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19 of the Scariest Moments Pilots Have Experienced on the Job

Flying is still considered the safest mode of transportation, but these pilots have stories that may make you reconsider that belief.

Cockpit of a modern passenger aircraft. The pilots at work.Skycolors/Shutterstock

Pilots in peril

As surely as you might know that flying is an extremely safe mode of travel, it can still give you the jitters—especially when you hear the occasional news story about a plane crash or emergency landing. Pilots are trained to handle all sorts of nerve-racking situations, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t get scared—especially in these real instances, told by the pilots who experienced them, of serious in-flight fear. Luckily, though, here are some facts about flying that will reassure you if these stories freak you out!

Control panel in a plane cockpitAlexandru Nika/Shutterstock

“I almost lost all radio contact”

I was flying around in a small four-seat Cessna with some friends at sunset. Daylight was running out, and as we were headed somewhere, I noticed a major decline in battery power. The alternator had died and we had maybe 20 minutes of battery left before all the lights would go out and we’d lose all radio contact with air traffic control. We were in a congested airspace and losing radio contact would be very dangerous. I turned the plane around and headed to my home airport at full power. I told my passengers that we just needed to return because of a simple warning annunciator. We landed without issue and for anyone concerned, the engine would have never failed because of the alternator but not having lights and radios would have been dangerous enough. My passengers thanked me for not freaking them out by sharing this information with them.—Reddit user ceplano. For smooth sailing in the air, avoid these things you should never do on an airplane.

Small plane on approachMyImages - Micha/Shutterstock

“My engine suddenly stopped working”

Piloting a small aircraft for a sightseeing flight with three passengers, I once experienced an engine failure. This was partly self-inflicted and a valuable learning experience. Five minutes into the flight, I saw the right fuel tank was empty. Because I’d looked in the tanks before departure and as the indicators are far from reliable, I suspected instrument failure over a fuel leak. Still, I’d rather be safe than sorry so I decided to lean the fuel/air mixture a bit to optimize fuel economy. (Generally, the fuel mixture in an aircraft’s piston engine has a bit more fuel than required for combustion. The evaporated non-combusted fuel cools the engine from the inside). Keeping an eye on the engine temperature, I started reducing the mixture when suddenly the engine stopped. The aircraft went completely silent and started to glide. Pushing the nose a bit to keep the propeller windmilling, I applied the emergency checklist from memory and the engine roared back to life at full mixture. I told my passengers I had to shift gear, while they remained completely oblivious about what just happened. Back on the ground, we found that one of the two magneto’s providing electricity to the spark plugs had failed.—Reddit user Virgadays. 

Small cargo plane landing at Owl's Head airport, MaineDan Simonsen/Shutterstock

“I almost landed on another plane”

I had 15 flying hours and was doing touch-and-go’s, and, for the first time, learning to use the on-board radio. This was an airport without tower, so you need to make your intentions known to other pilots by talking all the time. I say “Cessna XXXX going base to final” which means: final left turn about 300m before the touchdown stop on the ground. Immediately after releasing the microphone switch, I hear, “So-and-so going base to final.” I turn to my instructor and say, “Base to final? That doesn’t make any sense?” Another pilot in the pattern calls over the radio saying, “Guys, did you see each other?”

Instructor starts looking furiously left and right and tries to look above and under the plane. (There is very little up-and-down visibility when the wings are above you.) Suddenly, he pushes the throttle on full and banks away. The other plane was now 20 feet right below me. I was about to land right on top of him.

Stopped flying shortly after that. It just wasn’t for me. —Reddit user HorumOmnium. This is the longest airplane flight in the world.

wheel of airplanevoylodyon/Shutterstock

“A tire blew out and ripped a hole in the wing”

My father is a commercial pilot and has been for decades. A couple years ago, he was in South America, and on takeoff, the tire blew. It ripped a giant hole right through the wing of the plane. He had to dump thousands of gallons of fuel and managed to land the plane. The write-up that made the news was something like, “A plane had to do an emergency landing after an event today, no one was hurt.”

