It's been a scary day for airline passengers, after three of the biggest U.S. carriers--Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines--all had emergency landings within less than 18 hours.

But as harrowing as these incidents were (and in one case tragic, as a passenger died and seven others were injured), there's also reason to take some comfort. They demonstrate that while mechanical problems are statistically inevitable given the sheer number of flights each day, flying is still by far the safest mode of travel.

Much of that safety record has to do with two things: the fact that we have some incredibly sturdy planes, and also that we have airline pilots with great skill and nerves of steel. 

Below, you'll find the stories of today's heroism and good fortune. And there's audio of the incredibly calm pilot of the Southwest Airlines plane, a former Navy fighter pilot named Tammie Jo Shults, as she lands her 737--after part of an engine blew up, broke a window in the fuselage, and fatally wounded a passenger.

1. United Airlines

There were three emergency landings, and while the third one below was by far the most serious, the first two are also worth remembering. It started with a United Airlines flight heading from Newark International Airport to Palm Beach, Florida, that had to divert to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Monday at 7:24 p.m.

"The pilots of #UA1559 reported 'trouble with the elevator,'" according to 6ABC News in Philadelphia. "Such a problem would lead to controllability challenges."

Nobody was injured, and the passengers spent about five hours at the Air Force base before United was able to send a second airplane to taken them to Florida.

2. Delta Airlines

Next, a Delta Connection flight operated by Express Jet, en route from New York's La Guardia to Richmond International Airport in Virginia, diverted to Dulles Airport due to "an issue with the landing gear," according to reports--which turned out to be the fact that one of the wheels had come off.

Nobody was injured here either, and the passengers eventually made it to Richmond--but via a two-hour bus ride. Not the best experience, but everyone did arrive safely.

3. Southwest Airlines

The most dramatic and horrifying of the day's emergency landings was Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. It's also the most tragic story, as one passenger died. 

As you may have heard by now, SWA 1380 took off from La Guardia at around the same time as the Delta Connection flight above, and was set to travel to Dallas. At 35,000 feet, part of the port engine apparently exploded, sending shrapnel into the fuselage and breaking a window.

The low pressure created a sucking effect, and a passenger, identified in media reports as Jennifer Riordan, 43, of New Mexico, was reportedly pulled partially through the window. Others pulled her back in, apparently unconscious, and passengers tried unsuccessfully to do CPR to save her life.

"You hear the pop and she was sucked out from the waist up. There was blood on the windows...her arms were actually out of the airplane and her head was out of the airplane," another passenger told NBC 10 News in Philadelphia.

Riordan was reportedly the first passenger ever to die on a Southwest flight, and the first fatality on any U.S. airline since 2009.

This is by far the most shocking and terrifying story of its kind from today, and frankly, disturbing new details have emerged even as I've been writing this article. But it's also a story of heroism, on the parts of some other passengers, and the pilot and co-pilot.

The pilot, identified as Tammie Jo Shults, was reportedly one of the first female U.S. Navy fighter pilots before becoming a commercial aviator. And her calm demeanor while piloting a crippled jet under truly tragic conditions--much of it recorded in her exchange with air traffic control--is truly worth a listen.

Truly, this was a harrowing experience--and our hearts go out to Riordan's family, and to the other passengers who were reportedly injured. But this recording--and the fact that Shults managed to land--has me focusing on the reassuring aspect of the whole thing.

In short, as harrowing as these incidents are, the passenger jets we fly on are sturdy enough to survive literally having an engine blow up. And the pilots are calm and professional enough to handle most of these kinds of situations.

As horrifying as Riordan's death is, 148 other passengers survived. And that's why I think the overall story is cause for faith, not fear.

Published on: Apr 18, 2018
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