The twentieth century brought us the most technologically advanced way to travel en masse yet--airplanes.
Airplanes are nothing short of a miracle. By rising above the clouds, we get from point A to point B more quickly than we ever have in the past. But like most things, there are moments when this doesn't work as well as we want.
Sometimes it gets outright scary. Planes are very sensitive, and if even one thing goes wrong, it can really change a trip from quick and painless to frightening.
Here were some of those answers.
Ice Ice Baby
My mom was a flight attendant for U.S. Air before I was born, and I know her scary story.
She was exhausted at the tail end of a shift that had run longer than it should have because they got paused in Philly for nasty winter weather conditions. They were finally finished getting de-iced and about to start taxiing when one of the passengers called her over and told her that he'd been watching carefully and he didn't think they'd de-iced both wings of the plane, just one side. She sort of reassured him that she would go check but he was probably mistaken, and then even though she was really tempted to wave it off as just a jumpy passenger, she went to the pilot just to check.
Welp! Passenger was correct and the plane was only half de-iced when they were getting ready to leave. If they'd taken off like that, it probably would have been disastrous. Mom told me that even though it didn't happen in mid-air, it was her all-time scariest moment during her tenure as a flight attendant because she knows how close they came to a very dangerous situation and she knows that she almost didn't stop it from happening even when warned.
One time we were stuck between a thunderstorm and the Iranian border ended up having to fly through the thunderstorm. Another time we had a fire on board and a lot of the crew left their oxygen regulators on full blast while we were dealing with it. After about 45 minutes I realized we are almost completely out of liquid oxygen and had another 2 hours left to get home.
I was an aircraft electrician for the Army for a number of years. One of the first systems you learn about after getting to your unit is the APR-39. It's a radar/laser detection system that is integrated with other systems to tell crew if they are being tracked, when they have been "locked", and what direction incoming is actually coming from. All of this is related through a (archaic) display and the worst synthetic voice you have ever heard. Spent many days troubleshooting this system and never thought much of it, until I deployed for the first time. I volunteered to fly back-wall security for the MEDIVAC unit that I repaired birds for. MY FIRST FLIGHT we were on pick up from Kandahar to South of Pasab and passing through the mountains and I can hear that damn voice in my headset. Thought about nothing of it, even wondered why the crew chief was hanging out of his window looking aft of the bird. I didn't dawn on me till after we hit a very steep left dive, aaaaand the chaff and flares firing from our the right that we had just been locked and fired at.... Genuinely scared the crap out of me.
Sudden Twists And Turns
My dad is a captain at American Airlines. Won't tell me his worst flight because he doesn't want to freak me out. Fair.
As someone who has flown since before I can even remember, my worst was flying to Indianapolis from Orlando. It was July so basically that entire corridor was poppin with thunderstorms. We got put in a holding pattern over Indy for 2 hours then diverted to Louisville for fuel. Normal enough.
What's not normal is that in the half hour it takes to fly to Lville from Indy, a line of thunderstorms had popped up over Lville. We're coming in for approach and I can see the way the clouds look outside the plane. I'm a meteorology nerd and knew they meant wind shear in the area was starting to form.
As we came in to land, a gust of wind hit our plane almost knocking us sideways. Pilot pulled the throttle back so hard for a missed approach. So cool now we were back up in the thunderstorm filled sky. We are hitting severe turbulence at this point and people are praying, holding hands and crying.
The Captain brings us back around and absolutely plows it into the ground and basically said "eff your wind shear". I've never been so happy to get on the ground.
Going Down, Down
Not me - but I was on a flight at the same time. My collegues landed and said that mid flight a lightning bolt hit their plane making a massive noise and killing the power for a few moments. Everyone was screaming and crying in a total panic. Apparently it was THAT bad.
My colleague looks to the other and says "Well, we're both sales guys so I guess I'll see you in hell"
Rough In The Sky, Smooth On The Ground
I was flying a 737 on final approach five miles behind a 787 when we got into their wake turbulence. Aircraft banked left sharply then immediately went into very steep nose down right bank. I immediately corrected this attitude but for a quick second I thought it might go over a 90° bank angle. I have never fought that hard in an airliner to recover, but I recovered, and had the smoothest landing of my career.
Flying home from FL to NY. Scheduled to land at LaGuardia. Right after takeoff we could all hear the motor that retracts the landing gear straining. And the landing gear would not retract. When it finally did, everyone seemed relieved but I was thinking 'I hope it comes back down when it's time to land.' Lo and behold, about 1/2 hr before landing, the pilot announces that we were being diverted to JFK because of landing gear trouble.
We needed a longer runway to stop the plane. So now people are praying and biting their nails. We could hear the motor trying to bring the landing gear down for several minutes before it finally came down at almost the last minute. We land and the plane isn't slowing down. We hear all kinds of horrible sounds, smell smoke...people are now really freaking out. Plane stops after using up almost the whole runway. There were emergency trucks all over the sides of the runway, foamers..etc. Was never so happy to get off a plane!!
My scariest moment was after we got within 700 ft of landing. The pilots whipped the plane back up because of heavy winds and announced that we were diverting to a nearby city in another country.
It was a short flight to the other city, and it was bumpy so I was strapped in. A couple of other flight attendants were standing up though. All the sudden the entire cabin went bright white. Specifically I could tell that the light was entering the plane from the other side around the corner I couldn't really see behind. The flight attendants nearly jumped all the way to their seats and strapped in. There was one passenger that I locked eyes with at one point. Her and I both both made this nervous smile at each other like, "Lets not die here!"
We did end up landing alright. It took 4 hours for us to get off the plane because of all the other planes that diverted there. They also told us the next day that we got hit by lightning at least 3 times. They could tell because of little pin pricks that the lightning makes when it hits the plane.
By the way, I still feel so much safer in a plane than almost any other mode of transportation. The statistics don't lie. The regulations and redundancy on safety measures are unparalleled.
Hit crazy turbulence in a prop plane flying into Saginaw from Detroit. Plane was all over the air like a roller-coaster.. Up down, side to side, I swear I thought it was gonna barrel roll at one point. Seemed to never end, but was probably only really a few minutes. Time kinda slowed down. My girlfriend and I were the only two people on the plane who weren't Marines going to some Marine thing. Those guys were cracking some pretty dark jokes while I contemplated my time on earth.
The Limit Does Not Exist
I recall being in a very small plane trying to land at John Wayne International during a storm. No door between cockpit and passengers or at least it wasn't closed. There was turbulence but nothing as dramatic as some of the other stories here. Listening to the cockpit crew arguing with ground control over the flight path was not comforting. I think we were approaching the end limit for flights and ground control wanted them to approach by going more over the ocean. Neither I nor the crew cared for that too much.