The 10 Greatest Emergency Landings

An Airbus A300 crash lands at Baghdad International Airport after sustaining a hit from a shoulder-fired missile (Department of Defense).
An Airbus A300 crash lands at Baghdad International Airport after sustaining a hit from a shoulder-fired missile (Department of Defense).

‘Ever since the beginning of flight, pilots have been taught to keep in some small corner of their aviator’s toolbox the thought that maybe, just maybe, something will someday require them to land in a way and at a place not of their choosing’

US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s remarkable ditching of his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River is undoubtedly the most famous forced landing of all time. But ever since the beginning of flight, pilots have been taught to constantly keep in some small com­partment of their aviator’s toolbox the thought that maybe, just maybe, something will someday require them to land in a way and at a place not of their choosing. Fixed-wing pilots even practice it, though unless an actual runway is available it’s a kind of emergency interruptus exercise, never carried to its conclusion. (Helicopter pilots practice autorotations to the ground, an adrenaline-pumping maneuver.)

Here are Aviation History’s nominations for the best-ever airplane emergency landings, big and small, heroic and embarrassing, skillful and just plain lucky.

Navajo Save

On a late afternoon in June 1993, air taxi pilot Edward Wyer, a 45-year-old ex-RAF Tornado pilot, took off from Birmingham, England, on a flight to Norwich, about 130 miles due east. Aboard were seven passengers—a load that, in his eight-seat Piper Navajo, made even a low-rent charter airliner seem spacious. The two back-row fares sat with their knees in their faces, and Wyer had a traveler next to him in what normally would have been the copilot’s seat.

Some 40 miles west of Norwich, as Wyer slowly reduced power to begin his descent, there was a huge bang, the airplane shook like a soggy Labrador and both engines went silent.

The right engine, in fact, went away—tore itself from its mounts and fell off. It had shed one of its three prop blades, and the huge rotating imbalance ripped the engine loose. Nor was that the only damage done by the big aluminum blade. Flung with incredible force through the Navajo’s nose, it flew out the other side and into the left engine’s prop, killing that engine.

Meanwhile, the sudden asymmetry had snapped the Piper into a tight spin to the right, which Wyer managed to correct after only two turns—nice work even if you’re fully prepared for a practice spin in an intact airplane. Wyer tried his best to reach a satisfactory glide angle, but at anything less than a steep descent at 130 knots, the airplane began to roll uncontrollably.

Coming down fast, Wyer spotted an open field to his left and without hesitation turned toward it, even though the approach path was complicated by powerlines. It took two hands on the yoke and all his strength to manage the airplane, so there was no way Wyer could hand-pump the flaps and landing gear down with the emergency handle, but he managed to get over the wires and put the Navajo down on its belly so gently that the sole injury was to a passenger who later claimed whiplash.

Accident investigators were able to verify the exact place where the Navajo’s tail had first brushed a tall stand of crops, and the neatly cut swath showed that the airplane had sunk inch by inch over a 2,300-foot flare and slid a smooth 460 feet after ground contact.

Snapped Wing Spar

While practicing for the 1970 world aerobatic flyoff, British champion Neil Williams felt the wing spar of his Zlin 526 suddenly fail during a pullout from a vertical dive. As he instinctively closed the throttle and tried to level off, Williams realized that the left wing was folded at nearly a 45-degree angle to the fuselage, severed at the root but still somehow held in place.

Sure that he was about to die, Williams flashed back to a Bulgarian Zlin pilot who’d snapped an upper wing bolt while flying inverted. When that airplane flick-rolled upright in reaction to the suddenly askew spar, the wing flopped back into position under positive Gs and held until the stunned pilot landed. Williams figured that if he’d had the opposite failure upright, maybe he could invert the Zlin and hold the wing in place with negative Gs long enough to at worst crash-land inverted, perhaps into trees to cushion the impact.

With the airplane on its back and the broken wing indeed maintaining a tenuous connection, Williams now had another problem: The Zlin’s engine died. He’d inadvertently jostled the fuel cock closed during the confusion, but he got the engine restarted, remembering to select the correct tank for inverted flight.

The airfield from which he’d departed, RAF Hullavington, was now nearby, and his ground crew had already summoned crash trucks, so Williams decided to land there. He flew the pattern and final approach inverted and at the last possible moment rolled the Zlin upright and flopped onto the ground just as the left wing totally failed.

At the last possible moment? Consider this: The Zlin’s left wingtip briefly furrowed the airstrip grass for six yards while the airplane rolled from inverted to level, yet never broke the plastic cover of the wingtip nav light.

