Although airline travel is among the safest modes of transportation, accidents do occur. When they happen—or even if one only threatens to occur—most passengers are likely to be terrified. After all, they are thousands of feet above the terrain or the ocean, trapped inside a vehicle from which escape is impossible, their fate resting completely in the hands of the crew.
Of course, airplane crashes can be horrific. Whether injured passengers or crew members survive or die, they are unlikely to ever forget the ordeal they suffered, especially if, like the people on this list, they were sucked out of an airplane.
10 Jennifer Riordan
Imagine that you’re flying above Philadelphia at 32,000 feet (9,753 meters). One of the jet’s engines blows. The passenger’s window next to you explodes. You are sucked out of the airplane!
Jennifer Riordan suffered such a fate aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 on April 17, 2018, as the airliner was Dallas bound. Although her seat belt was fastened, she was pulled halfway out of the aircraft. Amazingly, other passengers pulled her back inside. As a witness to the terrifying incident recalled, “There was blood on the windows… her arms were actually out of the airplane, and her head was out of the airplane.”
Unfortunately, Riordan was badly injured. Efforts to revive her after she experienced cardiac arrest following the incident were unsuccessful. According to Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow, she died due to blunt impact trauma to her head, neck, and torso.
A crack in the engine, caused by metal fatigue, caused the explosion.
9 Timothy Lancaster
On June 10, 1990, British Airways Flight 5390 was on its way from Birmingham, England, to Málaga, Spain, when a catastrophe occurred aboard the BAC 1-11-500 aircraft carrying 118 passengers and several crew members. It was almost meal time aboard the plane, which was cruising at 17,300 feet (5,273 meters) over Didcot, Oxfordshire. Captain Timothy Lancaster and First Officer Alastair Atchison relaxed, releasing their shoulder harnesses. Lancaster also loosened his lap belt.
Shortly afterward, a blast occurred as the aircraft’s left windshield cracked. Air pressure dropped sharply, and the pilot was sucked out of the cockpit as far as his waist, his head and torso exposed to the extremes of wind and cold. The autopilot was off, and the plane began to plummet. Worse yet, the cockpit’s door had collapsed against the throttle controls, jamming them.
As Atchison fought to control the plunging plane, flight attendant Nigel Odgen, having entered the cockpit, grabbed Lancaster’s legs. Assisted by flight attendants John Heward and Simon Rogers, who spelled him when Odgen became exhausted, they freed the pilot’s legs from the flight controls that had trapped them, and Atchison safely landed the aircraft.
Lancaster was injured, suffering frostbite, contusions, and fractures to his hands and arms, and Ogden injured an arm and dislocated a shoulder. But the passengers and the crew, including Lancaster, survived their horrific ordeal. The cause of the near-crash? The bolts that held the windshield in place were too small, both in diameter and length.
8 Nigel Ogden
Pilot Lancaster is not the only crew member aboard ill-fated British Airways Flight 5390 to be sucked out of the plane. As he rushed to save Lancaster, grabbing the pilot around the waist, Odgen found himself also being pulled from the cabin. Thanks to fellow flight attendant John Heward, who rushed into the cockpit to grab Ogden’s belt, both Ogden and Lancaster survived.
It was touch and go, though, Ogden recalled. Although he held fast to Lancaster, Ogden could feel his arms weaken. He feared he might “lose” the pilot, but Lancaster “ended up bent in a U-shape around the windows,” where “his face banged against the window [as] blood [ran from] his nose and the side of his head, [and] his arms flailed.”
“Most terrifyingly, his eyes were wide open,” Odgen added. “I’ll never forget that sight as long as I live.”
7 Clarabelle Lansing
On April 28, 1988, during perfect weather, the roof over the 18-foot-long (5.5-meter)first-class section of Aloha Airlines Flight 243 ripped away. Passengers and a flight attendant were left exposed to the freezing atmosphere outside. Experienced pilot Captain Robert Schornstheimer and First Officer Madeline Tompkins were at the controls of the Boeing 737 airplane, which, earlier the same day, had made three round-trip flights from Honolulu to Hilo, Maui, and Kauai. All pre-flight inspections had indicated that the aircraft was airworthy.
As she was about to board the plane, a passenger saw a crack in its fuselage. She didn’t report it, assuming the crew must know about it. As the plane leveled off at 24,000 feet (7,315 meters), an explosion occurred, and Tompkins saw insulation floating through the cockpit. The control cabin’s doors, like the first-class section’s roof, were gone! Although secured by their seat belts, the passengers were buffeted by 300-mile-per-hour (483 km/h) winds and had lost access to oxygen, their overhead masks having vanished with the cabin’s ceiling. Although hanging on for dear life, flight attendant Clarabelle Lansing was sucked out of the plane.
Schornstheimer headed for an emergency landing in Maui. Just as he was descending over the airport, the engine failed. Nevertheless, he was able to bring the remnants of the aircraft down without further injuries or deaths. The ordeal was caused by an inadequate inspection of the airplane. The inspection, which was conducted in darkness, missed the crack in the fuselage. The location of Lansing’s body remains unknown.
6 Elite Troops
A Navy SEAL. An Air Force Commando. An Army Green Beret. These elite U. S. troops were all sucked out of airplanes when they were struck by unanticipated gusts of wind. As a result, some critics fault the victims’ T-11 reserve parachutes, which are worn over their chests and opened if the main parachute fails to open or to deploy. In short, as reporter Kyle Remfer explains, “Critics argue that the parachute’s fabric ripcord is more sensitive to strong winds than the 50-year-old rigs with a metal ripcord that it replaced a decade ago.”
