Thankfully, almost all commercial airplane flights are uneventful… because when something exciting happens at 30,000 feet, it’s rarely the good kind of exciting.
Below are five of the most bizarre incidents in the history of commercial aviation, all of which will leave you eternally grateful for that painfully dull flight to LAX you’re probably dreading.
These insane incidents run the gamut from tailgating UFOs to sudden disastrous structural failures… to the plane’s pilot flying out the damn window.
The Hero of the Ghost Plane
In 2005, Helios Airways Flight 522 flew from Cypress to Athens with its crew and passengers unconscious for the majority of the flight. The culprit wasn’t a boring in-flight movie. It was a simple mistake. A maintenance person had forgotten to flip the “pressurize” switch from “manual” to “automatic.” As the plane reached altitude, the cabin never pressurized.
The crew had no idea there was a problem. They’d mistaken the “low cabin pressure” warning sirens for an air conditioning problem. As the atmosphere grew thinner, the crew became disoriented and then fell unconscious in the cockpit.
Meanwhile, the passengers’ automatic oxygen masks descended, but they’re only designed to hold about 15 minutes worth of gas. So the passengers all eventually passed out too.
With all onboard unconscious, the plane’s autopilot continued the flight on schedule, but when it arrived near Athens, no one was awake to answer the increasingly frantic radio calls from the ground.
When the zombie-jet got near its destination airport, the autopilot system piloted the plane in a wide, circular holding pattern.
Air traffic controllers were watching the jet circling and not answering radio calls and feared the worst: Some kind of terrorist incident. The Greek government scrambled fighter jets to look inside the craft. The fighter pilots first confirmed that no one inside the jet was moving. Then they saw someone in the cockpit, waving to them.
A flight attendant, Andreas Prodromou, was trying to regain control of the craft. Prodromou had experience piloting small planes and scuba diving, and he was apparently awesome under pressure. He had worked his way from the tail of the unpressurised cabin to the cockpit, sipping small breaths from different passenger oxygen masks along the way.
Sadly, Prodromou’s heroic efforts were in vain. Helios Airways Flight 522 ran out of fuel soon after the flight attendant was spotted in the cockpit. The plane plunged into a mountain near Athens, and all aboard were killed.
Vesna Vulovic: Luckiest Stewardess in History
Serbian Stewardess Vesna Vulovic set a world record in 1972 that will probably never be broken. She survived a fall higher than anyone else in history.
Vulovic was working a commercial flight above Czechoslovakia when the airplane suddenly exploded. Vulovic was in the rear section of the craft when it broke up, and began plummeting to earth.
She fell 33,000 feet with no parachute.
The deep snow and thick forest where she landed apparently slowed her down enough to save her life, but she didn’t exactly walk away from her unplanned sky-diving adventure. Vulovic was in a coma for 10 days and suffered a fractured skull, two crushed vertebrae, a broken pelvis, broken ribs, and two broken legs.
“All Four Engines Failed”
Let’s play a game: I’ll tell you what happened on British Airways Flight 9, and you try to come up with an explanation.
After a routine takeoff, Flight 9 ascended to cruising altitude above the Indian Ocean. The weather was clear.
At around 8:40 PM, the crew reported seeing strange multicolored dancing lights outside the window of the plane. A few minutes later, the lights disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.
Acrid, sulfur-smelling smoke began filling the cabin.
Passengers near the windows said the engines started glowing with an eerie blue light.
A couple of minutes later, Engine Four failed, flaming out spectacularly. Engine Two soon followed. Then Engines One and Three flamed out simultaneously, leaving the flight 37,000 gliding silently above the Indian Ocean with no means of propelling itself and nowhere to land.
Captain Robert Greaves took to the intercom to address the passengers with an awesome understatement: “We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped,” He said. “We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Then the cabin lights went out, plunging the passengers into darkness. The oxygen masks deployed to passengers and crew.
In the cockpit, the crew radioed “mayday” reports to the ground, but air traffic controllers weren’t able to locate the plane on their radar, as if it had somehow vanished.
The crew tried restarting each of the engines but had no luck, so they prepared for a water landing.
As the plane glided toward the Indian Ocean, the engines suddenly responded and roared back to life. The plane re-appeared on ground radar.
The plane’s windscreen was almost impossible to see through. Visibility was near zero, although the weather was clear. The plane’s landing lights were not working either.
Using a combination of their half-broken automatic Landing System and instrument readings, the crew was able to safely land the plane in Jakarta. No one was hurt.