The Gimli Glider

When the pilots of Air Canada Flight 143 heard a deep “BONG” in the cockpit on July 23, 1983, it was a warning bell they’d never heard before, even during simulated training emergencies. No wonder: The sound signified that both engines were out of fuel, an inconceivable situation for a state-of-the-art Boeing 767-200 placidly en route from Montreal to Edmonton, Canada.

The chain of events that led to this stunning situation included an inoperative fuel-quantity indicating system and a top-off in Montreal done in metric units of jet fuel that the crew assumed were gallons. That was the bad news. The good news was that Captain Robert Pear­son was a sailplane pilot, and he quickly came up with what he figured was the 767’s best glide speed for maximum distance and turned toward Winnipeg, which seemed within range. Even more fortuitous was that 1st Officer Maurice Quintal had been stationed at a base called Gimli when he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Gimli was even closer than Winnipeg. Quintal proposed Gimli as an option. He wasn’t aware, however, that Gimli RCAFB had become Gimli Industrial Park Airport, a casual general aviation field that had converted one of its two runways into a dragstrip.

Without power except from a ram-air turbine (RAT) emergency hydraulic unit, the 767’s glass-cockpit instrument panel was totally dark, with only a few small backup gauges to provide basic speed, altitude and heading information. And as the airplane slowed to approach speed, the RAT put out less power and the hydraulically operated controls became harder to move.

With Pearson flying, Quintal put the landing-gear handle down on approach to Gimli’s east/west runway. It turned out to be the deactivated one, that day hosting an autocross and covered with sports cars, RVs, campers, drivers and spectators. With no power, the main wheels free-fell into place, but the nose-gear strut never locked down.

Pearson realized that he was too high and kicked the big Boeing into a substantial, cross-controlled sideslip to lose altitude. It was a technique to which he was accustomed in gliders but a sporty maneuver in a 95-ton sweptwing jet. The 767 touched down hard and then experienced the final fortunate circumstance of the day: While racers scattered in every direction and Pearson braked like a Corvette driver staring at a hairpin turn, the nose-gear strut collapsed, and the 767’s nose ground the airplane to a halt just short of the carnage it might have created while rolling.

The only injuries among the 61 passengers were a few minor ones suffered during the inflatable slide evacuation.

Piggyback Ansons

The Avro Anson, roughly the size of a Twin Beech, was a ubiquitous British Commonwealth twin-engine trainer during World War II, but it was hardly so common that two identical Ansons might collide in the vast, cloudless sky over New South Wales, Australia, on September 29, 1940. Yet not only did they collide, they did so gently enough, while flying in exactly the same direction at the same altitude, that they created a large, four-engine biplane—forever to be known in Oz as the “Piggy­back Ansons.”

Royal Australian Air Force Leading Aircraftman Leonard Fuller was slowly descending to cruise at a lower altitude in his Anson Mk. I when he pancaked onto the Mk. I of LAC Jack Hew­son, who had been flying level, unseen directly below him. The mating was facilitated by the fact that Ansons had clumsy, hand-cranked retractable landing gear that took a numbing 140 turns to raise and another 140 to extend for landing. So if they weren’t in a hurry, Anson pilots like Fuller often simply left the gear down and accepted the 30-mph speed penalty. This meant that Fuller’s airplane essentially straddled Hewson’s, its wheels sitting atop Hewson’s wings.

Hewson, stunned but survival-minded, firewalled his two throttles, locked the yoke for level flight with his seatbelt, crawled out of the shattered cockpit side window and parachuted free. Fuller, meanwhile, found that he could actually fly the tandem, since all his flight controls were untouched and operable, and the two roaring, overboosted engines Hewson had left behind—plus Fuller’s still-running right engine—were adequate to keep the pair in the air.

While the Ansons descended through 500 feet to what Fuller hoped would be a controlled crash, the bottom airplane’s engines seized, one after the other, from the stress of a power setting meant to be maintained for only a few minutes during takeoff. The Anson duo sank rapidly, but as he approached a farm field, Fuller two-blocked his own right throttle and flared in ground effect, touching down so lightly—yes, Hewson had also left his landing gear down for the flight—that the only damage to the airplanes was from the midair. Hewson’s airplane was a write-off, but Fuller’s was easily repaired and flew on with the RAAF for another seven years.

The Show Must Go On

RAF Flight Lt. William Reid was the lone pilot of an Avro Lancaster on the way to Dusseldorf with a load of bombs on the night of November 3, 1943. Barely halfway to the target and just past the Dutch coast, Reid took a burst through his windscreen from a Messerschmitt Me-110G night fighter and was hit in the shoulders and hands, his head raked by splinters of sharp Perspex. The attack had also damaged the elevator trim and left the Lanc without compasses. A lesser man would have done a 180 and headed home, but Reid soldiered on. (Unlike U.S. heavy bombers, Lancasters were single-pilot airplanes without dual controls. The flight engineer sat where a copilot normally would, on a seat that folded to provide access to the bombardier’s compartment.)