The Air Force commando disappeared over the ocean in 2019, never to be seen again.
Green Beret Staff Sgt. Brycen Erdody narrowly escaped death in 2012, but his arm was partially severed. He lost his helmet when a wind gust sucked him out of an aircraft 1,250 feet (381 meters) above Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He endured five surgical operations due to the incident in which he broke ribs, severely injured his sternum, cut his bicep, and lost nerves pulled from his spine. His injured arm might need to be amputated since it permanently lost its “nerve activity.”
On June 23, 2014, over El Centro, California, Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Bradley Cavner died after his reserve parachute was “activated by a wind gust.” He struck his head against “the aircraft’s door frame as he was swept out” of the aircraft.
A U.S. Army jump master was also sucked out of an airplane while he knelt on the ramp of an airplane. The date of the occurrence and other details about the incident are sketchy. Still, the video that captures his abrupt exit from the ramp indicates, both by the roar of the wind and the speed of his departure, the strength of the ferocious force that snatched him away when his reserve parachute was activated prematurely. This force is similar to those that result from sudden cabin depressurization, whatever its cause.
4 Juliane Koepcke
In a March 24, 2012, online BBC article, Juliane Koepcke explains how she survived a plane crash in December 1971. She was with her mother, in flight above the Peruvian rainforest, when lightning struck. The plane “went into a nose-dive… it was pitch black, and people were screaming, then the deep roaring of the engines filled [her] head completely.” When the noise stopped, she was “outside the plane… in a freefall, strapped to [her] seat bench and hanging head-over-heels,” alone in the wind as the treetop canopy spun toward her.
Although she suffered a broken collarbone, “deep cuts” to her legs, and a ruptured ligament, she survived, having been sucked out of the airplane and falling into the rainforest. Six days later, her upper right arm became infested with maggots, which she treated with gasoline from a boat she found along the way before Koepcke came across locals. They took her “back to civilization.”
On January 12, she learned that her mother had also survived the crash, but unable to move due to severe injuries, she had “died several days later,” Koepcke laments, adding, “I dread to think what her last days were like.”
3 First Officer Xu
On May 14, 2018, with his co-pilot, First Officer Xu Ruichen, and his second-in-command, Captain Liang Peng, in the cockpit with him, Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633’s Captain Liu Chuanjian took off from a Chinese airport. On their way to their destination, the right windshield cracked, and Chuanjian diverted the flight to Chengdu. A few moments later, the entire windshield burst, and the cockpit rapidly depressurized. Colliding with one of the controls, Ruichen caused the aircraft to veer right. The autopilot was off, so the plane rapidly descended.
By leveling the wings, Chuanjian brought the airplane under control, but the noise outside prevented communication with the ground. Since the Airbus couldn’t dump fuel and the captain didn’t have time to burn it by flying in circles, he took the risk of landing the plane. It touched down safely, but the tires burst.
All but two aboard the plane escaped injury. During the flight, the co-pilot was sucked partially out of the cockpit and suffered abrasions to his face, a minor eye injury, and a sprained wrist. Flight attendant Zhou Yanwen was also treated for a wrist injury. The aircraft’s insulation protected those aboard from frostbite.
A damaged windshield seal probably caused the incident by allowing a buildup of heat inside the glass that led the windshield to break.
The heroism of Chuanjian and his crew was celebrated, and the captain was given five million yuan ($737,600 US).
2 Nine Passengers
On February 24, 1989, Lynoor Birrell awakened to a nightmare aboard United Airlines Flight 811. Seated with her husband and four-year-old daughter in the aircraft’s thirteenth row, she heard “a low, growling, grinding noise,” she said, recalling the horrendous incident.
“I opened my eyes and saw all the overhead baggage racks in our section were gone, as were the overhead TV movie projectors.” That wasn’t the worst of it. The twelve seats in Rows 8-10 were also gone, along with the passengers who’d been sitting in them. They’d been sucked through a large hole in the side of the airplane.
According to investigators, the hole in the side of the airliner was caused by “explosive decompression resulting from the loss of a cargo door” during the flight. The cause of the loss of the door was believed to have been damage to its “locking mechanism,” which occurred during a previous flight and, possibly, a short-circuit which activated the latch actuators. The investigators also found that several opportunities existed to prevent the accident that resulted in the deaths of the nine individuals aboard the aircraft.
1 Dozens of Passengers
On May 8, 2003, a Russian Ilyushin 76 was in flight over the Democratic Republic of Congo when the aircraft’s rear door “burst open.. hurling dozens of Congolese soldiers to their deaths” when the cabin abruptly depressurized, an article in the June 2, 2003, issue of Jet magazine reports.
Those passengers who were able to hang on to the plane survived the catastrophe. The fact that no one knew the number of passengers on board or whether the missing had seats or seat belts compounded the problem of identifying the lost. As the article explained, “People in Africa often travel on modified cargo planes with few seats, leaving most passengers to cram among the belongings in the rear of the aircraft.”
The plane was transporting the troops and their families from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi. The Ilyushin 76 transport jet had been involved in numerous previous accidents resulting in 668 deaths, the article reported.