However, all the mechanics and people involved said they absolutely couldn’t believe he managed to land that plane in the condition it was in. They claimed he should have crashed and couldn’t believe it. He was very angry that they didn’t tell the passengers and didn’t want to fly again for a couple months. He was very shaken. —Reddit user buschdogg

Airport - nose wheel of the aircraftJaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

“One of the wheels fell off”

am a pilot (single engine, small aircraft only), but one flight I was a passenger in, the pilots avoided telling us about a disaster until we were about to land. On a flight to Florida, one of the front wheels fell off during takeoff. Luckily, the front of the passenger aircraft had two wheels, side by side, so we weren’t doomed. But no passenger knew about the problem until we were 15 minutes from landing in Florida. The pilot told us that the wheel fell off, and we had to do an emergency flyby. They had ambulances and firetrucks lining the runway, and as we landed, we pulled a really long wheely, keeping the only remaining front tire off the ground as long as possible. —Reddit user InternetUser007. Learn which airports around the world have the scariest takeoffs and landings.

Tandem parachuting. Canopy in the sky.Sky Antonio/Shutterstock

“I almost collided with skydivers”

I was still a student pilot at the time, and only my instructor and myself were on board. While I was doing a random session of instrument training, I had my blinder down. For those of you wondering, this literally means I cannot see out the windows and can only see down to my instrument panel. My instructor is giving me instructions, and I am to only rely on the instruments—which also means that he was my only eyes. So if, for any reason, he saw something he didn’t like, he’d say, “MY PLANE” and take control. Well, we’re flying along, and he’s having me perform various maneuvers with the blinders down, to teach me about trusting instruments. At one point, my blinder goggles slip down my nose a smidge, and I catch a quick glance out the side window. About 40 feet off of my wing was a skydiver with parachute open. I immediately whip my goggles off and scream, “Skydivers!” and my instructor had no idea. He was my only eyes during my maneuvers, and he had me fly right into the path of skydivers without knowing it. (There was a small grass strip nearby that sometimes had skydiving flights in the late summer.) Thankfully, he quickly yanked the yoke and flew us out of the immediate area, but it still scared me. Needless to say, he was mortified afterward and kept telling me it “was an accident and he seriously didn’t see them.” I very well could have killed someone without even knowing it. Gives me the shudders every time I think about it. —Reddit user lakewoodhiker

Captain hand accelerating on the throttle in commercial airplaneAureliy/Shutterstock

“I lost power in all three generators and the emergency generator”

Pilot of an Airbus 320 here. Flying into a high elevation port in Asia, 23,000 feet on descent, I had a total loss of electrical power. All screens went dark including standby instruments and emergency lighting. To put this into perspective, Airbus designed this aircraft with three electrical generators in addition to power supplied by batteries and the emergency generator. It is designed to never be without electrical power even if both the engines failed, you ran completely out of fuel, and the auxiliary power unit is inoperative. It’s a scenario that pilots don’t even train for because it’s never supposed to happen.

After a partial recovery of our screens, it was followed by 12 consecutive warnings associated with different onboard systems. We landed safely. Passengers didn’t notice a thing apart from the lights temporarily going out in the cabin. The car analogy would be you driving at 100 km/hr on a highway and suddenly all your windows are covered up, you lose your speedometer and all electrical systems, and there’s no response from the brake or accelerator. But you can still feel the car going. —Reddit user zscn

thunderstorm over the aircraft muratart/Shutterstock

“I spent three hours dodging lightning”

I was flying from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, and in between us was a huge line of thunderstorms. In events like that, Air Traffic Control (ATC) will, in short, let you draw your own flight path to dodge the intense weather cells. The plane has weather radar in the nose and gives us a visual map of red “spots” to avoid. The flight was three hours long, and the Captain and I were spending every second of that time flying up, down, left, and right, dodging lightning and turbulence. Sweat was pouring down my face as I was using my best judgment on which direction to fly. We must have done a good job because the flight attendant called up to the flight deck to say all the passengers were sound asleep! —Reddit user purcerh. Find out what’s really happening during midair turbulence.

