Commercial Pilots Who Cheated Death: The True Flying Superheroes

When kids finally go to school and start to learn things, adults usually have a common question for them that solicits interesting answers. This question is actually asking a particular kid what would he/she wants to become when he/she grows up, and a kid can give an answer from the hundreds of profession existing nowadays. The answers given become the guides and aspirations of the kids as they develop and experience more of life in the road to adulthood.

All professions always have this noble cause to improve each and every person’s well-being and of the world, except to those jobs that destroy lives, if you guys consider them as professions too. There are professions that protects the rights of the people and other living things, while there are a few that save their very lives. There are jobs that gives privilege to some to rule and govern organizations and lands. Some even blessed certain number of people with divine calling to lead other people, believing in the higher powers.

While there are a lot of professions that have interesting job descriptions, there are very special ones wherein a certain professional needs to maneuver modes of transportation that without valuable experience and long trainings would spell death to a number of human souls. What I’m talking about here are the public drivers, ship captains, and commercial pilots. These special people are directly entrusted with human lives as they themselves course their day-to-day itineraries which is for me kind a scary and too much of a burden.

Let’s narrow down to commercial pilots. These real-life superheroes battle overwhelming odds of piloting large chunk of metal and tanks of highly-combustible fuel thousands of feet over certain plunge of death. What’s more scary is that they do this almost everyday which means that everyday, they need to muster all their skills and experience to safely transport people. However, not everyday pilots draw the best cards and perform their job satisfactorily. Sometimes, probably a one in a thousand chance, everything goes south from them and their planes just give up. Throughout history, there were already a couple of horrible sky travel accidents that happened which saddened the world however, there were also stories of miracles out from certain demise. These miracles mostly were achieved because of the quick and efficient decisions of the pilots maneuvering the planes, and maybe with a truckload of luck.


Below is short list of notable commercial plane pilots who cheated death and saved the lives of their passengers. Their stories are nothing short of amazing and will be forever etched in the history of commercial aviation.

1. Alastair Atchison

June 10, 1990 – Mr. Atchison may not be the main pilot of British Airways Flight 5390 but he was definitely the man who saved all other people when the incident happened. The incident is like what you see in an action-packed movie. The BA flight was en route to Malaga carrying 81 passengers and a standard crew size. During the flight, a loud bang was suddenly heard over the fuselage and suddenly the windscreen panel on the main pilot’s side was dislodged sucking out the pilot himself.

Luckily, with safety belt still strapped on, the pilot’s tragic ejection was prevented halfway by one of the crew members. While the flight crew were desperately trying to pull in their pilot, our hero, Alastair Atchison, took matters into his own hand and performed an emergency descent to stabilize the plane and to save their pilot from suffocation and frostbite. While maneuvering the plane, Alastair was also trying to contact the nearest air traffic control for help and emergency landing. Because of the noise of strong winds from the opened windscreen, the communication was difficult at first but eventually got through and Alastair got his emergency assistance.

The plane safely landed in Southhampton where only the pilot, who was clinging on to his dear life during the entire incident, was the only person who needs to get rushed to a hospital due to a broken arm and frostbite.

2. Malcom Waters

April 13, 2010 – We all know that plane travel so fast in mid-air to keep flying and resist gravity. However, the plane’s speed is still being regulated by the pilot especially when it’s time for its descent. In this particular story, the plane was probably been rigged by Vin Diesel and suddenly had the need for speed.

Cathay Pacific Flight 780, piloted by Malcolm Waters, is a huge plane and this particular trip carried 309 passengers and 13 flight crew. During the course of their trip from Surabaya to Hong Kong, the plane’s monitoring screen flashed a control system fault for its 2nd engine which made wary the 2 people on the cockpit. The message shows and hides a few times which the pilot reported to their maintenance control for checking.

When the plane is almost inbound for Hong Kong, suddenly the message changed to a more serious one, signifying a compressor stall for engine 2 and that time, it was already coupled with a control system fault for engine 1. When the messages appeared, Waters noticed the plane lost its ability to change thrust which at the time was a need since they are already descending.

Entrusting solely to his long flight experience, Malcolm Waters, with the help of his co-pilot, maneuvered the speeding plane down to the nearest runway with a speed almost double than what is required for landing. Together, they safely landed the plane, of course with damages on the nose due to the dive. However, even with almost certain demise that was averted, only 57 passengers were hurt and only 1 had a serious injury.

Malcolm Waters and his co-pilot were awarded with the Polaris Award due to their airmanship and heroism.

3. Richard Champion de Crespigny

November 4, 2010 – A 35-year veteran pilot in the name of Richard Champion de Crespigny piloted a large double-decker Qantas jet carrying 469 passengers into the blaze of glory.

