Why The Incredible Aircraft Incidents and Landings Occur
A lot of thought is put into making sure aircraft are as safe as possible. Teams of engineers work round the clock to make failure-proof aircraft, and then other teams maintain those aircraft to optimum conditions.
When the aircraft are made, redundancies are put in place to ensure that even in the event of failure of one aircraft system, a backup system can easily take over.
However, even with all these measures, aircraft can still be subject to the most bizarre of failures due to engineering/technician errors, pilot errors, or even just the environment the aircraft is flown in.
This is where the expertise of the pilot must kick in with full force, to ensure that the aircraft lands safely and – if possible,all – lives are saved.
The Top 10 Most Incredible Aircraft Incidents and Landings
In this post, I will talk about some of the most incredible aircraft incidents and landings known to mankind, and how the pilots brilliantly saved the lives of those on board.
The Miracle on the Hudson
Perhaps the most popular emergency landing of all time, the “Miracle on the Hudson” was the name given to the US Airways Flight 1549 that was landed on the Hudson River.
The captain who made the brilliant decision was Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and a blockbuster movie titled “Sully” was even made about the incident in 2016. It was described by the National Transportation safety Board (NTSB) as “the most successful ditching in aviation history”.
On January 15, 2009, Captain Sully and his First Officer, Jeffrey Skiles, flew an Airbus A320 from New York’s LaGuardia Airport enroute Charles Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, USA.
Both the Captain and First Officerwere highly experienced pilots with tens of thousands logged flight hours and experience with the A320. Captain Sully had been a United States Air Force pilot prior to flying commercial planes. He was also an expert on aviation safety.
Just a few minutes into ascent, the plane was struck by a flock of geese. The passengers and crew heard loud bangs, flames were coming out of the engines and then there was silence and the smell of fuel.
The pilots realized that they had lost both engines and tried to restart them to no avail. They would now have to glide the plane to the nearest airport, but after speaking to the ATC, Sully realized they would not be able to make it.
Just 6 minutes after the plane took off, Sully and Skiles landed the plane on the Hudson river. Sully opened the cockpit door and gave the order to evacuate.
They tried to evacuate the plane as quickly as possible before the water entering it would cause them to drown.
Sully then walked the cabin twice to ensure it was empty. He had landed the plane close to boats and ferries to facilitate rescue. All 155 passengers and crew on board the plane survived, although, 95 minor and 5 major injuries were reported.
The Roof-less Plane
Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was a scheduled flight from Hilo, Hawaii that took place on April 28, 1988. The pilots, crew, and 88 passengers set out with the Boeing 737-297 just like any other day.
Unbeknownst to them, the plane would literally tear apart less than half an hour later. The pre-departure inspection of the plane had shown nothing out of the ordinary and the plane had three round-trip flights from Honolulu to Hilo, Maui and Kauai earlier that day.
The captain aboard was Robert “Bob” Schornstheimer and the First Officer was Madeline Tompkins.
After a normal take-off and ascent, the plane had reached its regular cruising altitude of 24,000 ft when a small section of the left side of the plane’s roof ruptured with a noticeable whoosh sound.
The aircraft rolled to the left and right, the flight controls became loose, and the First Officerobserved that there were grey pieces of insulation floating above the cabin. The force of the wind had ripped the cockpit door away, so the captain could see the sky right above the first class section.
An explosive decompression had torn off a huge part of the roof skin, from just after the cockpit all the way back to just before the wing – a length of 5.6 metres.
Captain Schornstheimer performed an emergency landing at Kahuliu airport, managing with only one functional engine and unsure of whether the nose landing gear was extended properly.
Everyone on board survived except for one flight attendant, Clarabelle Lansing who was sucked out of the plane. Her body was never found.Sixty-five people were injured, with eight of them sustaining serious injuries.
It was later determined that the plane had undergone severe fatigue stresses. The plane had completed 90,000 flight cycles (period from take-off to landing) which was more than twice the number it was designed for.
This was because the plane was used for short flights within Hawaii and that imposed a lot of stress on the plane even though it was within the limited number of flight hours. One passenger later noted that there was a crack on the fuselage when she had boarded, but she didn’t report it.
This crack would have been enough for the severe fatigue stresses to propagate it and rupture the roof. It was concluded that the inspection and maintenance procedures of the aircraft were deficient, else the fatigue in the structure would have been noticed.
The Door-less Plane
In a similar accident to Aloha Airlines Flight 243 almost a year later, United Airlines Flight 811 experienced an explosive decompression that blew its cargo door open.
