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10 of the Greatest Emergency Landings in History

Although, pilots are usually very well-trained and intelligent professionals, their job is far from easy. They are burdened with a huge responsibility of ensuring the successful and safe landing of their aircraft and passengers, sometimes in the face of imminent threats in the air. When necessary, pilots make difficult decisions and may attempt emergency landings to prevent or reduce looming disasters. In several cases, nothing they did could help. However, from the days of early flying machines, there have been intriguing moments in the history of emergency landings when pilots have managed to avert catastrophic plane crashes, with little or no casualties. These heroic pilots have saved several lives through their skills or training, a mere stroke of luck or a combination of both. The following are the top ten greatest emergency landings in history.

British Airways Flight 009, June 1982

British Airways Flight 009, June 1982

With 248 passengers and 15 crewmembers aboard, British Airways Flight 009 was cruising from Heathrow London to Auckland New Zealand on 24 June 1982. It operated with the call sign, “Speedbird 9.” The aircraft engines ingested and got clogged with volcanic ash that emanated from Mount Galunggung’s eruption, about 180 kilometers southeast of Jakarta, Indonesia.[1] This caused the failure of all four engines, one after the other, at the altitude of about 37,000 feet in the air.

The passengers could see their plane shrouded in white light and the engines were on fire from their windows. Captain Eric Moody made the following announcement:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.

To prevent passengers from dying from the thick sulphuric smoke that has now filled the cabin, the crew nosedived the Boeing 747-236B towards Jakarta, dropping at 6,000ft per minute to an altitude with enough oxygen for the cabin members. At about 13,500 feet, three of the four engines miraculously fired back to life. The ash severely damaged the windscreen of the plane, so visibility was less than mediocre, but Speedbird 9 managed to land safely with no casualties.

American Airlines Flight 96, June 1972

American Airlines Flight 96
Part of the cargo door on American Airlines Flight 96

June 12, 1972, American Flight 96 had departed Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport with 56 passengers and 11 crew members aboard. While flying over Windsor, Ontario 481.52 kilometers per hour at an altitude of 11,750 feet, the aircraft’s rear cargo door blew off.[2] The flight crew felt a “thud” while a powerful rush of dusty air throws dirt and grit into the crew’s faces simultaneously. The rudder pedals smacked to the full left rudder position, the three thrust levers moved back to the near flight-idle position, and the aircraft yawed to the right.

Meanwhile, while in training, Captain of American Flight 96, Bryce McCormick, had studied the possibility of flying the DC-10 through the thrust of the engines if the surface controls had failed. He swiftly increased the power to the two wing engines to lift the aircraft above the horizon and kept the plane in the air. An emergency was declared, and the crew returned to Detroit where the team managed the land the craft safely, with 11 non-fatal injuries.

DHL Airbus A300-B4, November 2003

DHL Airbus A300B4, November 2003

On November 22, 2003, a cargo plane, Airbus A300B4-200F operated by DHL with three crew aboard was hit on the left wing by a missile at 8,000 feet, a short while after departing from Baghdad, Iraq.[3] A fire ensued, and the hydraulic control system was entirely out of control as a result of the severely broken wing. However, there was no fuel-air vapor explosion because of the full outboard left wing fuel tank 1A at takeoff. 1A disintegrated while the jet fuel discharged. Inboard fuel tank one was punctured and leaked.

Despite significant damage to a wing, zero hydraulic flight control, dangerous landing speed, and an unprepared ground, the three-person crew made an injury-free landing of the ruined aircraft, using differential engine thrust. Captain Eric Genotte got the idea to use differential thrust after attending a seminar given by Captain Alfred C. Haynes, the pilot of the United Airlines Flight 232, who performed an incredible emergency landing despite the loss of almost all flight controls.[4]

United Airlines Flight 811, February 1989

United Airlines Flight 811, February 1989

With 3 flight crew, 15 flight attendants, and 337 passengers aboard, United Airlines Flight 811, departed Honolulu International Airport, Hawaii en route Auckland, New Zealand on 24th February 1989. It was under the command of Captain David Cronin. After about 16 minutes into the flight about 22,000 feet over the Pacific, the forward cargo door blew out abruptly following a grinding noise and bang which shook the entire aircraft. The explosion knocked out two of the plane’s four engines and created a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft. Nine passengers seated in business class died when their seats were sucked out of the flight.

The decompression had destroyed sections of the emergency oxygen supply system at the frontal cargo sidewall area, just aft of the cargo door. The crew began a downward plunge to get the aircraft quickly to altitude with breathable air while performing a 180-degree left turn back to Honolulu.

Despite the damage, Cronin and his crew were able to reduce altitude and land the 747 safely in Honolulu about 22 minutes later. Although there were nine fatalities and 38 injuries, 346 survived, making it one of the most remarkable emergency landings in history. The accident was believed to have most likely resulted from improper wiring and flawed door’s design.[5]

Aloha Airlines Flight 243, April 1988

At an altitude of about 24,000 feet, just about 25 miles southeast of the Hawaiian Islands of Maui, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was en route from Hilo to Honolulu on April 28, 1988. Suddenly, everything started flying around as a gaping hole suddenly blew open with a “whooshing” sound in the fuselage directly above the first-class compartment with nothing above. The hole got more prominent as the plane disintegrated. The cockpit’s door was ripped off. Passengers ducked their heads to avoid the debris streaming from the remnants of the fuselage. Fifty-eight-year-old veteran flight attendant, Clarabelle Lansing was sucked out of the plane while standing near the fifth-row seats. She was the only fatality although another 65 passengers and crew sustained injuries.