view of business jets cockpit. Two pilots operate a switches of aircraft system prior to departure.JeJai Images/Shutterstock

“My co-pilot almost committed suicide mid-flight”

My dad is a pilot. For years, he worked with a first officer known as the crazy guy in the company. He was creepy and often talking nonsense to himself. One day, the guy seemed increasingly agitated whilst flying with Dad. My dad felt scared that the pilot would attempt to dive the plane into the ground. When the guy snapped out of it, he whispered, “Not today…think happy thoughts…not today…” Rest assured, the pilot no longer has his license. —Reddit user wolfiegirl88

An image of the airplane engine and main land gear with an air-condition supply positioned with the traffic cones.litabit/Shutterstock

“I almost took off with a faulty engine”

Commercial pilot here. During training, I was flying a Piper cub (single-engine). We had just taxied to the active runway and were doing our run-up (pre-takeoff check). Finished the run-up, everything was functioning normally, all gauges on the green. ATC advised us to hold short of the runway due to approaching traffic. Just as the approaching traffic landed and we were about to get cleared for takeoff, our engine dies without warning. Me and my instructor look at each other thinking, What the heck? Look at the gauges. All gauges were still on the green, fuel pump on, mixture rich. So weird… Needless to say, we aborted the flight. If we had that engine failure a couple minutes later, we would have been airborne with too much altitude to land on any remaining runway and not enough altitude to circle around. —Reddit user ProudPilot. Check out some of the craziest-ever reasons for flight delays.

danger between two aircraft during flight (aviation accident) muratart/Shutterstock

“We almost collided right after takeoff”

ATC gave my plane clearance to take off on runway 35 (north) at airport GFK while simultaneously allowing for a similar aircraft to depart from runway 26 (west). These runways cross one another. We almost collided at 500 AGL (above ground level). The other aircraft was so close I could make out the expression on the pilot’s face. —Reddit user Laaksonen

EYJAFJALLAJOKULL, ICELAND - MAY 12: Mount Eyjafjallajokull erupting in Iceland May 12 2010, Ash plume being ejected into the jet stream causing disruptions in international flightsJohann Helgason/Shutterstock

“I flew through volcanic ash”

Military pilot here. I was on a flight leaving Sigonella, Italy. Mount Etna had been erupting for the past four hours, but ATC cleared the southern sector to be free of volcanic ash. We flew directly into an ash cloud at 2000 feet remaining in the volcanic ash cloud for over 20 minutes. We had no luck climbing and punching out of the ash cloud, so we ended up doing an emergency descent to 1000 feet to get out of clouds. We started experiencing engine malfunctions and had to secure two out of our four engines. Unfortunately in Europe, ATC is not responsible for obstacle clearance, and we received a vector that would have flown us straight into a mountain. We caught the error and navigated back to the field to conduct a 2-engine emergency landing without incident. I literally expected every engine to cut out. I didn’t expect to make it out of that volcanic ash cloud alive. Look up what volcanic ash does to jet engines. —Reddit user besmircherz. The computer on this plane malfunctioned, putting 315 in a life-or-death situation.

Flying ducks in the lakesidemacro_multiverse/Shutterstock

“A duck flew into the engine”

I hit three ducks on short final [descent]. One went right into the nose gear and stuck, one hit the left prop, and one by the right engine. Could have had a dual flameout, but we had the field made so it wouldn’t have mattered. It just would have been a better story. The lineman took the one that stuck in the nose gear for a free meal. —Reddit user mmmpastaaa. Find out some myths about air travel you need to stop believing.

