Fun as it is, aviation can be a dangerous business, and every pilot has an “...I almost died” story. This collection is filled with emergencies, near misses, and even crashes—but each story has a happy ending. Fly safe!
A Soft, if not Smooth, Landing
For many years, my wife and I have been flying a Cirrus SR-22 between Massachusetts and Florida. It’s a 6.5-hour flight, so we stop for fuel midway, in central North Carolina.
In early 2020 we set off from Massachusetts as we’d done many times.We flew right over JFK [Airport] and watched Manhattan glide by, then along the coast toward our fuel stop in Elizabethtown, North Carolina.
I love the Cirrus avionics suite. Great navigation and engine information. The autopilot was keeping us straight and level, and air traffic control was updating us on traffic and directions.
About 15 minutes from Elizabethtown, I heard a slight “pop” and the autopilot disconnected. Hmm, that was odd. The prop slowed to around 1,600 rpm (from 2,400 in cruise), but the important stuff on the engine page was still green: oil pressure was good, fuel flow good, and still plenty of fuel, but engine wasn’t responding to power changes. What’s going on? I found the best glide speed, ran through the checklist, and had a conversation with ATC, then decided to pull the parachute. Altitude was about 2,000 feet by that time.
Our forward movement was arrested very quickly, changing us to a vertical descent. We ended up in a stand of North Carolina pines, which provided a surprisingly gentle return to earth. We climbed out of the airplane no worse for the wear. Turns out the camshaft had snapped. —Ken Brown, Venice, FL
I was flying as copilot on a C-124 Globemaster to Kimpo Air Base, Seoul, South Korea. Thunderstorms and rain showers covered the entire area, and as we were descending into Seoul, we were navigating using the Seoul radio beacon (an automatic direction finder, or ADF).
We were flying due north, approaching Seoul from the south, and the ADF bearing pointer showed us heading directly toward the radio beacon, which was located on the airfield. When we passed the point where we should have flown over the beacon, I called Seoul approach control to ask if the radio beacon was operating but got no answer because control was overwhelmed with inbound traffic. We continued flying due north with the ADF pointer still indicating the airfield was to our north.
Finally, our alert navigator called the aircraft commander and yelled “Pilot, make an immediate 180 turn to the south. We are crossing the DMZ into North Korea, and I can see spokes on my radar indicating the North Koreans are tracking us.” As we started to turn, we finally got in contact with approach control who said that the ADF was working normally. At that instant, our bearing pointer swung around to point due south. The North Koreans had been “meaconing” [rebroadcasting] the Seoul ADF by slowly increasing the power on their equipment to override the South Korean signal. That night we all bought our navigator all the drinks he wanted! —Douglass G. Wood, Palm Coast, FL
Applause on Arrival
It was a beautiful clear afternoon as I lifted off our Pan Am 747 for the daily flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris nonstop to Miami, with 413 passengers and 13 crew on board. I called for “flaps up.” I was hand flying the airplane and noticed that when the flaps were completely retracted, that there was a slight vibration in the yoke.
I turned to the first officer and told him to “take the airplane and tell me what you feel.” He confirmed that there was a vibration. Just then the cockpit door opened and the senior purser entered and said: “A passenger just told me ‘the top of the wing just came off!’ ” I turned to the flight engineer and told him, “Go check.” He returned in a minute and said, “About a five-foot-wide and approximately 30-foot-long piece of the upper wing surface is gone!”
I immediately decided that we would be returning to Paris. I contacted ATC and advised them of our problem. I also told the flight engineer to call company operations and advise them of our planned return to de Gaulle. Next was my concern for the passengers. I notified them that we were going to return to the airport. It would take some time because we were too heavy to land and would be dumping fuel to reduce our weight for landing. Just then, the engineer advised me of a message from operations: A charter had landed at Heathrow Airport in London and was scheduled to return to JFK [Airport in New York] with no passengers. They were going to refuel and provision the aircraft, and it would be ready to accept our passengers for the continuation of the flight to Miami.
