10 horrifying incidents when flyers nearly met their end

The aircraft involved were narrowly saved, some of them as a result of the pilots' presence of mind, some by sheer chance, but none without divine intervention

(Cover image and video -- An engine of the United Airlines Flight 328 on fire. Image courtesy: Twitter/@MarcSallinger

A United Airlines Boeing 777-200 flying from Denver to Honolulu on February 20, 2021, escaped by the skin of its teeth after one of its engines caught fire. The plane made an emergency landing, and miraculously, no one was even injured. This gives us the context to look at some of the occasions when aircraft were narrowly saved, some of them as a result of the pilots' presence of mind, some by sheer chance, but none without divine intervention!    

Here are 10 times major air disasters were averted:

1. United Airlines Flight 328 

The flight mentioned earlier was almost at cruising altitude shortly after takeoff when there was a loud explosion along with a bright flash, AP reported. The plane, with 231 passengers and 10 crew members on board, started to shake violently and began losing altitude.

Part of the United Airlines Flight 328 engine that dropped near a home. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BroomfieldPD

Then the passengers seated next to the right engine saw something that sent a chill down their spine: orange flames were spewing from the engine.

Passengers held the hands of their loved ones and prayed with death looming large. One of the passengers David Delucia said he and his wife put their wallets containing driver's licences in their pockets so that they could be identified in the event of a crash.

Debris from United Airlines Flight 328 recovered from the ground. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BroomfieldPD

On the ground below, people ran for cover as pieces of the engine, both big and small, came raining down. According to a Washington Post report, debris was strewn at least a mile wide across residential areas.

Debris from United Airlines Flight 328. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BroomfieldPD

The raining pieces of metal crashed into a truck and narrowly missed a home. Photos posted by the police in Broomfield, Colorado showed big chunks of plane debris on the ground.

Also read -- Boeing's B737 Max: Tragic hero for some, untouchable for others

Incredibly, nobody was injured, let alone being killed, either on board the plane or on the ground. "It (the plane) just kind of kept going the way it was going as if nothing happened," an onlooker told CNN. The pilots and other crew members received rich applause for their composure and ensured that nobody panicked on board.

Parts of the United Airlines Flight 328 recovered from the ground. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BroomfieldPD

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched a probe into the incident.

According to aviation safety experts, the plane seemed to have suffered an uncontained and catastrophic engine failure, AP reported. Such an event is rare but occurs when huge spinning discs inside the engine fail and breach the armoured casing around the engine designed to contain the damage, said aviation safety expert John Cox.

Part of the United Airlines Flight 328 engine on the ground. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BroomfieldPD

The plane flew on two Pratt and Whitney 4000-112 engines. United Airlines announced that it would temporarily ground all 24 of its Boeing 777 aircraft powered by this engine model after the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) called for “stepped-up” inspections. The airline also has 28 B777 planes with that engine in storage, according to a Business Insider report.

Also, Boeing has asked airlines around the world to ground their B777s with PW-4000-112 engines until further orders from the FAA. 

2. A320 nearly flies into four parked planes

On July 7, 2017, the San Francisco airport avoided being the scene of one of the worst air disasters in history by a whisker when an Air Canada Airbus A320 nearly landed on a taxiway where four other aircraft were waiting to take off.

Air Canada Flight A759, with 140 people on board, was cleared to land on Runway 28R that ran parallel to Taxiway C just before midnight.

The pilot had apparently mistaken the taxiway for the runway. The pilot had, in fact, mentioned to the air traffic control (ATC) that he saw some lights on the 'runway', apparently alluding to the planes on the taxiway.

The ATC replied that the runway was clear for landing. However, sensing that the pilot had set course for the taxiway, instead of the runway, the ATC ordered a go-around. The aircraft then made a second approach and landed safely.

"If you could imagine an Airbus colliding with four passenger aircraft widebodies, full of fuel and passengers, then you can imagine how horrific this could have been," Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines captain, was quoted as saying by The Mercury News.

The lives of over 1,000 people in the five planes were at stake. According to Bruce Landsberg, Vice Chairman of the NTSB, only a few feet of separation prevented this incident from being one of the deadliest catastrophes in aviation history.

Also read: Air India A321 tail strike offers valuable lessons on psychology of surprise

The Air Canada plane descended to an altitude of 100 feet above ground level and overflew the first plane on the taxiway; it then dropped another 40 feet and overflew the second plane before starting to climb again, the NTSB report said.

This brought back memories of the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977 when a KLM Boeing 747 ploughed into a Pan Am Boeing 747 that was waiting for takeoff amid dense fog, resulting in the death of 583 people. This remains the worst air crash ever. 

3. Mid-air collision averted near India-Bangladesh border

In what could have been a repeat of the ghastly Charkhi-Dadri mid-air collision, two IndiGo planes nearly collided with each other mid-air at the border airspace of India and Bangladesh on November 1, 2018, India Today reported citing Airports Authority of India (AAI) sources. The disaster was averted by a mere 45 seconds, the report said.

One of the planes, en route from Guwahati to Kolkata was at 36,000 feet in Bangladeshi airspace and was asked by the ATC in Bangladesh to descend to 35,000 feet. However, another flight going to Guwahati from Chennai was already at 35,000 feet.

A broken piece of the engine of United Airlines Flight 328. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BroomfieldPD

The ATC in Kolkata sensed trouble and immediately asked the Guwahati-bound plane to make a right turn and move away from the descending Kolkata-bound plane.

Rules specify that the standard separation gap -- both vertical and lateral -- between two aircraft has to be at least 1,000 feet.

