Scary airplane landings

I dislike flying because of the sheer unpleasant of the whole experience but I am not scared of flying. It is one of the safest modes of transportation. But we sometimes forget, in this age of autopilots where human pilots seem almost superfluous, how necessary they are and how skilled the pilots must be in order to deal with unexpected situations.

Here is a description of an incredible landing on a narrow and short New Orleans levee by the pilot of a Boeing 737 that had lost power in both engines in a storm. (Scroll down a bit to the comment and links by Thunder.) The actual landing was not caught on video but it was recreated in a Smithsonian documentary and here is the key segment.

Here is a another set of ten scary landings.


  1. Trebuchet says

    I don’t travel by air any more, but it’s mostly because of airports, not airplanes! Before retirement I spent quite some time with design responsibility for important (as in, if things go wrong, people die) bits of commercial aircraft.

    The erosion of piloting skills in the age of automation is a huge issue in modern aviation. The recent 777 accident in San Francisco appears to fall into that category.

    I actually had to get out the laptop and start it up to watch the “ten scariest landings” videos as the old desktop couldn’t handle it. I expected the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong and was not disappointed, except that it was about the least exciting Kai Tak landing video I’ve ever seen. I’ve been involved in one accident investigation from there, another case in which the pilots were depending on automation and failed to realize that something they’d done had cancelled it until too late.

  2. Francisco Bacopa says

    If you want to see something really scary just look at every single landing and and takeoff at Tegucigalpa in Honduras. Luckily we have a cruise ships that go to Honduras that leave from Galveston.

  3. kyoseki says

    I still maintain that Xanax is the greatest invention in the history of aviation.

  4. sailor1031 says

    I was taught not to fly into thunderstorms. Wasn’t their weather radar working? didn’t ATC reroute them? so many questions……

    Ah, Gimli.

  5. MNb says

    “one of the safest modes of transportation”
    As a function of distance it is. As a function of time (spend in the vehicle) it isn’t. According to German statistician Walter Krämer (Frankfurt 1995) a train has 7 kills per 100 miljoen traveled hours and a plane 24.

  6. lorn says

    There is good news, and bad. There are a lot of really good, inspired and dedicated professional, pilots out there. The bad news is that most of the best pilots came from the military where a heavy emphasis was placed on seat-of-the-pants flying where the pilot is so completely familiar with the airplane and how it handles that they talk about “wearing the airframe”. Military pilots spend hours practicing flying without instruments developing a feel for the aircraft when it is operated at the edge of its capabilities.

    An airforce cargo pilot described delivering supplies under fire where he would stay high until the last minute, dive just shallow enough to keep the wings on, pull up just feet off a runway with the wheels up, release a parachute that snatches the cargo out of the back of the airplane, and then turn and climb like a bat out to get altitude before the gunners at the end of the strip could aim. After doing that a few times he figures the engine that fell off his airliner and a no-instrument landing or two during his civilian career as an airline pilot was no big deal.

    Bad news is that there are fewer military pilots becoming airline pilots. And a lot of the training of civilian pilots is based upon the expectation that things will more or less work as expected. They never get stressed long enough or deeply enough during training to get comfortable. So when there are multiple failures they don’t know how to handle it. They lose situational awareness, fail to prioritize, and end up crashing.

    Some airlines are trying to get their pilots more seat-of-the pants experience, advanced training, and simulator time but it doesn’t come cheap.

  7. Dunc says

    For scary landings at an actual international airport (now closed), just search for “Kai Tak landing”… The runway 13 approach was world famous for difficulty amongst pilots, flight-simmers, and aviation buffs.

  8. steve oberski says

    A hoary old joke that my flight instructor told went so:

    I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like his passengers.

    It helped to focus ones attentions on the task of learning to pilot a small aircraft and quickly come to the realization that every action one made in the operation of an aircraft had immediate life and death consequences.

    And I might add, based on my experience, if the drivers of automobiles when through a level of training anywhere close to that which pilots go through there would be far, far fewer at fault automobile accidents.

  9. Mano Singham says

    I agree. A car is a lethal weapon and deserving of far greater training in its use than currently occurs. The same for guns, actually. No one should be able to get a gun until they have gone through rigorous training in its use and safety habits.

  10. Jenora Feuer says

    I see the Gimli Glider was already mentioned; that was an amazing case, one of those one-in-a-million sequences of events, where they were fortunate enough to have an ex-military co-pilot who had trained at the Gimli base and knew where it was, and a pilot who flew gliders in his off time.

    Another more recent case of crash where everybody walked away was Air France 358 in Toronto in 2005. This was a case where they really shouldn’t have tried landing in the first place: the airport was already largely shut down due to the storm in the area, though landings were still being permitted. The flight crew worked together perfectly afterwards, though, keeping everybody calm and getting them off the plane.

  11. Who Cares says

    This post and the reactions mesh with an article I read a few months back. The problem in that article being that a normal flight simulator can’t go extreme enough to train pilots to recognize/react in truly extreme situations. So they are trying to develop one that can do just about anything including things like simulating upside down or nose directly aimed at the ground while spinning type of situations.

  12. kyoseki says

    You’d be surprised at the number of gun owners who agree with you, a lot of the guys I know refuse to go to certain public ranges (myself included) because of the sheer level of stupidity exhibited by people who haven’t the first goddamned clue what they’re doing.

    Concealed carry permits should require the same level of training that police go through, particularly when it comes to conflict resolution and making the decision to shoot or not shoot.

    The problem that arises is making sure that the course is readily available and doesn’t impose an undue burden on people (which is what would get it tossed in a legal challenge) -- if it’s left up to the lawmakers in say DC or California, you’d have to find the golden fleece before you were issued a weapons permit -- which is why I reckon the best solution here is just to make the NRA training courses a prerequisite for anything other than the most basic firearm (ideally, I’d love to see them for all firearms, but again, that could face serious constitutional issues).

  13. Paul Jarc says

    So if you’re planning to go from here to there, take a plane. If you’re planning to start from here and travel for a fixed amount of time, wherever that might put you, take a train.

    I’d say the per-mile measure is the more useful one, and the difference in the per-hour measure is a result of planes being faster.

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