Heroes of the Sky

Shedding some light on the stories of extraordinary individuals

Authors: Muhammad Arham Elahi, James Perry, Leonardo Times Editors

Few have the nerves to stay composed in such life-threatening situations as some pilots encounter. Here we explore a few cases of exceptional individuals who demonstrated incredible skill under immense pressure.

Gimli Glider


Air Canada Flight 143, a brand new Boeing 767 was flying from Montreal to Edmonton on 23, July, 1983 with 69 people on board. The brand-new plane was in tip-top condition except for a small error in the fuel quantity indication system (FQIS). The pilots received instructions to ensure sufficient fuel board by performing a dripstick test. They took a reading from a tube installed in the wing (given in centimeters) and then manually converted it to kilograms of fuel. 


On route to Edmonton, while cruising at an altitude of 12500 m, the left engine had a fuel pressure warning. Captain Bob Pearson assumed that a fuel pump had failed and deactivated the alarm knowing that gravity could feed the engine in level flight. However, when the right engine had a similar issue, he decided to divert to Winnipeg airport. As if on cue, the left engine failed, and the pilots prepared for a one-engine landing, but seconds later, the right engine suffered a failure, leaving the airplane without any power. The Boeing 767 was one of the first airliners to include an electronic flight instrument system. The lack of power meant the pilot had only their base instruments to work with, and critically, lacked a vertical speed indicator. 

Luckily, Captain Pearson was an experienced glider pilot and knew to extend his range to fly at optimum glide speed. He made an educated guess, and First Officer Maurice Quintal calculated whether a flight to Winnipeg was possible. They witnessed an altitude drop 1500 m over a 20 km distance, and the pilots realized that a flight to Winnipeg was impossible. Miraculously, First Officer Quintal knew of a closed air force base nearby at Gimli from his time as an Air Force pilot, so they redirected toward Gimli, but they were still going way too fast to land on the small runway. In the absence of power, the pilots couldn’t use the flaps and slats to increase the lift and decrease speed as they would in a normal landing and thus resorted to an ingenious maneuver. Captain Pearson, banking on his experience as a glider pilot, used a forward slip; a maneuver that pulls one way on the ailerons while it pulls the other way on the rudder. This enables the plane to go at an angle to the airspeed, thus significantly increasing drag and reducing speed. Although not intended for use on an airliner as big as the 767, desperate times call for desperate measures and it proved to be the right call. Unbeknown to the pilots, the former airbase runway they were landing on was now a motorsports park and the silent plane, without any working engines, gave no warning to the bystanders on the track. The plane landed hard on the runway, causing the nose wheel to be forced back into its well and the main wheels to blow out. The left wheel straddled the guardrail of the repurposed runway serving as a drag racetrack. These factors actually benefited the airplane as the extra friction enabled it to slow down very quickly. Thankfully no one on the ground or the plane was seriously injured. [1]


It came to light that a technician had implemented a temporary workaround for the FQIS system. However, another technician unknowingly reversed that fix while testing the system. The big error was that during the manual calculation for the amount of fuel onboard, the first officer used the density in pounds per liter instead of kilograms per liter. This meant the plane was only carrying half the fuel it was supposed to. To be fair to the first officer, fuel calculation was usually the responsibility of the flight engineer, a position no longer required in 767, so he was untrained to do these calculations. The plane was in such good condition that it was repaired and returned to service and continued to fly until its last voyage on January 24, 2008. [1]

Hanging On


British Airways Flight 5390 was a BAC One-Eleven scheduled from Birmingham to Malaga. The flight had 81 passengers on board and 6 crew. On June 10, 1990, the plane took off from Birmingham with nothing out of the ordinary.