A Focke Wulf Fw-190 “Wilde Sau” night fighter found them soon thereafter and did worse damage, killing the navigator, mortally wounding the radio operator and disabling the airplane’s oxygen system. Reid was hit again, but the flight engineer, despite a bullet through one arm, was able to bring him a portable O2 bottle. They were still nearly an hour from the target, but Reid managed to dead-reckon to Dusseldorf so precisely that the automatic strike camera later showed their bombs dead on target. Only the engineer was aware of how grievously wounded the pilot was; Reid had said nothing on the intercom.

Weak from spilled blood, Reid set a course for home by the North Star and the moon. The oxygen bottle was empty, and the shattered windscreen bathed him in a 215-mph blast of bitter November air. Somehow the flight engineer helped to keep the semi-controllable Lanc on course, through the inevitable flak barrages along the Dutch coast and across the North Sea to the flatlands of Norfolk. With the USAAF base at Shipdham in sight, a tenacious Reid, blood from his freshly opened head wounds obscuring his vision, was roused to make the night landing between two rows of runway lights barely glimmering through ground fog. The Avro settled to earth heavily but safely even though the damaged legs of the one main gear gave way.

For his airmanship, courage and devotion to duty, Bill Reid was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Into the Rain Forest

There are times when pilots will become heroes, if only briefly, for safely extracting themselves and their passengers from bad situations of their own making, and so it was for the crew of Brazilian airline Varig’s Flight 254 on September 3, 1989.

It had been a long day for the crew of the Boeing 737. The airplane had taken off from São Paulo in the morning and flown north most of the length of Brazil, with half a dozen stops en route, when they reached Maraba, about 200 miles south of their final destination, Belém. At 5:30 p.m., they prepared to again take off. Captain César Garcez glanced at the printed flight plan and saw that the course to Belém was “0270.” That meant a heading of 027.0 degrees—north-northeast. Yet Garcez incomprehensibly read it as 270 degrees—due west, straight into one of the least-inhabited parts of Brazil, the
jungles of the northern Mato Grosso. It was an act akin to a pilot bound from San Francisco to Seattle instead pointing his airplane at Hawaii.

By the time the two crewmen realized their error—Garcez’s copilot, Nilson de Souza Zille, unquestioningly accepted the captain’s course—they were too low on fuel to save themselves. At 8:40, more than two hours after they were due in Belém, Garcez radioed air traffic control that he would be landing in the rain forest, though he still had no idea where. Garcez flew on until he’d emptied the Boeing’s fuel tanks, since there was no way to dump fuel and he wanted to land with the least possible risk of fire. When the engines finally sighed to a stop, Garcez was unable to extend more than a minimal amount of flaps, with hy­draulic power fast fading, and could barely make out the horizon from the light of faraway fires. He had no cockpit lights and few working instruments, yet he managed to flare the 737 into the tops of rain forest trees as high as an 18-story building. As the Boeing found the ground, its wings tore off and it quickly slid to a stop. Thirteen people died, but 41 survived. The crewmen were briefly lauded for their skill…until it became obvious why they’d needed it.

When Throttles Are Your Only Flight Control

It’s widely agreed among air transport pilots that the safe touchdown of a near-uncontrollable Airbus A300 at Baghdad International Air­port on November 22, 2003—after it was hit by a shoulder-fired missile—qualifies as one of the most remarkable emergency landings of all time. The A300, a DHL cargo flight, had totally lost all three of its hydraulic systems within a minute of the missile strike at 8,000 feet on climb out, which meant that its ailerons, spoilers, elevators, rudder and flaps were immovable. It was also rapidly leaking fuel and on fire, a blaze that, it has been estimated, would have burned through the left wing’s main spar had the flight lasted just eight minutes longer.

Not long before the incident, Captain Eric Gennotte had attended a flight safety seminar where he heard a presentation by retired United pilot Al Haynes, who had suffered a similar total hydraulic failure in a DC-10 near Sioux City, Iowa. Haynes and his crew had figured out how to “thrust vector” to steer the airplane—power increased on one wing engine or the other for yaw control, power forward or back evenly on both to climb or descend—and it was a lesson that Gennotte filed away for future reference.

Flight Engineer Mario Rofail played a huge part in the save as well, as did 1st Officer Steeve Michielsen. Fuel had flooded out of the big left outboard wing tank, and the left inboard tank was leaking rapidly. Rofail had to quickly and correctly crossfeed fuel from the right wing in a manner that wouldn’t add to the leakage but would feed the left engine; had that engine stopped even briefly, the sudden asymmetric thrust would have doomed the airplane.