On February 24, 1989, Captain David Cronin and First Officer Gregory Sladerflew the United Airlines Boeing 747, with 337 passengers and 16 other crew members, from Los Angeles enroute Sydney.
This was a very far distance so the plane would need to make two stops at Honolulu and Auckland (New Zealand).
Shortly after leaving Honolulu, the plane was moving from an altitude of 22,000 ft to 23,000 ft when a loud thump which shook the plane was heard by the crew. In less than 2 seconds, the cargo door blew open. As it swung off the plane, it hit the fuselage hard and burst it open.
The pressure differentials between outside and inside the plane, and the aerodynamic forces caused the cargo door to cave in and then 10 seats were pulled out of the plane. The eight passengers who occupied those seats were all killed along with a passenger in a nearby seat.
One of the flight attendants was almost blown out of the massive hole in the aircraft, but she held on for dear life and luckily, those in the plane were able to pull her inside. She sustained severe injuries though.
The pilots began an emergency descent, so they could get to an altitude with sufficient oxygen for breathing; the oxygen supply system had been damaged by the explosion.
The explosion had also caused debris to damage 2 out of 4 of the plane’s engines, the right wing’s leading edge and vertical stabiliser. The horizontal stabiliser was dented as well.
The pilots were able to carry out an emergency landing without overrunning the runway, even with only 2 functional engines and damaged flaps.
None of the remains of the fatalities were found, but they did find some small body fragments and pieces of clothing in one of the damaged engines.
This suggested that at least one of them was ingested by the engine. It was eventually concluded by the NTSB that the probable cause of the accident was the sudden opening of the cargo door, which would have been brought about by its deficient design and electrical wiring.
NTSB consequently demanded that Boeing changed their latching door mechanism in all their 747s to a safer design.
The Plane that Split
On 7th April, 2022, a DHL Cargo skidded off the runway and split in two in Costa Rica, causing the tail and a wing to break.The two crew members on board are reportedly safe, with one of the pilots having undergone medical examination.
The Boeing 757 was to set out to Guatemala when there was a mechanical failure with its hydraulic system. Consequently, the pilot requested an emergency landing just minutes after take-off.
The plane landed on the runway, skidded and then made an abrupt halt before it cleanly split into two. Shortly after, firefighters attended the scene and doused the plane with water. The cause of the accident is still being investigated.
The Engine-less plane
The plane had seven passengers, one of whom sat in the co-pilot’s seat in the cockpit. Norwich was 130 miles due east of Birmingham.
At about 90 miles east of Birmingham, there was a huge bang, the plane shook and both engines stopped working.
A Piper PA-31 Navajo aircraft. Image source: Mike Illien/ Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives
The right engine fell from its engine mount as one of its three propeller blades had come off and the significant rotating imbalance forced the engine out.
The big propeller blade also flung through the plane’s nose and damaged the left engine’s propeller.
The sudden asymmetry of the plane forced the plane into a swift spin to the right which Wyer was able to correct shortly after. Wyer then tried to acquire a good enough glide angle, but he was unable to as the plane began to roll out of control.
The plane was descending fast, so Wyer decided to make a save by turning to the open field he spotted to his left.
With both hands on the yoke and all the strength he could muster, he managed to get over the powerlines in his way and land the plane on its belly gently such that only one passenger sustained a minor injury.
This was all without the assistance of the flaps and landing gear.
NB: the plane engines had gone out, so there was no way to power the hydraulics which powered the yoke, flight controls and landing gear.
The Baghdad Shootdown
On November 22, 2003, an Airbus A300 operated by DHL was shot at by missiles at Baghdad International Airport but somehow still managed to make a safe landing.
This is widely regarded as one of the most remarkable emergency landings ever! The missile struck the plane at 8,00 ft during the climb out and damaged all the plane’s hydraulic systems instantly.
This meant that all the flight controls could not be moved. The plane was also ablaze and quickly leaking fuel.
Luckily, some time before the incident, Captain Eric Gennotte had attended a flight safety seminar where he learnt how to use thrust vectoring to steer the plane in the event of hydraulic failure.
This lesson came in handy as it was what he used to land the plane safely. The flight engineer on board, Mario Rofail and the First Officer Steeve Michielsen also played significant parts in the save.
Rofail quickly corrected the cross-feed fuel from the right wing so that it would feed the left engine which was leaking. If he hadn’t done this, the asymmetric thrust would have been disastrous for the plane.
When the flight controls failed, Rofail immediately dropped the landing gear, helping to slow and stabilise the plane.
Within 10 minutes, the pilots had figured out the thrust vectoring and initiated an approach to Baghdad. When the approach went bad, they were able to climb out and approach a different runway where they landed successfully.
