Flying is safe, much safer than driving in a car. Yet, it freaks us out more--because we do it more rarely, because accidents, while statistically rare, are more catastrophic--and also because it involves the unnatural, amazing-even-a-century-later act of hurtling through the air five miles above the ground in a pressurized metal tube.
I used to travel constantly for business, and I've told the story before of the commercial pilot who seemed so unprofessional that my fellow passengers nearly revolted. And I'm the first to complain about bad airline service.
Yet, the hour or so I've just spent reading story after story about close call after close call--ostensibly told by commercial airline pilots--beats everything I've experienced. The source: a Reddit thread, entitled, Pilots of Reddit: What is the scariest moment of your career that passengers may have been oblivious to. [Serious]. It's two years old, but the British newspaper site, The Independent reviewed it and added to the stories recently.
Here are the highlights. They might freak you out a bit--but hopefully they'll also give you newfound appreciation for pilots. If you need a little more good advice, download my free infographic: 8 Must-Have Items That Make Flying Suck a Little Less.
Unless otherwise noted, each of these quotes a Redditor who says he or she is a commercial pilot.
1. The near-collision passengers didn't know about, 500 feet above the North Dakota prairie.
"ATC (air traffic control) 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." --Laaksonen
2. The time every cockpit screen on an Airbus 320 went dark.
"Pilot of an Airbus 320 here. Flying into a high elevation port in Asia 23000feet on descent had a TOTAL loss of electrical power. All screens went dark including standby instruments and emergency lighting. ... It's a scenario pilots don't even train for because its never suppose[d] 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, there's no response from the brake or accelerator. But you can still feel the car going."--zscn
3. When the passengers don't even realize you almost hit two other aircraft.
"On approach to the airport, we received an alert by the onboard equipment to climb immediately to avoid hitting another plane. Fair enough, climb as instructed, see the offending aircraft below us, and decide to continue the approach. ... [W]e spot a wall of torrential rain rapidly approaching the field. Looks far enough away that we think that we can beat it to the airport. About 100 ft off the runway the rain hits us and we go complete white out, cant see anything ...
"Immediately start a go-around, and we get as low as 20 ft before the airplane finally starts climbing. Upon exiting the rain, and at about 500 ft, we finally are able to see again, and get ANOTHER alert for a helicopter right in front of us. This time we are told to descend... All in all, the most hectic and terrifying series of events in my entire time in aviation (about 10 years total now)."--Critical Mach
4. When you abort a takeoff and a passenger captures it and posts it on Youtube.
"Going down the runway looking at the gauges... Not good. Engine RPM was not the level it should have reached in those conditions. ... I made the decision to abort the takeoff and cancel the flight. As soon as we lifted off the runway, I cut the power and landed straight ahead. Would we have made it? Probably. Was the engine running abnormally? Yes. Rather safe than sorry. They all had no idea, but I had a little war going on in my head during the whole takeoff run.
"The scary part wasn't so much aborting a takeoff with runway running out, but knowing that if I continued the takeoff there was the possibility of an engine failure during the climb, which would have been fatal. The passengers would have had no idea."
5. When you work in accounting for your airline and pretend to be a co-pilot.
"I used to work accounting for a (very small) chartered airline that flew some small twin engines on short hops around Europe. ... Last minute flight came up one evening ... All of the pilots were out on other flights or had hit their hours so the owner of the company asks me to go put on a white collared shirt and a black sweater one of the other girls had left in the office.
"There I am, standing by the plane, confidently greeting passengers and wishing them safe voyages - I'm still surprised no one commented that I was wearing heels. After we were in the air about a half hour, he turns to me and goes "nerdheroine, you're in charge" and takes his hands off the controls. ... I'm sure the passengers would have been thrilled to know that their co-pilot in charge had had exactly 26 minutes worth of training."--nerdheroine
6. When your aircraft's wings are dangerously covered with ice, and a clueless passenger comments how pretty they look.
"At about 6,000 feet I noticed ice building on the wings and windshield. It continued building up until about 3,000 feet and by then the plane was "flying heavy". This airplane had no de-ice equipment."
"The whole time me and the copilot are saying we hope our pax (passengers) aren't seeing this. We landed without incident and the ice had turned to slush. We are thinking all is ok, pax didn't see anything. One of the pax climbs out of the plane and exclaims,'That was so cool! Did you see all that pretty ice on the wings? I got several pictures on my phone!'"--Mechanipilot
7. When you realize massive turbulence is actually the least dangerous thing you encounter.
"Commercial airline pilot for five years. Nothing that would really make you pucker up: the things that generally feel the scariest (heavy turbulence) are really not that dangerous at all, unless you are very close to the ground. And if that happens we would just climb back up and try to land a little bit later, or at a different airport. ....
"The most common "brush with death" that I've not yet experienced is probably 'urbulence' taking off behind or landing behind a very large aircraft. I've flown with many pilots who told me that they have rolled past ninety-degrees (so the aircraft is very slightly upside-down with the wingtips pointing up and down) after passing through the following aircraft's wingtip vorticies.
"However, I cannot thing of a time I was truly caught off-guard or felt unprepared to handle a situation that arose while flying. Maybe I'm tooting my own horn, but there is a reason that flying is the safest way to travel!"--alexja21
8. When the passengers have no idea how close they've just come to calamity.
"I needed to use the restroom, so I left the cockpit and the flight attendant took my place (airline policy/safety thing). I went back, did my business, then came back up to the cockpit and the FA left. The captain said 'look at your instruments.' ... [S]omething started going wrong with the gauges ... The situation got uncomfortable because we realized one was right and one was wrong and we were not sure which. Then the yoke started shaking.
"We were told we could descend and we started down. Once we entered the clouds in the high 20?s we started picking up ice - a lot of it. Turned on the anti-ice and as soon as we did I heard a pop and got a whiff of smoke. On reflex I turned the system off but the captain turned it right back on (my brain immediately said "electrical problem" but then both our brains said "we need ice protection in this big time."). Just a gut call at that point because there wasn't really a checklist for what was going on. ...
"We diverted to and landed at another airport.We told the passengers that due to bad weather at our destination and a "minor maintenance issue" we diverted. They all hopped on another plane and headed off, never having had any idea that two of our three static systems had failed/been compromised, that the plane had somehow ended up on the edge of an aerodynamic issue (I'm pretty sure it was a low speed stall but because the static system was compromised we didn't get an actual shaker, just a buffet in the yoke), and that we had a electrical/de-ice problem in the middle of heavy ice as well."--drrhythm2