Seven Miraculous Airplane Saves That Made History
If you think flying an airplane is impressive, just wait until you read about these extraordinary landings under incredible circumstances.
Tragedy struck the skies when American Airlines Captain Michael Johnston, 57, died while piloting a flight from Phoenix to Boston on Monday. When Johnston became unable to fly, the co-pilot and crew performed an emergency landing in Syracuse, New York. All passengers and additional flight crew arrived unharmed.
While it’s extremely rare for things to go wrong in-flight—the International Civil Aviation Organization reported an accident rate of 2.8 for every million departures—things do happen. From medical emergencies to loss of aircraft control and mechanical malfunction, sometimes the most unexpected incident can put a routine flight in immediate danger.
When engines fail, captains are incapacitated, or fuel runs out, we turn to our skilled and heroic captains, co-pilots, and crew to help guide our planes safely home.
Qantas Flight 464, October 2014
In Sydney last year, Qantas Captain Jerem Zwart and his co-pilot, Lachlan Smale, were lauded as heroes after safely landing flight 464. With winds raging at almost 70 miles per hour and torrential rain, Zwart and Smale were able to fly right through the eye of the storm and executed a perfect landing.
US Airways Flight 1549, January 2009
Almost everything about this famed emergency landing is miraculous, from the cause of dual engine failure (Canadian geese ingested by both engines) to the almost graceful impact on the Hudson River. Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger has been granted hero-status by everyone from Michael Bloomberg to Laura and George Bush. The plane, which sailed past the George Washington Bridge by less than 1,000-feet, landed completely intact.
Air Transat Flight 236, August 2001
Pilot Robert Piché has asked media not to refer to him as a hero, but his ability to safely land an aircraft on zero fuel suggests he is. En route from Toronto to Lisbon, just shy of 40,000-feet, Piché lost power to the right engine due to a fuel shortage. Just a few minutes later, the left failed, too. Piché and his co-pilot, Dirk DeJager, coaxed the plane into a glide, which it held for 80 miles until it landed on a small island in the Azores. Despite a few injuries, all crew and passengers survived.
British Airways Flight 5390, June 1990
Just over 20,000 feet above Oxfordshire, the captain’s windscreen blew out. The sudden pressure change sucked Captain Tim Lancaster, 42, out of the aircraft: save for his legs, which were being held by flight attendant Neil Ogden. Co-pilot Alistair Atcheson, 39, put on his oxygen mask and flew the plane. Everyone survived, including Lancaster.
Chinese Airlines Flight 006, February 1985
After losing power in one of the engines, the 747 plunged 30,000 feet in less than three minutes. The plane began to barrel-roll toward the ocean, and with only seconds left to spare, Pilot Min-Huan Ho gained control of the aircraft. With only one engine, he navigated the plane to San Francisco. Only then was it declared an emergency landing.
Air Canada Flight 767, July 1983
Somewhere over Ontario, Captain Robert Pearson’s new Boeing 767—filled with 61 passengers and eight crew members—ran out of fuel and lost power. For more than 100 miles, Pearson and his first officer, Mr. Maurice Quintal, glided the plain onto an abandoned military airstrip in Gimli. The plane became known as The Gimli Glider and Pearson became a legend.
British Airways Flight 009, June 1982
“Ladies and gentlemen…” Captain Eric Moody said to his passengers. “We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.” On June 24, 1982, Moody made one of the most extraordinary landings in aviation history—and one of the most incredible understatements of all time. While flying over the Indian Ocean, the Boeing 747’s four engines caught fire, and the cabin filled with sulphuric smoke: the plane had flown through a cloud of volcanic ash. As the plane began to fall, and to lose air pressure, Moody sent it into a nosedive to quickly reach a breathable altitude. In doing so, he returned life to three of the engines, allowing him to maneuver the plane to an airstrip.
Melanie Lieberman is the Assistant Digital Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melanietaryn.