The most heroic airline pilots of all time

It is 15 years since US Airways Flight 1549 was ditched in the Hudson River
It is 15 years since US Airways Flight 1549 was ditched in the Hudson River - Getty

To mark the 15th anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson, we recount the tales of heroic pilots who really earned their hefty salaries.

1. The Miracle on the Hudson

January 15, 2009

Perhaps the best known incident of recent times, involving the most brilliantly monikered pilot. Chesley Sullenberger III, at the helm of US Airways Flight 1549, managed to land safely on the Hudson River after a flock of Canada geese disabled both of the aircraft’s engines just 2,818 feet above the ground. All 155 passengers survived; Sullenberger’s reward was a book deal with HarperCollins, and early retirement. A feature film starring Tom Hanks followed.

Despite his composure during the accident, Sully, a veteran pilot with 19,663 hours of flying experience, revealed to Telegraph Travel in 2018 that he had received minimal training for a water landing (or “ditching”).

“The only training we had gotten for a water landing was reading a few paragraphs in a manual and having a brief classroom discussion,” he said at the time.

“Little has changed since our flight. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has adopted only six of the 35 safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its final report on Flight 1549. We owe it to all who fly to act on what we have learned and not just let important recommendations gather dust on a shelf.”

He added: “I am still very glad that we were able to save every life in such a sudden and intense crisis for which we had never been specifically trained.”

Chesley Sullenberger III
Chesley Sullenberger III - AP

The Miracle on the Hudson was hailed as “the most successful ditching in aviation history” by the NTSB. Though incredibly rare, there have been a few other instances where commercial airliners have been forced to make a landing on water.

In 1970, an ALM flight from New York to the island of St Maarten ran out of fuel following three landing attempts in adverse weather, and was ultimately forced to land in the Caribbean Sea. No announcement was made to instruct the passengers to fasten their seatbelts, and 20 of the 57 passengers died in the accident.

In 1996, a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the ocean near the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel. The pilot had attempted a water landing while trying to fight off the hijackers. During the struggle, the plane was forced into a roll just before impact with the water, causing the craft to break into three pieces. Out of the 175 people on board, 125 died in the accident.

The remains of the aircraft involved in the Miracle of the Hudson, an Airbus A320 (registration N106US) was sent to the Carolinas Aviation Museum (since renamed the Sullenberger Aviation Museum) in Charlotte, NC.

2. A hero called Coward

January 17, 2008

British Airways, including its subsidiaries, has been involved in just three fatal accidents – and none since 1985. But 16 years ago it had a very close call.

BA Flight 38, using a Boeing 777-200ER, had completed all but two miles of its 5,000-mile journey from Beijing to Heathrow when its engines suddenly failed to respond to the crew’s demand for extra thrust. A build-up of ice crystals had caused a restriction in the flow of fuel.

The loss of power caused the plane’s speed to drop alarmingly. “We were about to stall and fall out of the sky,” said Captain Peter Burkill, in an interview two years later. The only way to go faster, and avoiding stalling, was to take a steeper approach. It worked, but meant the aircraft looked certain to miss the runway.

“We were heading straight for the buildings around Hatton Cross Tube station,” Burkill recalled. “For an aircraft travelling at about 125mph, that’s carnage. There were 152 people on board and we were all going to die.”

Peter Burkill
Peter Burkill - Steve Parsons

Burkill took the instinctive decision to bring in the aircraft’s flaps in a last-ditch attempt to reduce drag and give the plane a chance of clearing Hatton Cross. “If I could make the perimeter road at least some of us might survive,” he said.

The plane, with first officer, the ironically named John Coward, at the controls, landed around 270 metres short of the runway, just beyond the A30.

“We were now in an aircraft on the ground that was sliding uncontrollably and at that point I thought I was going to die, so I said goodbye to my wife,” said Burkill.

The plane was a write-off – the nose gear collapsed, the right main gear separated from the aircraft, penetrating a fuel tank, and the left main gear was pushed up through the wing – but just one passenger had suffered a serious injury by the time it came to a halt beside the threshold markings at the start of the runway.