As soon as the flight controls failed, the ’Bus began porpoising and rolling as much as 30 degrees left and right. Rofail immediately dropped the landing gear, which helped slow and stabilize the airplane. It took only 10 minutes or so for the pilots to work out their thrust-vectoring skills, and they initiated an approach back to Baghdad. In fact they had become good enough at controlling the airplane that when the approach went bad, they were able to climb away and line up with a different runway. This time they touched down successfully, though the airplane rolled off the runway into the dirt bordering it.

When the A300 had stopped and the crew evacuated the cockpit, they began to run from the scene, but crash crews stopped them. They were in the middle of an uncleared minefield.

On One Wing and a Prayer

On May 1, 1983, over the Negev Desert, Israeli Air Force pilot Zivi Nedivi was practicing air combat maneuvering with his big twin-engine F-15D Eagle, dogfighting a tricky A-4 Skyhawk that was playing the aggressor role. Unfortunately, the Skyhawk went inverted as Nedivi was descending through its altitude, and neither pilot could see the other. The ensuing collision tore off the F-15’s entire right wing—not just a piece of it but the complete wing from the root outward. (The A-4 was a fireball, but its pilot ejected successfully.) The F-15 immediately went nose-down and spun, and Nedivi told his back-seat instructor to prepare to eject.

Fortunately, Nedivi instinctively did the one thing that might save the airplane: He pushed the power levers through the afterburner gate, and the speed stabilized the half-an-airplane enough that he could actually control it.

The instructor urged ejection anyway, but Nedivi, who outranked him, refused; he thought he could land the airplane. “I probably would have ejected if I knew what actually had happened,” he later admitted, but a huge spray of fuel pouring out of the right wing root totally obscured where the wing would have been, and neither Nedivi nor his wingman could see that it was no longer there.

Nedivi flew the F-15 for some 10 minutes, back to the nearest IAF desert base, and there found that he needed to keep the approach speed at nearly 260 knots—fully twice the airplane’s normal landing speed—to forestall an uncontrollable roll. The F-15 touched down wings-level—make that wing-level—but was traveling so fast that when its emergency tailhook snagged a snubbing cable a third of a way down the runway, the hook simply tore off the fighter. Nedivi braked to a stop about 20 feet from the end of the 11,000-foot runway and turned in his seat to shake the instructor’s hand. It was the first time he could see that the right wing was gone. (Click here to see a video about the landing on YouTube.)

Nedivi reportedly was demoted for disobeying his instructor’s order to eject and immediately thereafter promoted for saving his airplane—which two months later was repaired and flying again.

“Fill Her Up”

On an early spring Saturday in 1975, professional aerobatic and movie pilot J.W. “Corkey” Fornof was flying a Bede BD-5J, a tiny, single-seat microjet, to a NASA gathering of space shuttle subcontractors in Washington, D.C., where the airplane was to be displayed. Level at 11,500 feet over North Carolina, Fornof suddenly lost all oil pressure on the watermelon-size French TRS-18 turbojet that powered the airplane. He shut down the engine and glided toward the solid cloud layer below him—a spunky move, since he couldn’t be sure what was below it.

Fortunately, Fornof broke out of the undercast about 800 feet above a thick pine forest, saw Interstate 95 several miles to the west and was able to line up with the highway for a landing. He skimmed over a Mayflower moving van and briefly considered landing atop it, since traffic was heavy, “but I had a Road Runner cartoon vision of coming to an overpass and figured that wasn’t a good idea,” he recalled. Fornof still had plenty of speed, and he remembers gliding past a Cadillac—“they waved at me”—and coming up behind a pickup towing a boat. “I came up abeam the driver and motioned that I wanted to slide in ahead of them, and the guy simply slowed down and motioned me past. I don’t know what he was smokin’, but he was cool as could be.”

Fornof touched down gently, crested a hill and rolled down the other side to an off-ramp. At the bottom of the exit was a mini-mall and a Sunoco gas station, so Fornof used the last of the Bede’s momentum to roll up to the pump island, activating the little rubber ding-ding hose in the process. The station attendant was leaning against the doorway, and, said Fornof, “We stared at each other a good 15 seconds, and he spit out his chaw and said, ‘Is this Candid Camera?’”

Corkey flew a BD-5J in the James Bond film Octopussy, in which his most spectacular stunt was flying the microjet through a hangar—in one door and out the other end—but the highway landing experience was also worked into the plot: Bond (Roger Moore) runs out of fuel in the Bede, lands on a rural two-lane and rolls into a gas station, where he tells the slack-jawed attendant to “Fill her up, please.”


