Passengers generally only have to worry about turbulence on their flight, but sometimes (even if we don't want to admit it), other things can go wrong and flights can be in much more danger than you'd know.
Below are stories from pilots about things going horribly wrong on a flight, and how to the passengers never know what danger they were in.
I'm a bush pilot in Canada. I was working the right seat of a Turbo Otter, my first ever flight in one so I was still getting used to the setup. We were taking off from a short strip in the middle of nowhere with 6 drillers in the back and a bunch of gear. Captain started the engine as I was just finishing up the passenger briefing.
He started rolling down the runway as I was just getting seated. I thought he was just positioning the plane to prepare for takeoff, but then he gave it full throttle. I didn't even have my seat belt or headset on yet. I'm focusing on getting this stuff on when I realize something isn't right.
Getting closer to the end of the strip, captain starts to panic as we aren't getting airborne (his hands were shaking like mad and he kept reaching for things but he couldn't figure out what was wrong, I think he was too busy looking at the trees and creek right ahead of us). I realized the problem, he was in such a rush to leave that he didn't do a pre-takeoff check. Propeller was still in full coarse (feathered on shut down), it should have been full fine for takeoff. I yelled/gestured to him the problem and immediately pushed the prop forward, engine had a huge surge and we just barely cleared the trees at the end of the strip. He acted like nothing happened for the rest of the flight. We didn't even speak a single word to each other. I suspect none of the passengers even realized what had happened and how close we were to being another statistic. When we got back to the airport I told him I was leaving, packed my bags and never looked back.
I was giving my sister and a friend a tour of the Chicago skyline over Lake Michigan. We are all having a good time. Suddenly, the engine goes quiet... a nightmare especially because I only have one of them. The silence was noticeable and my sister starts looks at me and starts to panic. The engine comes back within about three seconds alive and well, and I head for the nearest airport.
In a small propeller plane, it is hard to hide the silence of the engine, but since it came back, I acted like nothing happened. I don't think they realize how critical of a situation it almost was.
It was a flight from Kansas to Oregon, and as we were mid-flight, a hawk dive-bombed the wing and DENTED it. The pilot announced the subtle thud as minor turbulence, but the crew knew what had happened. No one knew how the hell the hawk was flying so high. It was a smaller plane, so we only had one and a half dozen people. The dent didn't actually meds with flight too much, but it's a hell of a story to tell.
My favorite story was the time the heater went out in the cockpit but not in the rest of the plane. So the pilot and crew are up there freezing, putting all their clothes on trying to warm up. Instruments and whatnot are freezing up. They had no idea if they were going to be able to land.
Cockroach in the cockpit. Redeye from LAX. One of us was strapped in while the other one hunted for the little guy.
I was flying a Piper Navajo that seats 8 passengers out of a small airport, we were making all of our required radio calls, but because this was a small uncontrolled airport some people in small airplanes will operate without radios or just don't care enough to broadcast their position.
Anyways, we were doing our due diligence but not long after take off and while leaving the traffic pattern my flight operator says "Crap!" And takes control from me and make a relatively aggressive (for passengers at least) turn to the right. As he does this I see a another plane out my left window no more that 150 ft below us. We essentially climbed through the altitude he was cruising at and turned to avoid him. Only one passenger noticed when we got to the destination and he told us it was a "good move".
Getting ready to take off at night, my dad sees a plane about to land on the taxiway he's waiting on, he immediately just starts turning on every exterior light on the plane. Other plane pulled out of final descent at like 500 feet.
It's not that frequent and often times the errors that happen sound worse to the layman than they are. The two examples that came to mind with this question for me:
1) Flying into Spokane and the anti-ice failed. The anti ice is basically just some tubing that takes hot engine air and sends it to the front edge of the wing. Anyways, it was icy down to about 500 feet. We flew with the engines at 90% to generate enough hot air to keep the anti-ice going. Probably wouldn't have been bad enough icing to cause a crash.