Those are the facts. Have you figured out the cause?
If you said, “the plane entered a space-time wormhole or portal or UFOs or something,” you’re wrong. Turns out the plane flew through a cloud of ash from the eruption of a volcano!
Because it was dark, the pilots couldn’t see the dark cloud they were flying into. Weather systems work based on moisture, so it couldn’t be seen there either, and radar couldn’t pick it up for similar reasons.
The ash pitted the windshield badly enough to turn it opaque, and the mysterious lights were actually caused by the impact of ash particles on the leading edges of the aircraft, like sparks from a welder’s torch. The engines burned out when their turbines were clogged with volcanic ash. The crew was able to restart them later when the wind cleared enough dust from the engines.
Cargo Crew spots UFO Over Alaska
Unlike the story above, there seems to be no rational explanation for the things that happened to Japan Air Lines’ flight 1628 in 1982. For nearly an hour, the crew watched three UFOs fly near their cargo plane in formation, close enough to get a very detailed view of the craft. These were experienced pilots, with nothing to gain by making up a story, and the sightings were backed up by their in-flight radar readings.
The aircraft was flying over Alaska on the way from Paris to Tokyo when the UFOs first buzzed it. At 05:11 PM, Captain Terauchi saw two craft to the left of the plane. They were around 2,000 feet below his altitude, moving at the speed of the plane. Other crewmembers backed up his sighting.
At 5:18, the objects veered to a position about 500 feet in front of the plane, and assumed a stacked configuration. According to Terauchi, they used “a kind of reverse thrust, and [their] lights became dazzlingly bright.” So bright that they lit up the inside of the flight deck. The pilot said he could even feel the heat of the crafts’ engines.
The UFOs didn’t move like any known aircraft. “The thing was flying as if there was no such thing as gravity,” Terauchi said. “It sped up, then stopped, then flew at our speed, in our direction, so that to us it [appeared to be] standing still. The next instant it changed course. … In other words, the flying object had overcome gravity.”
After 3 to 5 minutes the UFOs assumed a side-to-side configuration and held it for another 10 minutes.
Finally, the two UFOs disappeared and a third one materialized directly in front of the plane. Terauchi described it as a mother ship, about twice the size of an aircraft carrier. He requested a change of course and after nearly an hour, the UFOs stopped following his jet.
Skeptics have offered a number of theories for the sighting, from reflections on clouds, to mistaking Venus for three alien craft, but given the years of experience of the pilots and the radar corroboration, these explanations don’t seem convincing.
Probably the most plausible explanation is that the crew was seeing a test flight of secret military aircraft, maybe an early test-flight of the Stealth Bomber. Why military pilots flying a secret mission would hang around a commercial flight for an hour has never been explained, and a stealth bomber doesn’t look like it’s bigger than two aircraft carriers either!
The Pilot Who Fell Out the Window
June 10th 1990 began as a normal day for airline pilot Tim Lancaster, but by its end, he’d been sucked out of the window of a jet flying at 17,000 feet.
British Airways flight 5390 took off at 7:20 AM from Birmingham, England and flew toward its destination in Spain. No one realized it at takeoff, but the maintenance crew had used the wrong bolts when replacing the jet’s windshield. Oops.
At about 9:35, as the plane approached 18,000 feet, passengers heard a loud bang: The sound of the pilot’s window failing. The pressure differential sucked Lancaster from his seat and halfway out of the airplane.
The door to the cabin was blown into the flight deck, so the entire craft depressurized. Passengers screamed as debris and paper flew through the cabin toward the cockpit.
Luckily, Lancaster’s knees snagged on the flight controls keeping him from flying into the atmosphere. A quick-thinking flight attendant, Nigel Ogden, grabbed Lancaster’s belt and held on.
Outside the plane, it was -17 degrees Celsius. Horrified crewmembers watched as 345 mile-per hour winds slammed Lancaster’s head into the window and fuselage again and again, like a banner flapping in a breeze.
Co-pilot Alastair Atchison began a rapid descent as flight attendants struggled to hold onto the pilot. Even being close to the outside at this altitude caused frostbite in flight attendants. They all thought Lancaster was dead, but the co-pilot ordered the crew to keep holding onto his body to prevent it from flying into the plane’s engine.
After landing, emergency crews rushed to Lancaster and found that, amazingly, he was alive. He wasn’t even seriously injured. He suffered frostbite, bruising, shock, and fractures to his right arm, left thumb and right wrist, a small price to pay for the greatest bar-story in human history.