Canadian 2nd Lt. Alan McLeod was just 18 years old when he was awarded the Victoria Cross during World War I for a heroic crash-landing that he performed while standing on the wing of his Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 single-engine bomber. Licked by flames from its burning gas tank, wounded five times by attacking Fokker Dr.I triplanes, he maneuvered the F.K.8 so the fire streamed clear of his also-wounded rear gunner. He managed to crash-land the airplane near enough to British lines that he was able to crawl to safety, dragging his gunner along with him.

McLeod had tried to join the military when he was 14 and was finally accepted at 17. He soloed in five days and earned his wings in less than two months. During his brief time in combat, he shot down one German observation balloon and had several dogfights with German fighters—quite an accomplishment in a bomber/recon­naissance plane.

On March 27, 1918, McLeod and his observer, Lieutenant A.W. Hammond, were about to bomb a German artillery battery when they were attacked by a Fokker Dr.I that Hammond, with the help of McLeod’s maneuvering, subsequently shot down, only to be attacked by seven more triplanes. Hammond downed two more before a bullet pierced his fuel tank, setting the big plane ablaze.

McLeod’s VC citation claims that he “climbed out onto the left bottom [wing], and by sideslipping steeply kept the flames to one side, thus enabling the observer to continue firing until the ground was reached.” And so the legend has come down to us, though pilots who hear it realize that a sideslip is impossible without the use of the rudder controls, which McLeod couldn’t have reached from his position on the wing.

Perhaps McLeod cross-controlled the bomber into a slip while he was still in the cockpit. Then, when he climbed onto the wing, the stiff, primitive controls might have held the right-rudder deflection. Whatever the case, the young Canadian flew the airplane from outside the cockpit so competently that both he and Hammond survived the controlled crash.

Nor is this the only case of a perambulating World War I pilot. During a wild dogfight on September 5, 1918, New Zealander Keith Caldwell found himself with a barely controllable S.E.5a after a midair collision with one of his RAF squadron mates. As he neared the ground, Caldwell climbed out of the cockpit onto the left wing, held a cabane strut with his left hand and worked the control column with his right, hoping to jump off just before the airplane crashed. Skimming over the British trenches, he leapt clear, made a few somersaults on the ground and ended up in a trench, where he politely asked to use the telephone. Caldwell survived the conflict and indeed remained with the RNZAF through World War II.

Frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson’s sole “emergency” landing in 3,000-plus hours in the pilot’s seat was soon after a night takeoff from Westchester County en route to Kennedy Airport in a Cessna 310 twin. Noting oil streaming from one of the nacelles (the result of an improperly secured oil cap), he requested a straight-in approach at JFK, only to be told, “Ah, wouldn’t it be better to go back to White Plains, which I show just four miles behind you?” “Duh,” comments Wilkinson, “I was about to fly across Long Island Sound with a failing engine.” The return and landing were uneventful, but he notes, “I know well that I would be a terrible pilot in an emergency. I tend to get tunnel-vision and go to a state of immediate stupidity.”


13 Responses

  1. Ricfk French

    All time emergency landing is Apollo 13 it seems to me.

    • Stu

      We’re talking real events here though, not made-up stuff.

      • Russ

        You realize the movie was based on the actual event, don’t you?

  2. Alex

    Good list – but some notable incidents are missing from this list that certainly deserve to be on it. Therefore these are my honorable mentions (in order) –

    United 811 – off Honolulu, HI – 1989 – 747-100 loses cargo door over Pacific at FL240. Nobody knows how Capt. Cronin & crew were able to get this bird down – every time the accident was recreated in the simulator – the plane was lost.

    American 96 – Detroit, MI – 1972 – DC-10 loses cargo door and partial flight controls. This accident preceeded the grusome THY-981. Capt. McCormick & crew were able to land this bird with no elevator or rudder controls.

    Air Transat 236 – Azores – 2001 – This was a modern day Gimli Glider, when an A330 ran out of fuel at FL390. However Capt. Piche & crew were facing the same challenge over the ocean, with a larger, more complex aircraft. They also accomplished the longest glide by a commercial airliner in history.

  3. zach

    i think that all the people who were in the accidents acted bravley and they were not afraid to die or get seriously hurt. the best story was the Air Bus crash and the crew found out that they landed in a mine field. The crews of these planes did things thta mnost poeple would not have doen, they gave thier lives to save others.

  4. Richard kilgore

    Piggyback Hero
    by Ralph Kinney Bennett

    Tomorrow morning they’ll lay the remains of Glenn Rojohn to rest in
    the Peace Lutheran Cemetery in the little town of Greenock, Pa., just
    southeast of Pittsburgh. He was 81, and had been in the air
    conditioning and plumbing business in nearby McKeesport. If you had
    seen him on the street hewould probably have looked to you like so
    many other graying, bespectacled old World War II veterans whose
    names appear so often now on obituary pages.