2) Flying into Monterey, CA on Super Bowl Sunday. We were delayed and the airport had closed, meaning arrivals could only come from over the ocean. Winds were strong enough off the ocean to not allow us to land. Captain decides he wants to do a circling approach which is not a frequent occurrence but not unheard of. I veto it. Captain has never flown into Monterey but I advise him there are some decent rocky hills in the vicinity of airport. Captain is brand new and doesn't want to divert. I veto him. We go back to San Diego even though our alternate airport was Fresno. Requested priority due to fuel. Made it. Next day, flew to Monterey. Captain saw mountains. Profusely thanked me.
We wouldn't have died on that one either because I never would've let him do it. I guess if he had another First Officer the outcome could've been different.
My dad had a wasp in the cockpit with him once, he said his first thought when he noticed it right after taking off was, "Oh, so this is how I die."
As a child, my family and I spent a few days in the Bahamas and as we were at the outdoor airport/single runway we discovered that we were flying an 8-seater single prop plane back to Florida. The first time taxiing down the runway, the pilots discovered something was wrong with the engine so they pulled off to the side and made us sit next to the plane as they attempted to fix the engine. After being told that the plane was functioning again, we boarded and began to taxi down the runway again. I was watching the pilot and co pilot do their thing when I notice the airspeed indicator dropped to 0 as we were about to lift off. At this point we were running out of runway and I watched as the co-pilot jabbed the non working gauge with his palm and the gauge began to work again. The pilots then looked at each other, back at us, then back at each other before laughing.
As a kid, I flew in a small plane with my Air Force dad and his friend. We lived in Minot ND (big base there) and were flying sometime in winter. Later, I learned we had such a long joy flight that day because the landing gear froze up, and we were flying around trying to get them to come down. As we were almost out of fuel they were planning to crash land on the Frozen River... When in the nick of time the landing gear unfroze and deployed. I had no idea though... It was beautiful flying above a winter wonderland.
I used to do contract maintenance work on aircraft, and once a bunch of us were returning from a job in Germany. The plane was a scheduled flight on a small (50 seat or so) turbo-prop aircraft, and it was a BUMPY flight.
I am fairly well travelled, and working on aircraft made me more confident than most of flying, but the turbulence started to get so bad that I was getting nervous. Nobody except the flight crew were allowed to unfasten their seatbelts, and even they were being thrown about as they tried to move around. It was by far the worst flight I have been on.
So anyway, just as things were getting to the peak of crapiness, one of the stewardesses made her way to one of my colleagues sitting across the aisle, and said, in a hushed tone "Excuse me sir, is it true that you guys are aircraft engineers? We have a slight problem out the back, and thought you might be able to help".
I honestly thought we were going to die. That the bumpiness was not down to turbulence, but some flight system had gone AWOL. I didn't know what any of us would be able to do on unfamiliar equipment with no documentation, no spares and no tools, but sure enough my colleague went off with the stewardess and disappeared through the door out of the cabin.
10 minutes late he was back, and of course we were keen to know what the problem was and if he was able to do anything about it.
The "problem" turned out to be a ratchet strap on one of the cupboard doors in the galley was jammed so they couldn't get the snacks out! The flight continued to be horrible, and the snacks were predictably awful.
I wasn't the crew on either, but my medical helicopter service had two pretty severe bird strikes within several weeks of each other. One was a hawk of some kind and the second was a duck. The duck strike happened with a patient loaded, evidently just as the pilot was flipping his NVGs up. The duck came through the windscreen and went to smithereens along with all the plexiglass. I helped clean up the back of the helicopter later, and it looked like a duck had swallowed a bunch of lit dynamite. The strike also happened at the exact moment the med crew had pushed a medication that relaxes all the muscles in the patient's body (including breathing muscles), and in spite of the chaos they continued their procedure and successfully controlled the patient's airway. The pilot also continued the flight in spite of being covered in duck blood/guts/feathers, as well as his own blood from his broken nose. The crew (and the other birds strike crew) received commendations for their calm composure under the circumstances.
I used to do scenic flights out of a smaller airport. I had a total engine failure after takeoff one time in a single engine aircraft. Over the end of the runway the engine completely stopped. I was lucky enough to be at an airfield where I was able to make a small turn to land in a large enough field ahead. Once on the ground my foreign passengers (it was a 4 seater) casually asked "the flight is over already?"
It could have easily ended in total disaster.