IndiGo said in a statement that both aircraft had sufficient horizontal and vertical separation within the regulatory requirements.

On November 12, 1996, a Boeing 747 operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines and an Ilyushin Il-76 operated by Kazakhstan Airlines collided over the village of Charkhi-Dadri, 100 km west of Delhi. None of the 349 people on board the two planes survived, making it the deadliest mid-air collision in aviation history and the worst air crash to occur in India.  

4. Plane window breaks after engine fails

In an incident roughly similar to that of United Airlines Flight 328, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 suffered contained engine failure during its journey from New York to Dallas on April 17, 2018.

Debris from the blown engine broke one of the windows of the plane and a passenger was partially sucked out at 32,000 feet over Philadelphia.

Co-passengers managed to yank the woman back inside, but could not save her as she died from blunt force impact trauma to the head, neck and torso, NBC Philadelphia reported.

Also read: How Indian GAGAN can be safer now than ever before

The Boeing 737-700, carrying 149 people started losing altitude by more than 3,000 feet per minute as it depressurised until the pilots levelled out around 10,000 feet.

The plane made an emergency landing at the Philadelphia International Airport. After the plane landed, firefighters doused it with fire-retardant foam to put out a fire and gas leak emanating from the engine. Seven people were reportedly injured in the incident.

5. Rabbits cause a near-collision

On February 24, 2017, a SpiceJet flight had to abort takeoff at the last minute to avoid colliding with an IndiGo flight that was yet to fully clear the runway at the Ahmedabad airport.

SpiceJet Flight SG-912 was asked to enter the backtrack runway and await departure clearance after the IndiGo flight vacated the runway.

SG-912 was cleared for takeoff after the IndiGo Flight 6E-166 that had landed in Ahmedabad from Bengaluru confirmed to the ATC that the airstrip had been cleared, Hindustan Times reported citing sources.

However, seconds later, the ATC noticed that 6E-166 had stopped on the exit taxi track and a portion of it was still on the runway. The ATC then instructed SG-912 to hold position.

According to the IndiGo statement, as its aircraft was exiting, the flight crew discovered some rabbits on the runway and stopped, with its nose on the taxiway and tail still on the runway. The airline, however, added that the two planes were "well separated".

The SpiceJet aircraft was carrying 142 passengers. IndiGo did not share the passenger numbers, according to the HT report.

6. Pilot cracks MCAS code on B737 Max

A day before the deadly Lion Air crash involving a Boeing 737 Max aircraft on October 29, 2018, that killed 189 people, an off-duty pilot of the same airline who happened to be riding in the cockpit of the same model of aircraft en route from Bali to Jakarta managed to pull off a miracle, according to a Bloomberg report.

The Boeing 737 Max that had the dangerous MCAS software Image courtesy: Boeing

The flight faced the same problem as the ill-fated Flight 610 the next day: the faulty Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software driving down the plane into a deadly plunge.

The MCAS is a safety system installed on the B737 Max to control the plane's tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines, according to a Live Mint report. It repeatedly shoves the nose of the plane down if the plane perceives it is in a stall.

The off-duty pilot advised the flight crew to cut power to the motor driving the nose of the B737 Max down. Following the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes within the space of a few months, the B737 Max was put under a lengthy ban.

7. Near collision over Kolkata          

On October 15, 2018, the lives of 350 flyers were in grave danger as an IndiGo and an AirAsia plane approached each other mid-air.

The IndiGo plane from Kolkata to Bagdogra was asked by the ATC to hold at 29,000 feet, while the AirAsia aircraft from Bagdogra to Kolkata was asked to climb down to the same level, according to an Economic Times report.

The two planes were merely around 200 feet away from each other when the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) was triggered.

Also read: Plane departing Heathrow airport haunted by mysterious flying object

The automatic warning system alerted the pilots of the risk of a possible collision. TCAS initiates a process by which one aircraft is asked to climb and the other is asked to descend to avoid a collision, and computers on board the aircraft take over control during such times. Two ATC officers were put off duty following the incident.   

8. Air India tail strike 

On February 15, 2020, an Air India Airbus A321 was involved in a tail strike as the aircraft tried to dodge a vehicle and a person on the runway at the time of takeoff, IANS reported.

The investigation report said that the vehicle was at a distance of about 1 km, but at a speed of nearly 200 kmph, the pilot possibly could not ascertain the distance of the vehicle.

The flight crew decided to perform an early rotation. In aviation jargon, rotation refers to applying back pressure to a control device, such as a yoke, side-stick or centre stick, for lifting the nose wheel of the plane off the ground during takeoff.

However, in an attempt to get airborne earlier than planned, the aircraft scraped the runway. Miraculously, the flight landed safely at Delhi, but after landing, it was discovered that the fuselage skin and frames were damaged.

9. Lucky escape for Oman Air flight

In June 2013, 106 people on board an Oman Air flight from Muscat to Salalah had a close shave after the cockpit window was damaged shortly after takeoff, Gulf News reported. The airline said that oxygen masks were deployed as a precautionary measure, but were not needed as there was no loss of pressurisation. All the people aboard the Boeing 737-800 returned to Muscat safely.

10. PIA plane crash lands 

In 2013, a Boeing 737 of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), with over 100 passengers on board, crash-landed in Oman's main airport in Muscat.

The plane got into trouble after its landing gear collapsed, the flight safety director of the Muscat International Airport told the Times of Oman.

The Sialkot-Muscat flight tilted towards the left after crash landing and the landing gear (rear tyre) on the left of the plane appeared to have been broken. All the passengers and crew members were reported to be safe.