    But like so many of them, though he seldom talked about it, he could
    have told you one hell of a story. He won the Distinguished Flying
    Cross and the Purple Heart all in one fell swoop in the skies over
    Germany on December 31, 1944.

    Fell swoop indeed.

    Capt. Glenn Rojohn, of the 8th Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, was
    flying his B-17G Flying Fortress bomber on a raid over Hamburg. His
    formation had braved heavy flak to drop their bombs, then turned 180
    degrees to head out over the North Sea.

    They had finally turned northwest, headed back to England, when they
    were jumped by German fighters at 22,000 feet. The Messerschmitt
    Me-109s pressed their attack so closely that Capt. Rojohn could see
    the faces of the German pilots.

    He and other pilots fought to remain in formation so they could use
    each other’s guns to defend the group. Rojohn saw a B-17 ahead of him
    burst into flames and slide sickeningly toward the earth. He gunned
    his ship forward to fill in the gap.

    He felt a huge impact. The big bomber shuddered, felt suddenly very
    heavy and began losing altitude. Rojohn grasped almost immediately
    that he had collided with another plane. A B-17 below him, piloted by
    Lt. William G. McNab, had slammed the top of its fuselage into the
    bottom of Rojohn’s.
    The top turret gun of McNab’s plane was now locked in the belly of
    Rojohn’s plane and the ball turret in the belly of Rojohn’s had
    smashed through the top of McNab’s. The two bombers were almost
    perfectly aligned – the tail of the lower plane was slightly to the
    left of Rojohn’s tailpiece. They were stuck together, as a crewman
    later recalled, “like mating dragon flies.”

    No one will ever know exactly how it happened. Perhaps both pilots
    had moved instinctively to fill the same gap in formation. Perhaps
    McNab’s plane had hit an air pocket.

    Three of the engines on the bottom plane were still running, as were
    all four of Rojohn’s. The fourth engine on the lower bomber was on
    fire and the flames were spreading to the rest of the aircraft. The
    two were losing altitude quickly. Rojohn tried several times to gun
    his engines and break free of the other plane. The two were
    inextricably locked together. Fearing a fire, Rojohn cuts his engines
    and rang the bailout bell. If his crew had any chance of parachuting,
    he had to keep the plane under control somehow.

    The ball turret, hanging below the belly of the B-17, was considered
    by many to be a death trap – the worst station on the bomber. In this
    case, both ball turrets figured in a swift and terrible drama of life
    and death. Staff Sgt. Edward L. Woodall, Jr., in the ball turret of
    the lower bomber, had felt the impact of the collision above him and
    saw shards of metal drop past him. Worse, he realized both electrical
    and hydraulic power was gone.

    Remembering escape drills, he grabbed the handcrank, released the
    clutch and cranked the turret and its guns until they were straight
    down, then turned and climbed out the back of the turret up into the

    Once inside the plane’s belly Woodall saw a chilling sight, the ball
    turret of the other bomber protruding through the top of the
    fuselage. In that turret, hopelessly trapped, was Staff Sgt. Joseph
    Russo. Several crewmembers on Rojohn’s plane tried frantically to
    crank Russo’s turret around so he could escape. But, jammed into the
    fuselage of the lower plane, the turret would not budge.

    Aware of his plight, but possibly unaware that his voice was going
    out over the intercom of his plane, Sgt. Russo began reciting his
    Hail Marys.

    Up in the cockpit, Capt. Rojohn and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William G.
    Leek, Jr., had propped their feet against the instrument panel so
    they could pull back on their controls with all their strength,
    trying to prevent their plane from going into a spinning dive that
    would prevent the crew from jumping out.

    Capt. Rojohn motioned left and the two managed to wheel the
    grotesque, collision-born hybrid of a plane back toward the German
    coast. Leek felt like he was intruding on Sgt. Russo as his prayers
    crackled over the radio, so he pulled off his flying helmet with its

    Rojohn, immediately grasping that crew could not exit from the
    bottom of his plane, ordered his top turret gunner and his radio
    operator, Tech Sgts. Orville Elkin and Edward G. Neuhaus, to make
    their way to the back of the fuselage and out the waist door behind
    the left wing.

    Then he got his navigator, 2nd Lt. Robert Washington, and his
    bombardier, Sgt. James Shirley to follow them. As Rojohn and Leek
    somehow held the plane steady, these four men, as well as waist gunner
    Sgt. Roy Little and tail gunner Staff Sgt. Francis Chase were able to
    bail out.

    Now the plane locked below them was aflame. Fire poured over
    Rojohn’s left wing. He could feel the heat from the plane below and
    hear the sound of .50 caliber machinegun ammunition “cooking off” in
    the flames.

    Capt. Rojohn ordered Lieut. Leek to bail out. Leek knew that without
    him helping keep the controls back, the plane would drop in a flaming
    spiral and the centrifugal force would prevent Rojohn from bailing. He
    refused the order.