When the Airbus A380 was flying over Indonesia, its 2nd engine suddenly exploded damaging the wing and causing a huge fire on the section. With a calm mind and unparalleled skills in flying, Richard maneuvered the plane into safe emergency landing at Singapore Airport with no passengers hurt. When the plane landed, it blew four of its tires due to the emergency landing maneuver.

What is more interesting to this story is that the moment the plane safely landed in Singapore, our pilot hero, immediately debriefed shocked passengers into what truly happened and offered assistance to all passengers who were physically and psychologically affected, Because of his airmanship, heroism, and exemplary service, Richard Champion de Crespigny was recently inducted into the prestigious Order of Australia for his contribution to the aviation industry and to the community.

4. Bob Pearson

July 23, 1983 – This is a story of a simple miscalculation that almost led to the loss of 61 human souls.

Before we start reliving what happened, let us first know the plane, Boeing 767-233 and what were the things that made the incident one which we could do a “facepalm” to ourselves. The 767 is one of the 1st commercial planes to include an electronic flight instrument system which operates from the electricity generated by the jet’s engines. Not only that, the hydraulic system of the plane which controls the flaps is yes, also being powered by the engine. Lastly, at that time, the plane’s measurement system was switched from imperial to metric.

Now that we spelled out the obvious reasons why this flight was doomed to fail, let us know the details of this rare incident that made our hero pilot the hero he became.

It all started during the refueling of the plane. Due to the sudden change of the measurement system, the refueling crew miscalculated how much fuel the plane needs to do its journey and unfortunately they filled her up so much less than expected. In the middle of the flight, the plane suddenly stopped working because it ran out of juice. Since the new control panel and the hydraulics system all rely in the engines, the moment the engines stopped, both systems also ceased to function. At this time, the plane is nothing more like a large metal with no life and is already expected to fall violently towards the Earth’s lithosphere.

At this point enter our hero, pilot Bob Pearson. With nothing working on his command, and worse, the emergency checklist didn’t have a section where both engines fail, he relied on his experience and skill in gliding. Bob, aside from being a commercial pilot, is also a professional glider during his downtime. Gliding techniques are almost a taboo in jet plane piloting but at that time, Bob knew that it is the only way he can save all people onboard on his plane. He glided Air Canada Flight 143 into a racing car track at Gimli, land hard blowing tires, nose fell off causing fire, but in the end, all passengers and crew were safe and sound.

5. Chesley Sullenberger III

January 15, 2009 – We are saving the best and the most famous pilot in our time for the last.

Just after US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York, the pilot noticed that a flock of birds is in collision with his plane. The birds blew off both of the plane’s engines disabling the plane mid-air. With not enough time to spare and recalculate things, Chesley eyeballed the situation and decided to land the plane on the Hudson River.

Although the emergency water landing was successful, the next problem was the immediate rescuing of all 155 passengers since that time, the winter chills are blowing like crazy and people are at risk to frostbite. Luckily, the New York rescue teams and ferrymen were quick to the scene securing the lives of all 155 people onboard of the plane.

An investigation quickly followed to contest the decision our hero pilot made during the incident and was later proved correct and the most sound. Chesley Sullenberger became a hero and a celebrity to all New Yorkers and was awarded with a book deal and an early retirement.

If you want to more of this amazing story, I suggest you go watch the Academy-nominated film starring Tom Hanks. The movie is quite moving and at the same time exhilarating.

Final Thoughts…

With no doubts, being a pilot is not only a mind-boggling but also a nerve-wracking profession. Their career path is not at all times clear-cut or trouble-free. The struggle doesn’t end in getting their license, in fact it’s only the beginning. Overcoming the intellectual and emotional unimaginable pressure they get during their flights, that’s the real struggle.

Nonetheless, pilots on board offer not only their full potentials on flying air vehicles but also their dearest lives. The commitment of taking their passengers safely on tiring long-distance destinations truly deserves countless applause. Yet, there are some cruel and vindictive passengers who don’t appreciate the immense sacrifices made by the men behind the wings. Thankfully, pilots are professional enough to handle such situations.

I really do hope that there will be no more aviation accidents like the ones mentioned above. In this generation, we’re breathing in a world in which roughly every person choose to travel by air, and the populace ought to have a precise good judgment of how air crafts operate, and what pilots truly do in every flights that they’re in – especially in times of heavy workloads and unexpected emergencies. Furthermore, for pilots, it’s not all calm-soothing blue skies and not all workdays will be perfectly sun-drenched. When things get shitty, blaming the pilot or any other aviation crew is not always the right thing to do and should be the last thing that any person would do because accidents happen, whether you like it or not, and pilots are definitely pledging their lives on saving the passengers first more than their own, and that is the ugly truth.

Hence, at the end of the day,  just like any other regular travelers, pilots also have something to look forward to – to go home and spend some quality time with their families, friends and loved ones.