First Officer Alistair Atchison handled the takeoff but handed over control to Captain Timothy Lancaster as the plane continued its ascent. As the takeoff went smoothly, both pilots took off their shoulder harnesses and Captain Lancaster took off his seatbelt. At an altitude of about 5300 m, as flight attendant Nigel Ogden was entering the cockpit to deliver the pilots their meals, the left windscreen panel suddenly completely blew off its hinges. This caused an explosive decompression and Captain Lancaster, who sat on the left side of the cockpit, was launched head-first out of the cockpit. Luckily, his knees got caught in the flight controls and the flight attendant quickly grabbed hold of him. However, his entire upper body was exposed to the harsh winds and temperatures of an airborne airplane. The decompression also caused all the windows to fog up due to condensation. The flight deck door also was blown off and landed right on the throttle controls, increasing engine power. The flight documents and checklists blew out of the cockpit. The captain’s sudden input on the control column caused the autopilot to disengage and the plane to go into a left-leaning dive. First Officer Atchison faced an immensely complex and unforeseen situation, unable see through the windscreen in this incredibly volatile plane. As the plane had insufficient oxygen on board – First Officer Atchison started a rapid descent to reach an altitude with breathable air. He turned on autopilot again and tried to talk to air traffic control. However, due to the loud wind, his efforts proved to be futile. Over time, Captain Lancaster slowly slipped out of the cockpit, and his head repeatedly banged against the fuselage. The crew believed he was dead, but the First Officer instructed them not to let go lest his body damaged the engine or wing. Eventually, the flight attendants managed to get his legs free from the controls, finally allowing the First Officer to maneuver freely and was given clearance to land at Southampton. Somehow, First Officer Atchison managed to land the plane perfectly. No one on board except the pilots was injured. [2]


Miraculously, Captain Lancaster survived, but suffered frostbite, bruising, shock, and fractures to his right arm, left thumb, and right wrist. First Officer Atchison, on the other hand, had minor injuries like cuts and bruises. However, he did later suffer from PTSD from the event. The investigation found that the bolts used by the maintenance worker to install the windscreen were eyeballed to be approximately the same size as the previous ones. He did not check the proper documentation. Their diameter was 0.66 mm too small, and hence, they failed to handle the massive pressure exerted by the cabin.[2]

The Impossible Landing


United Airways Flight 232 was a DC-10 scheduled to fly from Denver to Chicago. The flight carried 296 people on board and took off from Denver on 19, July, 1989. The flight crew consisted of three experienced pilots, but one pilot flew as a passenger, Flight Instructor Dennis Fitch.


While cruising at 11000 m, the pilots heard an explosion in the back of the plane and quickly diagnosed that the rear tail-mounted engine had failed. The autopilot disengaged, and the pilots tried to steer the aircraft manually, but the control surfaces did not respond. The plane slowly banked to the right with its nose dipping. Without further action, the plane would spiral into a roll and become unrecoverable. The pilots used their last control option – the engines. They applied maximum throttle to the right engine, setting the left engine to idle, and slowly leveling out the plane. All subsequent attempts to operate the aircraft’s control surfaces failed, and the pilots were stuck with the engine power as their only maneuvering possibility. They had never trained for this situation. Flight Instructor Dennis Fitch notified the pilots that he was on standby to help and was invited into the cockpit. Amazingly, Dennis Fitch had observed the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which also had a total loss of hydraulic power and had practiced flying an aircraft with only engines in a simulator. When an airplane has no power, it may enter a phugoid cycle as demonstrated in figure 1.

Illustration of Phugoid cycle

Using his experience, Fitch was able to steer out of the phugoid cycle and regain some level of control. The pilots consulted air traffic control and decided to land at Sioux City. They were cleared to land on the 2700 m long runway 31. However, aligning the aircraft to the runway proved to be an impossible task, the pilots had to settle for 2100 m runway 22 instead, which had been permanently closed a year earlier. As the plane had no hydraulics, the flaps could not extend, meaning the plane’s landing was almost twice the recommended speed and six times the sink rate (rate of descent). To make matters worse, at the very last second, the plane rolled to the right. The pilots had no chance to react in time. The right-wing hit the ground first, immediately exploding, and the tail and cockpit also broke off from the severity of the impact. The main section of the fuselage tipped over and came to a halt. Emergency vehicles immediately responded, but the damage was done. [3]


Of the 296 people on board, 47 were seriously injured, and 112 died, 35 from smoke inhalation after the crash. Most of the survivors were from the plane’s middle section as the front and back were completely destroyed. The cockpit’s remains weren’t identified until 35 minutes after the crash, all four pilots were found injured but alive. The failure was eventually linked to a fatigue crack due to an impurity in the tail-mounted engine fan which led to its explosion. The ensuing debris then ruptured all hydraulic channels, thus, none of the control surfaces responded. Although the plane did crash, the crew was commended for their handling of the situation and recognized for their efforts in attempting a landing that was destined to fail. [3]



The Boeing 737 is one of the most mass-produced passenger aircraft ever, with over 15,000 orders made over the 54 years it has been in service [4]. TACA International Airline operated a 737-300 on 24, May, 1998, TACA 110, between San Salvador, El Salvador, and New Orleans, USA. During the second leg of the flight, following a planned stop-off in Belize City, the aircraft encountered extreme hail [5].