    Meanwhile, German soldiers and civilians on the ground that
    afternoon looked up in wonder. Some of them thought they were seeing a
    new Allied secret weapon – a strange eight-engined double bomber. But
    anti-aircraft gunners on the North Sea coastal island of Wangerooge
    had seen the collision. A German battery captain wrote in his logbook
    at 12:47 p.m.:

    “Two fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew
    hooked together and flew 20 miles south. The two planes were unable to
    fight anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped the firing at
    these two planes.”

    Suspended in his parachute in the cold December sky, Bob Washington
    watched with deadly fascination as the mated bombers, trailing black
    smoke, fell to earth about three miles away, their downward trip
    ending in an ugly boiling blossom of fire.

    In the cockpit Rojohn and Leek held grimly to the controls trying to
    ride a falling rock. Leek tersely recalled, “The ground came up faster
    and faster. Praying was allowed. We gave it one last effort and
    slammed into the ground.”

    The McNab plane on the bottom exploded, vaulting the other B-17
    upward and forward. It hit the ground and slid along until its left
    wing slammed through a wooden building and the smoldering mass of
    aluminum came to a stop.

    Rojohn and Leek were still seated in their cockpit. The nose of the
    plane was relatively intact, but everything from the B-17’s massive
    wings back was destroyed. They looked at each other incredulously.
    Neither was badly injured.

    Movies have nothing on reality. Still perhaps in shock, Leek crawled
    out through a huge hole behind the cockpit, felt for the familiar pack
    in his uniform pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He placed it in his
    mouth and was about to light it. Then he noticed a young German
    soldier pointing a rifle at him. The soldier looked scared and
    annoyed. He grabbed the cigarette out of Leek’s mouth and pointed down
    to the gasoline pouring out over the wing from a ruptured fuel tank.

    Two of the six men who parachuted from Rojohn’s plane did not
    survive the jump. But the other four and, amazingly, four men from the
    other bomber, including ball turret gunner Woodall, survived. All were
    taken prisoner. Several of them were interrogated at length by the
    Germans until they were satisfied that what had crashed was not a new
    American secret weapon.

    Rojohn, typically, didn’t talk much about his Distinguished Flying
    Cross. Of Leek, he said, “In all fairness to my co-pilot, he’s the
    reason I’m alive today.”

  5. Chris K

    How can you mention Al Haynes and not put the United Flight 232’s Sioux City landing on the list? Simulator trials and probability calculations later put the odds at a billion to one that the DC-10 with all hydraulics out could be controlled and landed. Although the plane broke up on the runway and over one hundred were killed, Al Haynes, Denny Fitch and the rest of the crew (all of whom survived) beat the odds and saved 185 lives that day. Next to the landing on the Hudson, it’s the greatest feat of landing a crippled airliner in history.

  6. Heather

    I think it’s really cool that Al Haynes (and, arguably, his crew) would go on to save more lives, even after their skilled crash landing of 232. I learned about the DHL incident about a year ago, but I didn’t know about Genotte hearing about differential thrust from him until more recently.

    Here are two more incidents that deserve mention:

    1) World Airways (Flight # unknown): In 1975, prior to the beginning of Operation Babylift, Ed Daly decided that his airline would participate in the evacuation of refugees from Da Nang, and take them to Saigon. This was done without military support. When 727 pilot Ken Healy (?) came in for landing, the Da Nang airfield looked clear, but when the plane touched down, it was mobbed by civilians and soldiers desperate to escape on the plane. There were far more than would fit in the 727. The aircraft was chased and mobbed by the crowd, which contained armed soldiers that were supposed to help defend them. Instead, these soldiers tried to get on the plane themselves, hanging onto the rear stairs and some men actually shot and killed other people in their way. Ed Daly himself tried to block them from the stairs because he intended the flight for refugee women and children, but eventually he and the crew just had to yank them onboard, because it was clear no one else would get through them.

    Once the cabin was filled past capacity, the pilot wanted to take off, but the runway was blocked. So, with the plane loaded approx. 20,000lbs overweight, the 727 began its takeoff roll on the taxiway. Angry people left behind fired at the plane, severely damaging the wings and fuel tanks. Several people fell to their deaths hanging from the stairs, which wouldn’t close. The plane couldn’t pressurize because of that. Also, an additional 90 or so people had crammed themselves into the cargo hold, and about 20 or 30 had taken up residence in the wheel wells. Some fell to their deaths when Healy attempted to raise the gear, and one man’s body got jammed in the gear, so it couldn’t be retracted. Despite the fact that the flight was only supposed to take 50 minutes, it took 1.5 hours as the plane had to be flown below 10,000 feet, leaking fuel, with another World Airways jet flying alongside to assess the damage. Healy did manage to land the plane safely at Saigon. It was estimated that he carried approximately 330 people, on a plane that was only meant for a little over 100.