We were told to proceed to Heathrow. I then advised the passengers of the good news. I coordinated with ATC to provide an area where we could dump fuel. Upon arrival at Heathrow, I advised the passengers that there would be airport equipment alongside the runway at arrival as a precaution. The landing was very smooth. As we were taxiing to the gate, the purser entered the cockpit and advised me that 413 passengers clapped as we touched down!
Within one hour after our arrival at Heathrow, we were on our way to Miami. —Richard Vitale, Largo, FL
Face to Face with the F-15s
I'm a retired New York City police helicopter pilot. On the morning of 9/11, I was copilot in a unit Bell 412; our assignment was to do casualty medevacs from a landing zone near the World Trade Center. Upon leaving and heading to JFK to refuel, we were intercepted by the two F-15s that were flying cover over the city for protection. We were at about 800 feet, north of the Belt Parkway, heading south when the fighters preformed what is called a “headbutt” on us. That is the military’s stepped-up intercept procedure and is their attempt to coerce compliance before using deadly force.
Although we were a marked helicopter, in the aftermath of the horrifying events of only a few hours earlier and—I would estimate—at a few hundred feet horizontal separation, it can be hard to make out markings. In 30 years of flying both fixed- and rotary-wing, that was one of the most frightening experiences of my flying career. Thank God those guys in the fighters had the calm and professionalism that enabled me to write this. —Charlie Caliendo, Wantaugh, NY
Vigilance Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
Having flown solo for several months, I saw an ad in our local newspaper for a “breakfast flight” at an auxiliary airport located in Blairstown, New Jersey, about 50 miles away, that I planned to attend. I reserved my favorite airplane at Solberg auxiliary airport, a PT-13, a late-model trainer from World War II. And come Saturday, I was off to Blairstown.
I turned east to the airport and started my regulation landing approach. I was on my final segment, lined up with the field at approximately 300 feet, when my morning suddenly became rather stressful.
First, I noticed a shadow was enveloping my cockpit that at 300 feet shouldn’t be there, and when I glanced down at the field, I saw a crowd of people running out to where I was planning to land furiously waving their arms. I thought I was doing something dreadfully wrong. Next, my right arm instinctively rose up and over my head to determine the source of the shadow. Stretching my arm it came in contact with something that wasn’t supposed to be there either.
A flight of three BT-13 trainers were in formation for a straight-in landing (claimed they didn’t see my PT-13), and they were dropping down on top of me. Their lead airplane was directly over me and what my right hand felt was the BT‑13’s left landing wheel. We were seconds from a crash. It would have happened, except for the intervention of a guardian angel, who had alerted the people on the ground and the wingman on the right side of the formation. When the wingman caught sight of my airplane and the position of the BT-13, he radioed the lead plane to pull-up immediately, which he did and thereby avoided a tragedy.
After all four aircraft were safely parked on the flight line, I was surrounded by three BT-13 pilots who were trying to think of how many different ways there were to say “I’m sorry.” —Thomas Owen Cavanagh, Punta Gorda, FL
Like Landing on a Pillow
Back in the late 1970s my dad, Edward Duncan, bought a 1947 Bellanca. It was red and in great shape, with a low wing, box tail, and retractable landing gear that was pumped up and down hydraulically.
Flying back from Miami late in the winter to Albany, New York with his girlfriend, he ran into a fierce snowstorm. It was so bad around New York City that he needed to fly low over the New York State Thruway so he could see his route home, a small airport (Selkirk) just south of Albany very close to the Thruway. I was to pick him up at the airport and was on hand to help him land. A friend of mine and I were in the small control center when my father called over the radio saying he was having trouble with the landing gear. One wheel was stuck up and wouldn’t come down. He flew around, circling the airport for half an hour, and kept trying it to no avail. His fuel was getting low so he finally decided he had to land.
