10 Incredible Ways Pilots Saved Their Planes

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On December 17, 1903 the Wright Brothers made history with the first powered, controlled, and sustained heavier than air flight. Since then flying has gotten safer, but following Murphy’s Law, if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Thousands of feet above the ground, when that something takes a turn for the worse it’s up to the pilots to prevent their planes (and themselves) from slamming into the Earth.

At first, those who braved the skies were called by their Latin translations with terms like “aviator” or “aviatrix” for women. The media, looking to connect these brave men and women with the general public, tried to get more literal using terms like “Airman” or “Birdman.” Eventually, they brought in more scientific terms like “aeronaut” or “aerialist” before settling on what we use today: pilot, or the more formal aviator. Whatever name you like, these highly-skilled technicians of the sky and their support crews are what prevent your plane from hurtling to the ground when disaster strikes.

10. Exploding cargo in mid-air

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules has long been the workhorse of the US military. In operation since the ’50s, the four-engine turboprop has helped haul material, munitions, and men in America’s wars. Thus it was no surprise that a  C-130 Hercules variant, Spare 617 (No. 62-1787), a C-130E model was supporting the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. In April 1972, Spare 617 was sent on a vital mission to support the forces involved in the Battle of An Loc. At the time the city was surrounded by communists and the pilot of Spare 617, Captain William Caldwell, was told he’d be under heavy 37mm anti-aircraft fire. Asking how high the rounds could go, the response was simple, if slightly sarcastic: “Above you!”

Those helpful officers weren’t wrong, because as soon as Spare 617 got close to the drop zone it took multiple rounds, killing flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Jon Sanders, wounding several others, and setting the pallets full of highly explosive ammunition on fire. As he watched the fire quickly spread, Loadmaster Tech. Sgt. Charlie Shaub frantically signaled for the pilots to jettison the load. When the electronics didn’t work Shaub manually cut the pallets away. Luckily they quickly flew out of the aircraft, exploding almost as soon as they cleared the rear cargo door. Relieved at getting their flaming explosive cargo out of the way, Shaub now had to deal with the remaining fires that had spread around the inside of the plane. He was able to extinguish the flames, an action that earned him the Air Force Cross. For flying the heavily damaged (formerly on fire) Spare 617 back to base, Caldwell was also give the Cross. Spare 617 was itself repaired and put back to duty, working for decades before, in 2011, being retired to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

9. United Airlines Flight 232

United Airlines Flight 232 was a DC-10 flying on July 19, 1989, from Stapleton International Airport in Denver to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. On board were 296 passengers and crew. The flight seemed innocent enough, taking off at 2:09 p.m., but an hour later at 3:16 p.m., a flawed fan disk in the tail-mounted engine disintegrated, sending pieces of metal throughout the rear section of the plane and – more importantly – rupturing all three of the plane’s hydraulic systems. These hydraulic systems allow the pilot to control such a large vessel by just pulling on the control wheel. Without them, the plane could not maneuver. In the after-crash report, investigators determined that the mechanical failure was so great that there was no way to train for it. When they radioed for help they were told that flight control had no answers, as a hydraulic failure of all three lines was “virtually impossible.” With no way to control the plane’s flaps, they should have already crashed. But the crew of Flight 232 had already determined that today would not be a good day to die.

The three pilots on board were helped by a fourth pilot, Dennis E. Fitch, an off-duty United Airlines DC-10 flight instructor who just happened to be flying as a passenger that day. Between the four of them, they were able to devise a system of control where they could turn and descend without the vital hydraulics. They did this by powering up or powering down the plane’s right and left engines. Utilizing this system the four-man pilot team were able to limp to the Sioux City, Iowa airport for an emergency landing.

While they did have some maneuverability by adjusting engine thrust the aircraft was incredibly difficult to control. Cleared for a crash landing on one runway, they were actually only able to line up on another – which, coincidentally, was where all the emergency firefighting vehicles were parked, waiting for the landing. Luckily the emergency vehicles were quickly able to move out of the way. Unfortunately the plane’s ad hoc flying method couldn’t adjust fast enough and Flight 232 smashed into the runway, spilling fuel and igniting parts of the plane. Tragically, more than 100 passengers were killed, but the consensus was that the survival of 185 people was down to the skill and crew resource management of the four-man pilot team.

8. Crawling out on the wing to put out flames

During World War II, the Allies took part in a massive bombing campaign over Nazi-occupied Europe. Flying as high as possible, they tried to bomb Hitler into submission. It didn’t work, in part because the Nazis tried to do everything possible to bring the planes down, creating massive losses for the Allies. In the European theater alone over 160,000 Allied airmen and 33,700 planes were lost during bombing missions. There were many brave actions during these daring raids but some stand out more than others.

