When an airplane touches down, most passengers are thinking about who’s going to pick them up from the airport or stressing about making their connection. But every now and then the passengers and crew disembark sweating, just thankful to be alive.
Here are seven of the most impressive and terrifying airplane landings on record.
1988: Landing on the levee
The New Orleans levees may have broken when Katrina struck, but they did serve as the incredible landing site of TACA Flight 110. The Boeing 737 was en route from Belize to New Orleans on May 24, 1988 when it encountered severe thunderstorms. The intense rain and hail overwhelmed the engines causing both to flame out. The plane continued gliding as the pilots made multiple attempts at restarting the turbofans to no avail.
Quickly running out of time, the flight captain, Carlos Dardano, decided to land the plane on a long grassy strip on top of one of New Orleans' many levees. With no power, and only one eye (he had lost an eye in El Salvador’s Civil War) Dardano made the landing and brought the plane to a halt with no one on board sustaining more than minor injuries. The plane itself was given new engines and returned to service.
1983: The Gimli Glider
When Canada switched from the old imperial system to the metric system it required a bit of an adjustment for the Canadian airline industry. When the ground crews were gassing up Air Canada Flight 143 on July 23, 1983, they miscalculated how much fuel the aircraft would need on its flight between Montreal and Edmonton (it turns out that kilograms and pounds are different). As a result, the Boeing 767 ran out of gas at an altitude of 41,000 feet (12,500 meters if you’re Canadian and bad at this), about halfway to its destination.
Rapidly losing altitude with no engine power, the pilots began searching frantically for a place to land. They settled on an old military base that had been converted into a racetrack. With the engines out, the aircraft had no electrical or hydraulic power, making it extremely difficult to maneuver and forced the crew to use nothing but gravity to lower the landing gear. When the plane touched down, the nose wheel, which had failed to lock into place, collapsed and the aircraft skidded to a stop on its nose. Fortunately, the passengers and crew suffered only a few minor injuries.
1983: One wing? No problem!
During a routine training flight in 1983, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagle piloted by Zivi Nedivi collided with an A4 Skyhawk. The Skyhawk disintegrated immediately and its pilot ejected safely. Inside the F-15, however, Nedivi wasn’t even sure what had just happened. He had felt a jolt and the plane went into a spin. Though he recovered from it, he knew from the massive amount of fuel leaking from the right Eagle’s right side that something was wrong. He had no idea how wrong things were—the aircraft’s right wing had been torn off. Even though he was ordered to eject himself, Nedivi figured he could still land the plane since the air base was only 10 miles away. As he approached the runway, still unaware that he was flying with only one wing, his reduced speed put the Eagle back into a spin. Yet again he recovered, lit the afterburners to gain speed, and landed at twice the recommended velocity. Only after he brought the plane to a stop did he realize the extent of the damage. Flight mechanics slapped on a new wing and the F-15 returned to service.
2014: "Anyone know how to fly a plane?"
En route between Des Moines and Denver, the pilot of United Flight 1637 suffered a massive heart attack. The Boeing 737’s PA system crackled with the classic cryptic and unsettling question: “is there a doctor on board?” A few minutes later, an even more disturbing query was broadcast to the passengers: “Does anyone know how to fly a plane?,” which is probably the worst thing you can hear as a passenger.
Apparently, the co-pilot, while qualified to fly the aircraft, had never landed at their intended destination before and was understandably feeling a bit stressed. So, she decided to share her stress with the plane's passengers. Answering her prayer was Air Force Captain Mark Gongol. Gongol, an experienced pilot who flew B1 Lancer bombers for much of his career. He rang his call button and was summoned to the cockpit. Together he and the co-pilot made a safe landing much to the relief of the flight’s somewhat traumatized passengers. The pilot was rushed to the hospital where he survived to thank Gongol.
2009: The Miracle on the Hudson
If you’ve ever hit a goose with your car, Captain Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger can feel your pain. US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia AIrport on January 15, 2009. As the Airbus A320 climbed out of New York the plane ran into a flock of Canadian geese, sucking multiple birds into the jet turbines. Both engines were knocked out with the plane only 2,800 feet in the air.
With no power and little time, Sullenberger decided his only option was to ditch in the Hudson River. The passengers were told to “brace for impact” as the Airbus passed less than 900 feet above the George Washington Bridge. Flight 1549 hit the water at about 150 mph tearing open the underside of the fuselage.
After the plane came to a rest, Sullenberger calmly left the flight deck and ordered the passengers and crew to evacuate. Water was quickly filling the aircraft as it drifted along in the river’s current. A panicked passenger made matters worse by opening one of the aft emergency exits, allowing more water to enter. Still, all one hundred people on board were swiftly evacuated to the aircraft’s wings and to inflatable emergency slides. In spite of freezing temperatures, nearby boats quickly responding to the scene were able to rescue all aboard. With no loss of life, Flight 1549 became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
2003: Steering with the throttles
Flying an airplane in a war zone has its fair share of risks, even if it’s just a DHL transport. On November 22, 2003 an Airbus A300 operated by DHL Express took off from Baghdad, Iraq, bound for Bahrain. Shortly after takeoff the Airbus was struck by a surface-to-air missile fired by insurgents. The explosion smashed the plane’s left wingtip and started a fire. All three of the aircraft’s hydraulic flight control systems were destroyed by the attack. This left the three-man crew with only one option to control the stricken plane—the throttles.
By alternating the amount of engine power on the right and left sides, the pilots found a way to steer the aircraft. With a shredded left wing, leaking fuel, no hydraulics, and little control, they were able to turn around and make a successful emergency landing at Baghdad International Airport. The damage was so extensive that the Airbus never flew again.
2005: Landing Gear Locked
Shortly after taking off from Burbank, CA the flight crew of JetBlue Flight 292 realized that the nose wheel of their Airbus A320 was stuck in the down position and would not retract back into the wheel well. Flight controllers on the ground informed the crew that the nose wheel was turned perpendicular to the aircraft. Knowing that an emergency landing was inevitable, the flight’s captain decided to divert to nearby LAX with its longer runway and first class emergency services. However, since the aircraft was heavily laden with fuel for its intended flight to New York, they were forced to fly in a figure eight pattern for over two hours to burn off fuel in order to reduce the risk of fire upon landing.
While the plane circled overhead, local news agencies began reporting on the crisis. On board, the passengers were able to watch coverage of their own emergency via JetBlue’s in flight DirecTV service. Once enough fuel had been burned, the pilots lined the Airbus up for landing with firetrucks and emergency responders waiting on the ground. By keeping the plane’s nose off the runway for as long as possible, the pilot was able minimize the amount of damage to the aircraft and keep it under control. In spite of huge flames and sparks from the nose wheel, a larger fire was averted and no one was hurt.
When he gets a break from the doldrums of life as a motorcycle journalist, David Burbach enjoys all things aviation related. His sporadic Twitter musings can be found @welivefreephoto.