From the moment Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully tested their first flying machine, the world has been fascinated by pioneer pilots who helped bring about the aviation age. While you have heard of pioneers and history-makers, you probably have not heard much about pilots who were just doing their job. Many pilots went well beyond their ordinary abilities and performed amazing feats in order to save doomed planes. These unsung heroes were pilots who did something more important than simply change history—they saved lives, in these cases, hundreds of innocent people. Here are ten cool cases that will forever stay in your mind.
10. Capt. Robert Schornstheimer
Number of Lives Saved: 89 passengers and 6 out of 7 crew members; only one fatality
On April 28, 1988 on a short plane ride from Hilo to Honolulu, passengers were terrified to witness the roof and wall of their cabin rip apart, leaving them exposed to the air, protected only by their seat belts. Since the plane was flying at 7,300 meters altitude, passengers were assaulted by 500 kph winds, meaning the cold, oxygen-deprived air itself was a threat. Because phone wires were cut, some attendants and passengers believed the pilot was dead.
The Queen Liliuokalani plane took off without incident. While over Maui, a part of the roof ruptured and the aircraft began to roll. Schornstheimer steered the plane to the closest airport, and oversaw an emergency landing. What makes his story even more amazing is that there was no disaster plan for this scenario. Captain Schornstheimer improvised everything. Sixty-five passengers were injured but only one crew member died. This captain’s fast-thinking mind and courage, even amid a crumbling plane, were inspiring to the plane’s survivors.
9. Capt. Chesley B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger
Number of Lives Saved: 155 passengers and crew members
Sullenberger was in control of Airbus A320 or “Flight 1549” from New York LaGuardia to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in Charlotte. Everything was fine until the captain reported to air traffic control that they hit a flock of birds, which knocked out their engines. The engines caught fire, and before long returning to the first airport or making it to a nearby airport were out of the question. There was only one place to go: into the Hudson River and it was a big risk.
He told the plane’s passengers to brace up and then, along with his co-pilot, orchestrated an emergency landing in the water. The captain was the last man to leave the plane, as he ensured all of the passengers were rescued before taking the maintenance logbook from the river-floating wreckage. Though it was, in the captain’s words, the “worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling”, he survived it and saved 155 people from a terrifying death landing.
8. Capt. Alfred C. Haynes
Number of Lives Saved: 185 surviving passengers out of 296
United Airlines Flight 232 took its last flight on July 19, 1989. It was set to go from Denver’s Stapleton International Airport to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. However, the DC-10 model crash-landed in Iowa after the failure of its tail-mounted engine, which later ruined flight controls. This story did not have a happy ending, since 111 of the 296 passengers died, but it is still considered a heroic achievement by historians and aviators who are amazed at the fact that anyone survived a landing that did not have conventional control working for it.
Before long, the engine failed and hydraulic systems followed, after being hit by shrapnel. The pilot and his crew managed to take limited control of the plane despite losing power over most of the controls. Using one engine at a time and making steering adjustments, the pilot and crew were able to adjust altitude, long enough to land at the Sioux Gateway Airport. They had no working flaps, slats or flares and could not slow down or lower the plane gradually. The plane broke apart, rolled, and went into flames. Because of the controlled crash by the late Haynes and his crew, and quick notification of emergency services, two thirds of the passengers survived a doomed flight.
7. Capt. Tadeusz Wrona
Number of Lives Saved: 231 passengers and crew members
On November 1, 2011 Captain Tadeusz Wrona had to perform a belly landing for the LOT Polish Airlines Flight 16 at Chopin Airport in Warsaw. The accident was said to result from a hydraulic leak that occurred after the plane’s take off. The leak was so bad that apparently all of the hydraulic fluid for the landing gears was lost. Although the pilot planned to continue on to the destination, the failing landing gear turned the situation dire. He circled the airport, hoping to use excess fuel and allowed emergency personnel to help assist the landing.
However, attempts to lower the gears were failing. The airport was shut down and evacuated. Despite the fact that all three landing gears failed, and the damage done to the plane was beyond repair, none of the passengers or crew died or were even injured. It took 90 seconds to fully evacuate the plane.
6. Capt. Karl van der Elst
Number of Lives Saved: All 231 passengers and 14 crew members
The KLM Flight 867 heading from Narita International Airport, Tokyo and encountered some complications when heading to the Anchorage International Airport in Alaska in December of 1989. The plane’s four engines failed while in flight, even though the 747-400 plane was fairly new. The belief is that the engines went down after the plane flew through volcanic ash. Backup battery electrical power was all the pilot had to guide the plane until the engines could be restarted. The plane rapidly glided downward nearly 14,000 feet, giving the pilot limited time to restart the engines.