The three-man crew in the aircraft’s cockpit, led by Captain Carlos Dardano, were well aware of the severity of the weather. They were operating under Instrument Flight Rules and requested vectors from Air Traffic Control to avoid the worst of the weather. The pilots had no visual reference to the outside world upon entering the clouds at 9,100 m until just before landing when they reached the cloud base at 1,000 m above ground level. The crew, including an observer monitoring the aircraft performance, were flying at the turbulence penetration speed, with anti-ice on, the engines set to continuous ignition, and so arguably could not have better prepared the aircraft for what was to come. Nearly halfway through this descent, at 5,000 m, the aircraft entered incredibly severe hail (equivalent to 75 cm of rain in an hour), and both engines began to lose power. 

The Observer, Captain Arturo Soley, was ordered by Captain Dardano to attempt to restart the engines. After ‘windmilling’ as the aircraft descended yielded no success, he activated the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to provide electrical power for a second restart attempt. Soon after, engine number one showed signs that it had restarted, shortly followed by number two. With fresh hope that disaster could be averted, First Officer Dionisio Lopez, in charge of the radio, contacted ATC again – expressing thanks for all the assistance. Within seven seconds, the crew realized that the engines were still not producing any power. Less than half a minute later, Captain Dardano concluded they were gliding and swiftly reported back to the controller, who attempted to vector them towards Lake Front Airport, just eleven miles away. The response from the Captain was that they wouldn’t make it. Running out of options, the controller warned them of a highway straight ahead of the aircraft, afraid of the consequences if the aircraft were to crash into busy traffic. The aircraft was then flying over the water of Lake Borgnen and the Captain decided to make a water landing. At the final approach, the First Officer spotted a levee that ran alongside the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The crew lowered the landing gear, extended the flaps, and made a smooth landing on the grass field. Following an evacuation, the flight attendants determined that all 45 passengers and crew on board had survived. In fact, none of them had sustained serious injuries – a credit to the teamwork and snap decision-making of the flight crew [5].


The incident prompted testing the behavior of hail when ingested into jet engines, previously thought to behave similarly to water. For example, the so-called ‘Venetian blind effect’ can cause the hail to be sucked directly into the engine without coming into contact with the fan blades, which would otherwise result in its centrifugal expulsion into the bypass ducts [6]. It was discovered the crew may have been misled by their onboard weather radar displaying precipitation on a scale from least (green) to most severe (red). However, when precipitation exceeds this, it has a tendency not to show up at all, as the water attenuates the radar signal rather than reflecting it back [6].


All these pilots faced situations never faced before, but, instead of panicking, continued to work the problem to the best of their ability. In these four examples alone, hundreds of lives were saved by the actions of just a few individuals. The role of a pilot should not be understated, nor the necessity for them to respond well to difficult situations when it really counts.


[1] Witkin, R. (1983, July 30). Jet’s fuel ran out after metric conversion errors. The New York Times. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from www.nytimes.com

[2] Branch, A. A. I. (2014, December 10). 1/1992 BAC one-eleven, G-BJRT, 10 June 1990. GOV.UK. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from www.gov.uk

[3] NTSB. (1990). Retrieved December 9, 2022, from www.ntsb.gov

[4] Kaminski-Morrow, D. (2019, November 15). A320’s order total overtakes 737’s as Max crisis persists. FlightGlobal. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.flightglobal.com

[5] National Transportation Safety Board. (n.d.). Factual Report Aviation Incident: TACA 110 (FTW88IA109). Retrieved December 8, 2022, from upload.wikimedia.org

[6] Federal Aviation Administration. (n.d.). TACA International Airlines Flight 110. Lessons Learned. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://lessonslearned.faa.gov