    2) Taca Flight 110: In 1988, Captain Carlos Dardano, a young but experienced pilot who only had one eye, suffered a dual engine flameout over New Orleans when his engines ingested too much rain and hail on descent. His engines did restart, but it was a hot start, and they had to be shut down to prevent an explosion. He was only a few thousand feet in the air when this happened. Unable to reach any airport, and unwilling to entertain the idea of killing many motorists by landing on a highway, he and his copilot were planning to ditch the 737 in the canal when they spotted the levee parallel to it. They lined up with the levee by side-slipping (much like Pearson in the Gimli Glider). Despite concerns that they would hit a concrete wall they passed over, or that they would slide off the edge of the slippery surface, or that they would overrun the relatively short levee, Dardano and First Officer Lopez managed a perfect landing, with none of the 40+ passengers being hurt. The plane was also undamaged, except for needing its engines repaired. Interestingly enough, they landed at the Michoud Facility, which featured an out-of-use runway that had been used in WW2. Reports on whether they landed on the runway or very close to it are unclear. However, the plane was in such good condition that it was flown off the levee via the old runway a few days later.

  7. Any pilots out there????

    […] the wing went up to vertical. Pilot flipped to inverted, and got back: Scroll down for the story. The 10 Greatest Emergency Landings If you pull a trigger, you have to pull together. -Me Hancock Ale & Quail Society (Legacy […]

  8. Cinik

    + capt. Rasmussen and Scandinavien Airlines Flight 911 – emergency landing with no engine on small clearing in wood, all 129 persons on board survived…

  9. Stavros Katsios

    Flight OA 411 which losing an engine during taking off turned back flying with a speed 158 m/h at an altitude of approx 50 m above the houses of Athens for approx 2000 m and managed to gain height (1200 feet) after reaching the sea and landed back safely at Elliniko Airport of Athens. Captain Sifis Migadis was the hero of this flight saving the passengers and thousands of Athenians. An astonishing flight which even Boeing hasn’t been able to explain or successful simulate.

  10. Stavros Katsios

    Flight OA 411 which losing an engine (exploded) of the Boeing jumbo jet during taking off turned back flying with a speed 158 m/h at an altitude of approx 50 m above the houses of Athens for approx 2000 m and managed to gain height (1200 feet) after reaching the sea and landed back safely at Elliniko Airport of Athens. Captain Sifis Migadis was the hero of this flight saving the passengers and thousands of Athenians. An astonishing flight which even Boeing hasn’t been able to explain or successful simulate.

  11. Erwin Schmidt

    In 1961 when 10 years old I was on a Lan Chile DC-6 from Panama to Miami. We had planed thrice and deplaned twice in Panama, as the first two times the Captain didn’t like the sound of the engines backfiring. The plane took off in darkness. An inboard engine blew up showering the cabin with parts in the middle of the Caribbean. Huge fire on the wing so fire extuingsher used on number two, but the fire didn’t go out so second and last bottle was used to put out the fire. Not long after, the other inboard engine blew up with flames everywhere but one extuingisher bottle put out the fire in number 3. Stewardess crew went over ditching procedures in Spanish, English, and then French. Well, that left us with number 1 and number 4 at which time number just 1 quit having been damaged by the number 2 explosion. An annoucement was made that we were straight-lining Miami and hoped to make it. Stewardess crew were terrified but began giving ditching procedures about every 20 minutes. Number 4 kept pulling us crablike along doing the best it could until we approached Cuba which wasn’t advisable in 1961. MIG 17s appeared off each wingtip so I waved at the pilot off the left side of our plane and he waved back. The MIGs rose up a little and were looking at each other discussing the situation. Cuba finally came within view and we were so low it looked huge. After clearing Cuba, the MIGs veered away and we were home free…..almost. Number 4 was still our favorite engine and it kept pulling all the way to Miami where dawn was just breaking. Many emergency craft with their beacons on were in the ocean near the runway and emergency vehicles on taxiway scaring everyone except my Mom who thought they were having a party. With number 4 still running wide open the plane struggled over each landing light and antenna gantry like a tired hurdler, pilot lowered the landing gear upon clearing last one. About a half second after the gear locked, we lit on the grass before the runway. Captain shut down number 4 and allowed us to rumble along on the grass until we bumped up over the foot of the runway, and we had arrived. Well, we all shook hands and thanked the Captain and Co-pilot for our lives and then got bussed to the terminal. Why had we flown Lan Chile….why because they had never had a crash. The Captain was not Sullified as I guess it was just another day at work for him.


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