Norman Cyril Jackson was a flight engineer in a Lancaster Bomber attacking Schweinfurt on a nighttime raid on April 26, 1944. After releasing their load they were suddenly pounced upon by a German fighter that was able to riddle the aircraft with rounds that ignited the engine and wing fuel tank. Knowing that it was certain death if the fuel tank exploded, Jackson volunteered to climb out on the wing, during flight, to try and extinguish the flames. He strapped on a parachute and blew the external hatch. The cabin was suddenly filled with wind that grabbed his parachute and unfurled it in the plane. Undeterred, the flight crew gathered up the chute and used its strings to slowly allow Jackson to work his way out the plane hatch and along the wing. However, the German fighter struck again and he lost his grip. Not only was he sent flying off the plane, but he and his parachute swept right through the intense flames. His tattered, partly on fire chute only opened enough to allow him to barely survive the hard landing. With their savior gone the rest of the surviving crew bailed out and Jackson himself was captured and spent months as a POW recovering from his wounds.

So while Jackson failed to extinguish the flames, another pilot on another plane was a little more successful. New Zealand Sergeant James Allen Ward was on a Wellington bomber returning from an attack on Munster on the night of July 7, 1941. Suddenly, incendiary rounds from a German fighter ignited almost the whole wing. They were able to put out most of the flames with their extinguishers, and even coffee from their flasks, but the fire still burned farther out on the wing. Ward volunteered to climb out on the exterior of the plane and stop the fire. Fighting the wind shear he was able to make his way across the wing and smother, by hand, the flames. Then he made the highly dangerous journey back. His actions allowed the bomber to make it back to base.

For their deeds in trying to save their planes, both Sergeant James Allen Ward and Flight engineer Norman Cyril Jackson received the highest British honor, the Victoria Cross.

7. Lost harrier jet lands on a tanker ship

On May 6, 1983, there was a NATO exercise off Portugal where two British Royal Navy Sea Harrier fighter aircraft were given a mission to fly out separately and locate a French aircraft carrier under combat conditions. Combat conditions meant there was to be radio silence and no radar assistance. One of these planes was flown by Sub-Lieutenant Ian “Soapy” Watson, who was a junior Royal Navy Pilot who had completed about 75% of his pilot training.

He flew out to the designated flight coordinates, where he was to rendezvous with his flight leader. When the flight leader didn’t show up, Soapy turned to where the aircraft carrier should have been. When he couldn’t find the ship, and was low on fuel, he broke radio silence only to realize that his radio didn’t work and that his nav controls had been misdirecting him. With limited fuel, he flew out to a busy shipping lane and made visual contact with a Spanish container ship called Alraigo. At first, he intended to ditch the £7 million plane in the ocean and get picked up by the ship’s crew, but then he noticed that the shipping containers provided a relatively flat place to land the plane which had, as a harrier, vertical landing capabilities.

With one minute of fuel left, through great skill, he was able to hit the target but just as he set down on top of the containers the wet surface caused him and his plane to slip back onto the lower level, crashing onto the roof of truck that was also being shipped by the Alraigo. When the cargo ship eventually docked four days later, Soapy disembarked from the ship to a media storm and significant embarrassment for the Royal Navy, who determined that Soapy shouldn’t have been given such a mission with his lack of training and a defective radio. The Alraigo was able to make a successful salvage claim on the expensive plane and settled with the British government for a sum of £570,000 shared between the crew, who got £340,000, and the vessel owners, who got the remaining £230,000.

6. Flying from the wing

Keith Logan “Grid” Caldwell was a New Zealand fighter ace during World War I. He was never downed in combat, although he did have a number of close calls – including almost getting shot up by celebrated German ace Werner Voss. The one time he was forced down was an accident involving a plane from his own squadron.

After being denied entry into the Army, Caldwell paid for his own flight training in New Zealand and once he reached a certain level enlisted in the British Air Force (the Royal Flying Corps). He quickly rose through the ranks and in March 1918 he was promoted and became commander of the 74 “Tiger” Squadron.

In September 1918, he was engaging with German planes when he collided with Tiger Squadron colleague Sydney Carlin. The collision destroyed his starboard upper wing, sending him into a death spiral. Instinctively, he knew that with the ruined aerodynamics of the wing he had to change the plane’s center of gravity. So according to the book By Such Deeds by Colin Hanson, Caldwell climbed out onto the wing and with one hand on the plane’s joystick, flew the aircraft from the wing (as shown by this scene recreated in full at the Aviation Heritage Centre at Omaka, Blenheim, New Zealand). Caldwell himself says the crash might have been slightly exaggerated, as he had to have one leg on the rudder control in the cockpit. As he explained it, “anyone conversant with the controls of a sensitive aeroplane would know that to leave the rudder alone would be disastrous.” Flying from the wing only offered so much control, but it was enough to get him and his plane back across the front lines. Just before he crashed he jumped from the wing, rolled a few times, and to the astonished British soldiers who watched the whole thing, calmly asked to use their radio.