The aircraft was damaged, running up a bill of $80 million, including the four bad engines. Reports are conflicted regarding the actions of the pilot, and whether or not he understood the reports he was given, or so claims a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, who said, “The information was the best we could provide with the resources and technology we got.” However, everyone survived and the plane was also returned to commercial flight.
5. Capt. Eric Moody
Number of Lives Saved: 248 passengers and 15 crew members
One can only imagine the feelings of passengers as Moody blatantly announced to his plane, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damndest to get them going again. I trust that you are not in too much distress.”
Flight 9 on British Airways on June 24, 1982 was making its way from London Heathrow to Auckland, when a cloud of volcanic ash from the nearby Mount Galunggung did a number on all four of the plane’s engines. At one point the only option seemed to be flying into the Indian Ocean. However, Moody came up with the idea of gliding the aircraft all the way to Jakarta, using the power of one restarting engine to reduce the rate of descent. This gave the plane enough time to clear the ash and to restart the engines.
4. Capt. Robert Piche
Number of Lives Saved: All 293 passengers and 13 crew members
Flight 236 of Air Transat was headed for Lisbon from Toronto. However, it completely lost power when flying over the Atlantic Ocean on August 24, 2001. The power loss was caused by a fuel leak, later said to be the fault of poor maintenance. Thankfully, Piche was an experienced glider pilot and used his smarts to land the plane in the Autonomous Region of the Azores, located in Portugal. The warning sign was of lower/higher than normal oil temperature and pressure. Piche wisely figured out these were false warnings of another problem and eventually figured out that there was a fuel emergency and arranged for a diversion landing at the Lajes Air Base.
What was amazing was that Piche was capable of landing the fuel-starved plane from 33,000 feet in the air. The engines flamed out and there was no electrical power. Even the emergency ram air turbine could not stop the aircraft from losing its main hydraulic power, threatening the flaps and brakes. Piche communicated with military air traffic controllers as the plane dropped at a rate of 2,000 feet a minute. If they did not time it right they would end up in the ocean. Piche oversaw a complex plan of 360-degree turns and curved turns to roughly land the plane at a speed of 200 knots. It bounced until it came to a full stop. The tires were deflated and most systems were down but everyone survived.
3. Capt. David Cronin
Number of Lives Saved: 337 survivors out of 346
United Airlines Flight 811 going from San Francisco to Sydney stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii and took off as usual on February 24, 1989. Suddenly, a cargo door failure occurred which caused decompression. The problem escalated and soon enough several rows of seats were blown out and the worst was feared. However, Captain David Cronin was on the job and the impossible happened: he landed the doomed plane.
Cronin maintained the plane and then extended the landing gear when finally reaching the airport. The flaps were damaged and only partly deployed. The landing speed came to approximately 200 knots. Still, Cronin halted the plane and managed to land on the runway back at the Honolulu airport. Within 45 seconds, all passengers and attendants exited. There were injuries and nine deaths, but Cronin’s plan managed to save 328 passengers along with 18 crew members. A major disaster, but one that could have been much worse without the experience factor of Cronin.
2. Unnamed Pilot aboard Flight 605
Number of Lives Saved: 374 passengers and 22 crew members
Flight CAL 605 involved the touchdown of a Boeing 747-400, which went 2,100 feet beyond the runway’s threshold at speeds exceeding 150 knots. The winds were certainly part of the problem, as Tropical Storm Ira was sending 20-knot crosswinds all over the runway. As the plane began touching down computer errors were reported, and eventually the brakes went out, leaving the plane to float.
The captain (whose name was not revealed) came up with the idea to turn the plane to the left to prevent it from falling off the end of the runaway. It slid into Victoria Harbor, sparing a collision. After emerging in shallow water, crew members helped passengers evacuate the plane. Out of 396 people, only 23 were injured. Everyone survived. While the pilot was criticized by some for his response to the storm, he and the crew did manage to prevent a collision and guided everyone out of harm’s way.
1. Capt. William Hagan
Number of Lives Saved: 379 out 389 total passengers and crew members
British Airways Flight 2069 was supposed to be heading from Gatwick, England to Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya. However, this heroic story involves a lot more than just quick-thinking and emergency landing strategy. Captain Hagan and his crew were hijacked by a man named Paul Mukonyi on December 29, 2000. The hijacker stormed the cockpit and tried to execute a route change until Captain Hagan and First Officer Phil Watson began struggling with him.
The plane eventually stalled and then began descending. Captain Hagan spent much of his battle with the hijacker, while the first office Watson took over the flight, leveling the descending plane. They both received a Polaris Award, while the captain also took home a Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR) People of the Year award. Sometimes it’s not just fancy flight work that saves the day—it’s courage and knowing a thing or two about wrasslin’.