Landing aircraft low over the runway with stretched landing gearSenohrabek/Shutterstock

“I almost hit another plane on the runway”

My father was a captain for Eastern Airlines and told a story about almost being at takeoff speed when another commercial jet taxied across his runway. He was going too fast to abort so he had to pull up early and cleared the other plane by feet (don’t remember the exact amount). His passengers had no idea but the other plane’s passengers saw everything. I don’t know what ended up happening to the other pilot, but my dad got an apology call from him that evening. —Reddit user HarborMaster1

Preparations for autopsy, medical background.sfam_photo/Shutterstock

“A dead body started groaning”

I flew a dead body in a body bag by myself at night in a Chieftain (PA31-350). Dead guy groaned and jerked pretty hard about 10 minutes into the flight. Had it strapped down, so I don’t know how much it would have moved if not restrained. I just kinda muttered under my breath and looked over my shoulder for the rest of the 25 minutes flight. Pretty sure it was gasses inside the corpse brought out by the pressure change from ground to 3,000 agl [above ground level]. Freaked me out at the time though. —Reddit user BigZombieKing. It would freak us out, too! Here are some of the craziest things flight attendants have experienced on the job.

Two light aircraft standing next to each other on the runwayVilliers Steyn/Shutterstock

“My door opened mid-flight”

I never completed my pilot’s license, but I have a story about my training. I was doing my second solo flight (first one is to do “touch and go’s” without leaving the traffic pattern). In this second solo flight, I was to go out and do “turns about a point” and “figure eights” and other basic VFR maneuvers. I was doing a left turn about a point when my cabin door opened. Thankfully I was strapped in. With all of the air rushing past, it was hard to push the door out far enough to get it to slam back shut, so I had to slow the aircraft down to near stall speed before I could achieve reclosing it. Once it closed, the plane stalled (lost its “lift” quality) and began to basically fall out of the sky. I managed to recover from the stall and regain lift… flew back to the airport and landed without further incident. No, I did not soil my underpants, but I will never forget that flight. —A former Reddit user

flock of birds and aircraft muratart/Shutterstock

“I flew through a flock of birds”

We flew right through a flock of birds on takeoff, about 500 feet above the ground. Everything went fine, we didn’t hit anything, but we could very well have ended up in the same situation as [the movie] Sully. I don’t think anyone in the back noticed anything, but it sure as hell got the adrenaline flowing. —Reddit user 1008oh. Learn more about what happens when a plane encounters birds in midair.

airplane in the sky with lightninglafoto/Shutterstock

“Lightning struck right in front of the plane”

Coming into Indianapolis a month or so ago, there was some rain on final [descent]. It was showing green on the radar, which isn’t a big deal. Air traffic control called it light to moderate. As we get closer to it, the color changed from green to yellow with a little red. It was too late by this point to turn around it. As we are going through it, I was just about to remark to my captain how this isn’t bad at all when a GIANT bolt of lightning came down maybe 20 feet in front of the plane. The sound was deafening and scared both of us. Somehow it did not hit our plane, but it definitely woke everyone up on the flight. —Reddit user GAU8Avenger

Jet carrier and engine on firemuratart/Shutterstock

“My engine caught on fire”

Over the years I’ve had many incidents that might seem scary to some, but in reality are events that we train for and prepare for so the outcome is mundane and successful. I do remember when I was a brand new Captain on a Beech 1900 (19 seat turboprop with two pilots and no flight attendant) and was taking off at night. A passenger came up and tapped me on the shoulder (we kept the cockpit door open most of the time) and calmly said, “Sir, are you aware your left engine is on fire?” I had no indications as such so I sent my copilot back to calm down an obvious nervous flyer. My copilot came back about five seconds later with the words, “Dude! Flames!” Right about that time, all the bells and whistles went off and we got busy with the fire/shutdown checklist. Landed uneventfully, swapped planes, and went on our way. —Reddit user FlyingSig. Next, find out some secrets your airplane pilot won’t tell you.