988, Dardano was piloting a brand spanking new Boeing 737 from Belize City to New Orleans, when a level-four thunderstorm materialized out of nowhere. The storm pelted the ever-loving hell out of the jet with hail, overwhelming the engines' ability to expel excess water. Said engines shit right out, transforming the plane into a 75-ton glider.
"Uhhh folks, this is your captain speaking. If you look out either side of the plane, you will see that we are royally fucked."
Unfortunately, the New Orleans airport was nowhere near within gliding distance. Air traffic control offered Dardano a vector to the nearest highway, but he refused since raining metal death onto commuters didn't exactly jibe with his personal ethics. Instead, Dardano resolved to anachronistically recreate the Miracle on the Hudson and perform a water landing. At the last minute, however, his copilot spotted a clear strip of land -- one of New Orlean's famous levees. To land there, Dardano would have to perform a risky maneuver known as a sideslip -- a rapid course correction meant for air shows and fighter planes, not for lumbering air-giants with bellies full of passengers.
Dardano, of course, performed the maneuver flawlessly. Then he touched down on the levee and brought the plane to a gentle halt just before it crossed a road. He called it "the most beautiful landing I ever made."
Hey, why didn't the plane cross the road? Because gravity bends to the will of Carlos One-Eye the Great.
Everyone on board survived completely unscathed. And, if not for all the hail damage, the plane would have too.
Seriously, did he even put a scratch on this thing?
Yep, Dardano's landing of TACA 110 was so impeccable that his jet was still airworthy: The plane's engines were repaired on-site, and test pilots took off from the very same road Dardano managed to avoid. If any of you out there happen to have Central American travel plans coming up, it would seem you have an autograph to obtain for us.
Zachary Frey is currently a freshman at Cornell University. You can read his ten most recent awesome articles and be his friend here.
Still not scared of planes? Alright then. Check out 7 Planes Perfectly Designed (To Kill The People Flying Them) and learn about the brave souls strapped to propellers with guns. Or read about the mad scientists of airplanes in 8 WTF Aircraft Designs That Actually Caught Air.
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