He situated the gear up—both wheels—and bellied her in and even shut down the engine before touchdown, ticking the starter to make sure the prop was level with the ground. They hadn’t plowed the runway, which had about a foot of snow on it, and it was like landing on a pillow. With the gear up, the undercarriage stuck down under the fuselage and allowed the wheels to still turn. He made a safe landing with minimal damage to the airplane, saving himself and his passenger. As a footnote here, his girlfriend was so terrified during the landing she was all over him when he was trying to land, and he had to fight her back from his seat all the while with one hand on the wheel!
I’ll never forget witnessing that landing. He’s gone now, but he was the best pilot I ever saw. —Michael Duncan, Wilmington, NC
Saved by Alfalfa
The flight down the coast to San Diego on May 15, 1981 was uneventful. On the return trip, L.A. Center vectored us out to Catalina Island, a normal route that keeps air traffic away from the crowded skies over the L.A. basin. We were following an IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plan and talking with Center as we turned north toward Santa Barbara, level at 10,000 feet.
Kevin asked me what I would do if we lost our engine, and I went through the steps outlined in the training manual.
A few minutes later, as we were crossing the Sierra Madre mountains and just abeam Santa Ynez, the engine exploded, covering the windshield with oil and losing all power. With the prop windmilling, our best glide rate of descent was about 1,400 feet per minute. L.A. Center gave us a heading to the Santa Ynez airport, but as we turned west, we encountered a headwind, and Kevin knew we could not make it over the ridge ahead of us. Several calls to Center went unanswered, but a United pilot flying overhead heard our calls and came on frequency to relay messages, including a frequency change to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Vandenberg suggested we land on Highway 101 and said they would have the [California Highway Patrol] close the highway, to which Kevin replied “you better hurry because we are going to be on the ground in about six minutes.”
A few minutes later, we were in the narrow canyon below the ridges with no communication, descending though 2,000 feet toward a dry riverbed full of huge boulders. We flew out of the canyon into a wide valley of vineyards—full of metal poles with thorny vines! I happened to look back to our right and spotted a football-size field with rows of freshly cut alfalfa. Kevin made a shallow U-turn (stall warning blowing all the way), and we touched down carrying a 25-knot tail wind, which gave us a ground speed over 100 mph, rolling toward row upon row of fresh cut, wet, heavy alfalfa. The first row collapsed our nose gear and each successive row slowed the aircraft. We barely missed a huge oak tree and finally came to rest with the nose of the plane embedded in a huge mound of alfalfa and the tail pointing toward the sky. —Paul Finnigan, Eagle, ID
It was at the height of the Cold War back in the late 1970s. We were a U.S. Navy P-3C antisubmarine warfare aircrew flying on a detachment out of Bermuda. Our mission that night was to regain contact on a Soviet Yankee-class ballistic missile submarine, as it transited south through the North Atlantic Ocean. We had just dropped the final sonobuoy of our acoustic detection barrier when we got a fire warning indication on our number one engine. We discharged the fire suppressant into the engine and shut it down. Immediately we headed to the southwest for the 650-nautical-mile, two-hour transit back to our air base in Bermuda.
An hour later, we had a fire warning indication on our number two engine. Following a shutdown of that engine, we no longer had lift on the port side of the aircraft. Remaining engines numbers three and four on the starboard side of the aircraft produced barely enough power to keep our aircraft airborne, but it required dumping fuel and lightening our sonobuoy load in order to arrest our slow descent at an altitude of 1,500 feet. We prepared the crew for a possible nighttime ditching at sea.
Utilizing maximum right rudder input, we set up for a landing on Bermuda’s longest runway, knowing that it would be a challenging, one-shot, overspeed landing attempt, with no go-around capability given the limited power and asymmetric flight dynamics from our lopsided power configuration. The runway length-remaining numbers quickly passed by as we floated at around 160 knots and 30 feet above the asphalt. With about 4,000 feet remaining, we chopped power to the remaining engines and the aircraft settled softly on the runway. With maximum reverse thrust on the number three and four engines, the aircraft slid to the runway’s end. We stopped with aircraft brakes on fire as the runway overrun lights glared in the port side windows, with a close-up view of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean splashing on the rocks a few feet from our wingtip. —George H. Currie, Fleming Island, FL