When the war ended later that year, Keith Caldwell had 25 kills (most of any NZ pilot). He continued flying and during WWII rose to the rank of Air Commodore in RNZAF.

5. Pardo’s Push

During the Vietnam War, Captain Bob Pardo and wingman Captain Earl Aman were flying missions against North Vietnam out of the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. On March 10, 1967, the two were flying F-4 Phantom IIs and started out on a mission to bomb a steel mill just outside North Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. The weather was clear and visibility was perfect, but during the bombing run, both planes were struck by anti-aircraft fire. Aman’s Phantom took multiple hits and immediately lost most of its fuel. Pardo feared the worst if his wingman was forced to ditch his plane over enemy territory and decided to push the disabled jet with his own Phantom.

Since both planes were originally Navy versions of the Phantom they had a structurally reinforced tail hook that was used to catch the plane when it landed on an aircraft carrier. Luckily, even though they were flying out of Thailand, they still had the tailhooks. Aman lowered his and Pardo was able to push on it with his own plane, although every so often it would slip and he would have to realign his Phantom before he could push again. Using this method he was successfully able to nudge Aman over the Laotian border. All that pushing had drained Pardo’s jet of fuel as well, so he too was forced to eject. But as they were in Laos, they were quickly picked up by US rescue helicopters.

At first, Pardo was reprimanded for not abandoning his wingman and saving his own plane but 21 years later the military took another look at the incident and changed their minds, awarding Pardo the Silver Star.

4. 2003 Baghdad DHL attempted shootdown incident

The might of the US military may have crushed Saddam’s army in early 2003, but almost immediately insurgents started harassing the occupying forces. The temporary government installed after the overthrow tried to get the country up and running again. One of these tasks was opening up Baghdad’s International Airport to the world. German company DHL Express was running Airbus cargo planes from Baghdad to Bahrain as part of this effort.

On November 22, 2003, a DHL Express with two Belgian pilots – Captain Éric Gennotte and First Officer Steeve Michielsen – along with a Scot flight engineer, Mario Rofail, took off at 6:30 a.m. To present itself as less of a target to insurgents, the plane undertook what is called rapid climb out. At the same time, Paris Match reporter Claudine Vernier-Palliez was embedded into an insurgent cell that claimed to be independent of Al-Qaeda or Saddam loyalists. The French reporter, who thought she was going to an interview, was instead watching the insurgents set up what would later be determined as SA-14 Gremlin surface-to-air missiles. They fired two missiles, one of which hit the wing of the DHL Express plane.

The missile strike totally destroyed all three hydraulic systems on the plane, disabling the pilot’s ability to fly it using the control rod and flaps. By sheer coincidence, Captain Gennotte had recently attended a seminar where he watched a presentation by Captain Al Haynes, one of the pilots of United Airlines Flight 232 (which you’ll remember from entry 9), on how to control a plane with no hydraulics. Remembering what Haynes said, after about 10 minutes of experiments with powering up or powering down the plane’s right and left engines the crew regained some control. So with the wing on fire, the crew were able to land the plane – but due to not being able to slow down, they could not prevent it from going off the runway and dragging a razor wire barrier for about a kilometer. The pilots were uninjured and received multiple awards. The plane was repaired and re-registered as N1452 but without a buyer was last seen in 2011, still at Baghdad’s International Airport.

3. Philippine Airlines Flight 434

In the early ’90s, Islamic terrorists Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (of 9/11 infamy) planned a series of attacks called the Bojinka plot that included killing the Pope, bombing planes, and crashing a plane into CIA headquarters in Virginia. Determined to test the viability of bombing planes in mid-air, Yousef flew from Manila to Cebu, Philippines. During the short flight, Yousef was able to assemble a bomb in the bathroom and stash it under seat 26K, which he thought was directly above the plane’s fuel tanks.

When the plane landed at Cebu airport, Yousef exited the plane. The crew did not notice the bomb he had left behind. On December 11, 1994, at 8:38 a.m., after a 38-min delay, Philippine Airlines Flight 434 took off with its deadly cargo on its way to Narita International Airport in Tokyo. At 11:43 a.m. the bomb exploded, instantly killing 24-year-old Haruki Ikegami, who had the unfortunate luck of sitting in seat 26K. The plane structurally survived because, by chance, the company had changed the seating arrangement so chair 26K was above the cargo hold, not the jet’s fuel tank.