Captain Robert Schornstheimer who was an experienced pilot took over from Officer Tompkins who was flying the airplane at the time of the incident and steered it to the nearest airport on Maui island. Some thirteen minutes later, the crew performed what has now become one of the most sensational emergency landings in aviation history on Kahului Airport’s Runway 2. Passengers lauded Pilot Robert Schornstheimer who became highly admired for the seemingly miraculous landing and his heroic efforts.[6]

United Airlines Flight 232, July 1989

United Airlines Flight 232, July 1989

Even though this emergency landing has the highest number of fatalities on this list, it has come to be considered one of the most impressive efforts to save lives in aviation history. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 was en route from Denver, Colorado to Chicago, when the DC-10 engine in the tail suffered a catastrophic engine failure. High-speed metal fragments and debris hurled from the engine penetrated and damaged the aircraft’s hydraulic systems. Everything was out of control leaving passengers helpless and with no hope of survival.

Against all the odds, Captain Alfred C. Haynes[7] and a DC-10 instructor on board who offered his assistance, Dennis E. Fitch[8] used differential thrust (no power on the left side and maximum force on the right side).[8] The crew was able to attain and then maintain limited control as they plummeted to earth northeast of Sioux City, Iowa, where the flight would break apart and burst into a massive fireball. Of the 296 people aboard, 111 were killed in the crash, while 185 survived. Despite the deaths, the accident is considered a prime example of successful Crew Resource Management due to a large number of survivors and the manner in which the flight crew handled the emergency and landed the airplane with no conventional control.[9]

Avro Ansons ‘Piggyback’, September 1940

Avro Ansons ‘Piggyback’, September 1940

There was an unusual mid-air collision over Brocklesby, New South Wales, Australia on September 29, 1940. Strangely, the two Avro Ansons of No. 2 Service Flying Training School RAAF which were interlocked by the collision kept flying. Although the hit stopped the engines of the upper Anson, those of the lower Anson kept running smoothly, allowing the stuck pair of aircraft to remain airborne.[10]

Both the pilot and navigators bailed out of the aircraft beneath. However, the pilot of the upper Anson soon realizes that he was able to control the interlocked planes with his ailerons and flaps, glided to a nearby paddock where he made an emergency landing. All four members of the crew survived the incident. The upper Anson was returned to flight service after restoring it.

RAAF Wagga’s “piggyback” incident, as it was known then, is still regarded as one of the unique events in the history of aviation, with Leading Aircraftmen Fuller’s and Hewson’s actions lauded both locally and worldwide.[11]

Air Canada Flight 143 (Gimli Glider), July 1983

Air Canada Flight 143, July 1983
Image: © Carlos Flentetina via JetPhotos.net

No good list of emergency landings is complete without the story of Gimli Glider. On July 23, 1983, Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767-233 nicknamed The Gimli Glider carrying 61 passengers and eight crew ran out of fuel and consequently losing power on all engines about midway through its Edmonton-bound flight from Montreal Canada at an altitude of 41,000 feet.

There had to be an emergency landing. Unable to make it to Winnipeg, the crew headed towards a 6,800-foot runway in (Royal Canadian Air Force Base) Gimlithat had been decommissioned for 12 years. Fortunately, Captain Bob Pearson was trained as a glider pilot, and this gave him experience in techniques unknown to most commercial pilots. With no control tower assistance, emergency vehicles on hand, fire trucks idling at the ready and no way to warn the people on the ground; Bob Pearson and his co-pilot, Maurice Quintal, made one of the most successful emergency landings in the history of aviation without any fatalities.[12]

F-15 Eagle Jet, May 1983

F-15 Eagle jet, May 1983

During air combat maneuvering training event on May 1, 1983, Israeli pilot Zivi Nedivi in an F-15 Eagle jet had a midair collision with an A-4 Skyhawk. One of its wings severed off instantly, and the Eagle went into a massive spin. However, neither he nor his wingman knew that the jet was missing an arm. The fuel oozing out from the damaged fuselage didn’t help too. Immediately after the collision, the instructor urged Nedivi to prepare the eject, but he refused, not realizing the magnitude of damage yet.

In an attempt to stabilize the rapidly spinning jet, Nedivi instinctively turned on his afterburners. It turned out to be a great move. He was able to support the one-winged aircraft and flew it for some 10 minutes to the nearest desert base where he was able to land safely without any casualties. Nedivi was reportedly demoted for disobeying his instructor’s order to eject but promoted immediately after that for saving the F-15 Eagle.[13]

US Airways Flight 1549, January 2009

US Airways Flight 1549 January 2009

That isn’t number one just because it is the most recent on the list; it is by far one of the most remarkable emergency landings in aviation history. US Airways Flight 1549 took off from City’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, and collided with a flock of geese along the northeast of the George Washington Bridge just three minutes after. It severely damaged the engine and resulted in the loss of all engine power. With no airports runway accessible, pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles steered the aircraft over the Hudson River, off midtown Manhattan.[14]

The “Miracle on the Hudson” as the incident has come to be known by, is  “the most successful ditching in aviation history.” Although there were few serious injuries from the incident, there was no fatality. Nearby boats came to the rescue of all 155 crew and passenger aboard. In recognition of their  “heroic and unique aviation achievement,” the crew won several awards.[15]

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