Landing Without the Gear
On November 1, 2011, a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 767 plane from Newark, USA landed at Warsaw, Poland without its landing gear.
The hydraulic system was leaking so there was no hydraulic power to deploy the landing gear. The pilots had received a warning 30 minutes into the flight about the hydraulic leak, but they chose to soldier on and consume the heavy fuel load.
It was only upon landing that they realized what the leak meant for the landing gear.
They attempted to extend the landing gear by other means but failed. The aircraft circled Warsaw for an hour so the excess fuel to be consumed.
The pilots somehow managed to the save the lives of all 230 people on board with a smooth enough landing. The plane touched down and skidded to a stop shortly after.
It was later discovered in the investigation that the popping of one of the circuit breakers was another reason why the landing gear could not be extended.
The extremely unusual collision of two Avro Anson planes on September 29, 1940 earned its own name: “Piggy-bank Ansons”. What was most unusual about this incident is that they collided with each other “safely”.
They were flying at the same altitude and in the same direction when they essentially created a four-engine biplane in New South Wales, Australia.
One of the pilots, Leonard Fuller had left his retractable landing gear down, so when the other pilot, Jack Hewson was approaching, the former’s landing gear wheels sat atop the latter’s wings.
Hewson instinctively firewalled his two throttles, locked the yoke to maintain level flight, crawled out of the cockpit and leapt for his life, with the safety of a parachute.
Fuller, on the other hand, decided to fly the “biplane” since he reasoned the he still had operational flight controls and 3 out of the combined four engines were enough to keep them in the air.
While the planes made their descent through 500 ft, the bottom plane’s engines seized and the biplane sank fast. To counter what would be a deadly crash, Fuller double blocked his right throttles and flared the plane so that he could touch down lightly.
Amazingly, the only damage to the planes was from when they were in the air together. Fuller’s plane would fly in the Royal Australian Air Force (of which Fuller was part) for another 7 years.
The One-Wing Landing
On May 1, 1983, Israeli Air Force pilot ZiviNedivi was practising air combat manoeuvring withhis F-15D Eagle fighter plane when the Skyhawk he was pretend fighting with went upside down and collided with his F-15, a belly to belly collision.
The entire right wing of Nedivi’s plane came off, causing the plane to pitch nose-down and spin. Nedivi had to tell his back-seat instructor to eject.
He then pushed the power levers through the afterburner gate so that the new speed stabilised the plane enough for him to control it.
Prior to that, Nedivi had refused his instructor’s urge to eject – the Skyhawk’s pilot had ejected immediately – because he felt he could land the plane.
He didn’t realise that he had lost an entire wing. He flew the plane for 10 minutes back to the nearest Israeli Air Force desert base.
There, he kept the approach speed at almost 260 knots, twice the plane’s normal landing speed, in order to prevent the plane from rolling out of control.
The F-15 touched down with its single wing level but was moving at such a high speed that when its emergency tailhook hit a cable on the runway, it tore off the plane.
It was only when Nedivi braked to a halt near the end of the runway and looked back that he realized he had only one wing.
Crash Landing from the Wing
On March 27, 1918, 18-year-old Canadian lieutenant, Alan McLeod performed a heroic crash landing of his plane while standing on the wing.
This was during World War I. The biplane was an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 single-engine bomber and it had both McLeod and his observer, LieutenantA.W. onboard.
The plane had suffered extensive damage during battle and was now ablaze due to its burning gas tank. McLeod maneuvered the plane so that the fire stayed away from his gunner, which was also damaged.
He crash-landed the plane close enough to British territory that he was able to crawl to safety, while carrying his gunner.
He reportedly achieved the life-saving manoeuvre by climbing out on to the left wing and then side-slipping the plane very steeply, however, experts doubt the validity of this story because he would have needed the rudder controls to achieve the side-slip and he would not have been able to reach them from the wing.
It is more likely that he cross-controlled the plane into a side-slip while he was still in the cockpit and then climbed onto the wing while the controls held the rudder in position for the slip. After all, flight controls then were stiffer.
Nevertheless, McLeod was able to fly the plane from outside the cockpit and save both himself and Hammond, a remarkable feat. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for this heroic achievement.
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En.wikipedia.org. n.d. US Airways Flight 1549 – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Airways_Flight_1549> [Accessed 2 May 2022].
Reuters, 2022. DHL cargo plane splits in two after crash landing at Costa Rica airport. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/08/dhl-cargo-plane-splits-in-two-after-crash-landing-at-costa-rica-airport> [Accessed 2 May 2022].