While the explosion was mostly contained inside the plane and cargo hold, the blast had damaged some of the flying controls of the plane. When Captain Ed Reyes disengaged the autopilot he found that while he had a little control with his control yoke he didn’t have enough to control the plane. The flight crew would have to depend on powering up or powering down the plane’s right and left engines to control direction and altitude, just like United Airlines Flight 232. Worried about the wounded on the plane and how long they could continue flying, Reyes requested an emergency landing in Okinawa. The Japanese air control couldn’t understand Reyes’ request (since he made it in English), so the United States military base in Okinawa took over, dispatching a fighter jet to make sure that the plane’s landing gear was down. With Captain Reyes’ jury-rigged flying controls, the crew was able to safely land in Okinawa one hour after the explosion. For the bravery and skill of getting his passengers safely down to Earth, President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines commended and celebrated the crew of Philippine Airlines Flight 434.

2. Gladys Ingle changes wheel in mid-air

13 Black Cats were an aerial daredevil crew based out of Hollywood. They were founded in 1924 by Ronald “Bon” MacDougall, who was the part-owner of the Burdette Airport and School of Aviation in Los Angeles. The 13 members of the troupe flew together in Curtiss JN-4 biplanes, nicknamed “Jennys” because of the way “JN” is read. Thousands of Jennys were built during WWI, and after the war they were cheaply sold off to hobby pilots. The planes formed the core of civil aviation after the war and were especially popular in the many flying circuses that toured the country.

This video above starts with a plane that has lost a wheel. It’s unable to land, so one of the members of the 13 Black Cats, Gladys Ingle, straps a spare tire to her back and takes off on another plane to help. With no parachute and the heavy tire still strapped to her back, she walks out on the wing of the first plane and then jumps onto the wing of the wheelless plane. She then climbs down the struts, unties the wheel from her back, and installs it – all while hundreds of feet off the ground, and still without a parachute. Finally, with two wheels the plane can land… but instead of sitting down in the passenger seat, Gladys Ingle lands while standing on the wing. Now, this video is probably staged, but the danger of jumping from plane to plane, and hanging off said plane while changing a tire (all without a parachute) is real.

1. Only pilot in the Air Force who shot his own airplane

In May 1952, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Alfred (Joe) D’Amario was studying how to fly in South Korea at Base K-13 with the Eighth Fighter-Bomber Wing, 35th Fighter-Bomber Squadron. He was learning on the Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star, a jet plane that was introduced in the closing days of WWII. The plane had fuel tanks on the end of both wings that could detach when empty. In the days leading up to his bombing training, he learned that some of the Shooting Stars were malfunctioning and not feeding fuel, and also not allowing their pilots to jettison their tanks. This was a big deal, because the plane was almost impossible to land if one of the wing fuel tanks was full and the other was empty. The advice given to D’Amario, if in the unlikely chance that this happened while he was flying, was to shoot holes in the fuel tank.

After the briefing, D’Amario took off on his practice bombing raids. As soon as he got in the air he noticed that the preflight inspection had missed that the left fuel tank wasn’t feeding fuel to the engine. Worried, he radioed the control tower but they told him to keep going and complete the mission, as he would be able to jettison the full fuel tank after the bombing raid. Over the target, he pressed the button to release both his load and the left fuel tank, but nothing happened. Getting worried, he tried the manual release for the tank. Still nothing. There was a third option: a bright red panic button, which was supposed to release everything strapped to the plane, including both wing tanks. When he hit the button, the empty right fuel tank detached but the full left fuel tank remained. He was in the exact situation they had warned him about, as the aerodynamics of the lopsided plane would guarantee a crash landing.

He needed to somehow drain the left fuel tank that wasn’t feeding any fuel to the engine. D’Amario then remembered his briefing, which said that he needed to shoot the tank. Opening his canopy and fighting the slipstream that wanted to rip the gun from his hand, he tightly gripped his pistol and fired off a round, and missed. Taking careful aim he tried again and saw a direct hit. Excited, he shot and struck two more times, allowing fuel to drain out of the tank. He radioed his progress to the control tower, who told him not to shoot anymore holes (perhaps worrying about the bullets causing a fire or explosion).  D’Amario wasn’t worried about fire; what he was worried about was the pistol accidentally going off in the cockpit. Not wanting to shoot himself, he emptied the rest of the bullets into the fuel tank. With so many holes, the 165 gallons of jet fuel quickly drained out and D’Amario was able to safely land his now balanced plane back at base. After the events of the flight, he was able to make the still unchallenged claim that he was the “only pilot in the Air Force who shot his own airplane.”

Jon Lucas covers WW1 live, 100 years ago. You can follow the action on Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram


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