Years ago, when dad was flying the 767 for Air Canada they were coming out of London Heathrow back to Canada in the winter time and some snow had started to fall.
Heathrow, ten years ago, was notorious for letting a dusting of snow hamper operations. Dad and crew expedited boarding and preflight as much as they could and pulled the brakes and pushed back early to get ahead in the queue for takeoff.
They couldn't get a taxi clearance right away as a number of aircraft ahead of them had opted to "wait for the heaviest of the snow to pass" prior to taking off and the controllers wouldn't move them out of the way.
Dad basically begged them to move them ahead somehow, as he had been around the block a time or two and knew what was coming, but to avail. Ground had them park the airplane and they sat loaded at the gate for four hours before all flights out were cancelled... Over four inches of snow.
The airport's inability to deal with the snow and backlog of traffic meant that Air Canada couldn't get a plane out for three more days, by which time they had brought extra aircraft over from Montreal to try to relieve some of the buildup.
So in this story what the passengers didn't know is that if they were maybe 10 minutes faster boarding the plane they wouldn't have gotten stuck in London for an extra three days.
Landed on the wrong runway (it was night time, and tower didn't inform me of my misjudgment until less than a quarter mile away.) I was a young private pilot and had a few passengers, so it wasn't too big of a deal.
Keep It Trim
I was a freshly minted private pilot and took some friends for a sight-seeing flight in a plane rented from the school where I took my training. I carefully followed all the pre-flight and takeoff procedures that I had learned, and accelerated down the runway. We were just approaching takeoff speed when the nose came up prematurely and the aircraft seemed to be struggling to get into the air against my wishes. The stall horn was blaring and I had to hold significant forward pressure to keep the nose down to let airspeed build to normal climb speed. My mind was racing..."What's going on?". I re-checked the trim wheel and the indicator was in the normal takeoff position where I had set it. After a few seconds, I ignored the markers on the trim wheel and rolled in some nose down trim and then everything was good. Apparently the trim wheel was out of adjustment. I didn't say anything and my passengers never knew.
I had a few minor, but embarrassing 'incidents' in the first few hours of licensed flight - all things that were just outside the experience that I had in my training. My advice to newly licensed pilots is to not be in a hurry to take friends and family for a flight. A pilot's license is like a driver's license - it's not a statement of perfect expertise, but a statement of minimum competence. Some experience beyond that is valuable.
Weather The Storm
I was flying two of my friends back from some tasty BBQ in Georgia a few years back. As we got closer to home, the weather really started to get bad, a lot of pop up storm cells. It was a perfect situation for my iPad (used for navigation charts) to totally die as well as my onboard weather radar. I was internally panicking, and air traffic control was my saving grace and helped me get home safe. A few months later my friends asked this same question, they said I looked so calm so they figured it was no big deal.
One of my buddies is a pilot. We were talking about one of the more remote airports that we'd both visited, located in a difficult place that has a lot of wind shear, so passengers are used to having the plane make a couple of attempts when landing.
Anyways, my friend said the sensors for the landing gear malfunctioned, so he couldn't tell whether the wheels were down or if they'd gotten stuck. He flew low, made an announcement to the cabin that they needed to circle the runway because of the wind, and made a call to the control tower asking for someone to make a visual confirmation that the landing gear was fully deployed.
My friend's girlfriend is a flight attendant and she told us about a flight she had during the spring break season where a large group of frat/sorority people basically drank all the alcohol that was on the flight and they had to keep that from the passengers.
Air Traffic Controller here. Nearly everytime I hear we're being delayed due to "ATC" delays is false, and it grinds my gears. Departing Missoula, MT at 3am in the winter and you're late, "Ladies and gentlemen were holding at the gate due to ATC delays." What, there isn't another aircraft within 40 minutes of here...
Ever fly into Seattle and you spend 15 minutes in the nonmovement area waiting for an aircraft to push out of your spot? Had a pilot with the gall to blame ATC. That's poor planning and your companies ramp control sucking wind. Don't blame us controllers.
Controllers in the US work HARD to provide stellar service. Don't discredit us because you didn't fuel on time, the weather sucks, or the pilot phoned in sick.