Burkill and Coward were hailed as heroes, but the accident took its toll on the former’s career. After being assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder, Burkill returned to the cockpit five months later. But he took voluntary redundancy in August 2009 and criticised BA over its handling of the incident, claiming he had been “hung out to dry”. Finding a new job with an accident on his record, however, proved difficult, and he rejoined the airline in 2010.

3. The Jakarta incident

June 24, 1982

British Airways Flight 9 from Heathrow to Auckland was passing over Jakarta when it ran into volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Galunggung, resulting in the failure of all four of the 747’s engines. One of the first signs of a problem came when smoke began to accumulate in the cabin. A few minutes later number four engine sputtered to a halt, followed by two, then three and one.

Naturally, there was concern in the cockpit, with the flight engineer exclaiming: “I don’t believe it – all four engines have failed!” Furthermore, the dust sandblasted the windscreen, making it almost impossible to see.

The captain, Eric Moody, tried to reassure passengers with the following statement: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Passengers reportedly scribbled notes to loved ones (one, by Charles Capewell, read: “Ma. In trouble. Plane going down. Will do best for boys. We love you. Sorry. Pa XXX”), while Moody calculated how far the plane might be able to glide before reaching sea level (91 miles he deduced, from its flight level of 37,000 feet).

Luckily, at around 13,500 feet, and with a ditching in the ocean on the cards, the engines restarted successfully. The plane landed safety in Jakarta despite the almost total lack of visibility. It was, in Moody’s words, “a bit like negotiating one’s way up a badger’s arse.”

Eric Moody
Eric Moody - PA

4. British Airways Flight 5390

June 10, 1990

In this remarkable incident, on board a BA flight to Malaga with 81 passengers, a badly-fitted windscreen panel failed, sucking the captain, Tim Lancaster, halfway out of the cockpit. His head and torso were outdoors – at 17,300 feet and being battered by 300mph winds – while his legs remained inside, with flight attendants gripping him tightly.

The flight deck door was blown off, blocking the throttle control and causing the plane to accelerate towards the ground. Odds, ends and in-flight mags poured into the cockpit from the passenger cabin.

With insufficient oxygen masks for those on board, co-pilot Alastair Atchison, who was also helping hold Lancaster inside the aircraft, made a rapid emergency descent and searched for the nearest airport. However, due to the sound of rushing air, he could not hear air traffic control. He eventually landed safely in Southampton, where Lancaster was treated for frostbite, shock and a broken arm. Nevertheless, he was back at work in less than five months.

5. The Windsor incident

June 12, 1972

American Airlines Flight 96 from LA to New York ran into trouble soon after a stopover in Detroit, when the rear cargo door suddenly broke off. The subsequent explosive decompression saw part of the floor at the rear of the cabin give way, severing a control cable and disabling one of the engines. Captain Bryce McCormick, who initially believed the plane had suffered a mid-air collision, declared an emergency, while flight attendants took oxygen to passengers (masks did not deploy because the plane was below the 14,000ft limit). The plane returned to Detroit, and – despite being forced to land dangerously fast – McCormick touched down safely.

6. The Gimli Glider

July 23, 1983

While cruising at 41,000 feet, halfway through a flight from Montreal to Edmonton, Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of juice – due to, shockingly, a refuelling miscalculation caused by a recent switch to the metric system. The problem had not been spotted earlier because of an electronic fault on the aircraft’s instrument panel, and the plane lost all power. Luckily, Captain Bob Pearson was an experienced glider pilot, guiding the 767 to RCAF Station Gimli. The landing was hard and fast – Pearson had to brake so hard he blew two tyres, while the aircraft’s nose fell off, starting a small fire – but all 61 on board survived unharmed.

7. Aloha Flight 243

April 28, 1988

In 1988, a 737 flown by Aloha Airlines, with 90 people on board, was en route to Honolulu, cruising at an altitude of 24,000 feet, when a small section of the roof ruptured. The resulting explosive decompression tore off a larger section of the roof, and a 57-year-old flight attendant called Clarabelle Lansing was swept from her seat and out of the hole in the aircraft. Fortunately, all other passengers were belted up, and the pilot – Robert Schornstheimer – managed to land 13 minutes later, avoiding further loss of life.

An Aloha Airlines jet
An Aloha Airlines jet - Getty

8. 62 feet from disaster

October 11, 2016

A China Eastern Airlines pilot was labelled a hero in 2016, and presented with a cash reward, after his quick thinking avoided a runway collision that could have killed up to 439 people.

According to Chinese media, the pilot, named He Chao, was at the helm of an Airbus A320-200, preparing to take off from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport. As his aircraft was accelerating down the runway, however, a second China Eastern Airlines plane – an Airbus A330-300 arriving from Beijing – entered its path. The pilot chose to continue to accelerate and performed a steep take-off, avoiding a collision by just 19 metres (62 feet). Reports suggested there were a total of 413 passengers and 26 crew on board the two planes.

An investigation found that air traffic control was to blame, and while Mr He was rewarded for his actions with a cash bonus equivalent to around £360,000, two air traffic controllers had their licenses revoked.

The near-miss was compared to the 1977 Tenerife Airport disaster, the deadliest aviation accident of all time, in which 583 people were killed after two Boeing 747s collided on the runway.

China Eastern Airlines was involved in a near-miss in 2016
China Eastern Airlines was involved in a near-miss in 2016 - Getty

9. Cathay Pacific Flight 780

April 13, 2010

In a similar incident to BA Flight 38, a Cathay Pacific service from Surabaya Juanda International Airport in Indonesia suddenly lost the ability to change thrust as it neared Hong Kong, landing at almost twice the recommended speed. Pilots Malcolm Waters and David Hayhoe were given the Polaris Award – from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations – for their heroism.

10. Saving a superjumbo

November 4, 2010

The captain of this Qantas flight – Richard Champion de Crespigny – was also given a Polaris Award. Engine number 2 exploded over Indonesia, damaging a wing and causing a fuel tank fire, forcing the plane, an A380 with 469 people on board, to make an emergency landing in Singapore. It blew four tyres when it landed, but no one was hurt.

A Qantas A380
A Qantas A380 - Getty

11. Saving Leeds United

March 30, 1998

Captain John Hackett was praised in 1998 for averting disaster after his Emerald Airways jet, with the Leeds United football team on board, experienced an engine fire during take-off.

A total of 40 passengers, including 18 Leeds players, and four crew were on board the Hawker Siddeley 748 as it barrelled down the runway at Stansted Airport, bound for Leeds-Bradford. After leaving the ground, however, a turbine disc failure set the right engine alight and caused panic on board. Hackett took the unorthodox decision to immediately re-land at Stansted rather than climb away and touch down later. The plane was badly damaged, and stopped yards from the M11 motorway, but everyone on board survived – and Hackett was praised for defying protocol.

“Not a day goes by without it crossing my mind,” he told the BBC in 2018. “The whole night sky lit up. Our first thoughts were it was a bomb.”

“The commander’s decision to land the aircraft immediately on the runway remaining was sensible in the circumstances,” an Air Accidents Investigation Branch report concluded.

12. The Flybe captain whose arm fell off

February 12, 2014

We finish on a slightly comical note. Landing in gusty conditions is a minor inconvenience for any pilot. It’s a major hassle when your prosthetic arm has just fallen off. This is precisely what happened to one Flybe captain in 2014. Shortly before touchdown “his prosthetic limb became detached from the yoke clamp, depriving him of control of the aircraft,” said an Air Accidents Investigation Branch report.

The captain considered getting the co-pilot to take control but concluded that, given the time available and the challenging conditions, his best course of action was to move his right hand from the power levers on to the yoke to regain control. Fortunately the incident ended happily, with the 46-year-old landing safely.

The report went on: “He did this, but with power still applied and possibly a gust affecting the aircraft, a normal touchdown was followed by a bounce, from which the aircraft landed heavily.”

This story was first published in January 2019 and has been revised and updated.

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