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airplane turbulenceA few weeks ago, problems with the hydraulic system forced a JetBlue flight into an emergency landing at Las Vegas‘ McCarran Airport. As the stricken plane careened into sharp turns and lurched from one side to the other, passengers became sickened and many began vomiting. This went on for several hours, as the plane had to burn off enough fuel to land safely.

Have you ever been on a plane that lurched or dipped or swerved? Have you ever thrown up on a plane?

I have. In fact, my strongest airplane memories involve bad experiences. Like when I was 13 and the plane I was on, flying from San Diego to New York, was hit by lightning. I saw the lightning strike the wing and I felt the plane lurch downwards. I started to cry because I thought the plane would catch on fire — I mean, that’s what happens in movies.

A nice older man a row in front of me turned around to calm me down. The planes are grounded, he said, so nothing bad can happen. (I found out later that this isn’t exactly the case; airplanes are protected from lightning because their exteriors are made of aluminum, which conducts the electricity out into the air, protecting what’s inside. But my fellow passenger’s words were comforting at the time!)

Fear of Flying

Another bad experience that stands out was flying in a puddle jumper from Punta Arenas in Chile to Isla Navarino, a small Chilean island located between Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. The flight passes over the Strait of Magellan and several channels including the Beagle Channel. For reasons I’m sure a meteorologist could explain, the wind currents in that area are pretty rough.

I won’t go into details, but let’s just say the hot dogs I’d eaten prior to the flight had to be washed off of my sweater later that afternoon. It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.

Airplane Horror Stories

But perhaps the worst flight experience I’ve ever had was also one of only two times in my life I actually thought I might die. It was a flight from Atlanta to New York’s JFK airport. Though the weather was clear when we took off, by the time we’d gotten to Maryland the New York area was experiencing heavy storms. At first they put us into a holding pattern, but then we began to run low on fuel.

Only one runway was open in the New York area and we were told it would take too long to change our approach to reach it. So we were diverted to Stewart Airport, a smaller airport in the Hudson Valley area of New York. Why that was deemed closer I don’t know, but to get there it felt as though we had to fly right through a doozy of a storm. That plane shook and rattled and bumped so violently I honestly thought it was going to crack apart. Overhead bins opened and bags fell out. Dozens of people threw up as the flight attendants passed handfuls of air sickness bags around the cabin. Landing that dark evening in an airport hours away from my original destination was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

What has been your scariest flying moment — or your most embarrassing?

— written by Dori Saltzman

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8 Responses to “Afraid of Flying? Don’t Read This”

  1. Mark says:


    I’m sorry that you’re so frightened of flying. In my experience as an airline captain, it’s really less about the flying as it is about a loss of control. Intellectually, you know that flying is the safest way to travel. That said, I must correct the errors in your column. You said that the plane lurched downward from the pressure of the lightening. That isn’t the case. Lightening exerts no pressure, it was the turbulence of the storm that caused it. Further, the plane is safe from lightening because it ISN’T grounded not because it is. While turbulence isn’t comfortable for anybody, you should know that the only way you can be hurt by turbulence is if you don’t have your seatbelt on. There is no turbulence that can bring down an airliner. Lastly, just because it’s bumpy, doesn’t mean the crew is flying through a thunderstorm. Airliners avoid thunderstorm cells using radar and I’d be willing to bet that no plane you’ve ever flown on has actually penetrated a thunderstorm. Safe travels!

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks so much for weighing in with your expertise. We’ve tweaked a few passages in the post to make them more accurate.

      Happy travels,

      Sarah Schlichter

    • Dori Saltzman says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for replying. I gotta say you may be right that we didn’t actually fly through that storm but it definitely felt like we did! Hope some day I can remain as calm as you guys do.

      Dori Saltzman
      News Editor

  2. Craig says:

    Flight from Anchorage AK to Minn/St Paul had electrical problems and take-off was delayed for a few hours. Flight was smooth and uneventful until we neared Minn/St Paul. That’s when I noticed that we were late arriving and that we were circling as if in a holding pattern. Continued circling and started dumping fuel,that is when I became concerned because there was absolutely no word from the pilots to this point. Approximately 20 minutes later they came on the PA system to inform us that the electrical problem had resurfaced and they could not adjust the flaps. We made a “0” degree flap landing and hit the runway at approximately 350MPH. I have never in my life ,,,before, or since, seen landscape move past my window so quickly.

  3. Charles Rahm says:

    I seem to have been lucky so far. The worst thing for me, was a vacuum-hole or however it is called. It was from Newark to San Jose, Costa Rica and occurred over Cuba. The plane suddenly dropped, it lasted just 2 seconds. I guess, these are the two seconds in my life, where I felt agravic. Some people started to scream, but I felt that I didn’t have the time, because as soon as I wanted to react in any way it was over already.

  4. ed pittard says:

    flyin Aeroflot from Moscow to Bangkok the plane was due to land in Bombay but kept circling until nearly out of fuel dues to the undercarriage failing to unfold for landing plus the heat haze made it difficult but eventually we came down with a voilent thud a few bounces and sways then shuddered to a halt

    • Pretraveller says:

      You didn’t mention whether they managed to get the undercarriage down, but you didn’t mention having a belly landing so I assume they did get it down. All aircraft have emergency systems to enable the undercarriage to be extended if the hydraulics fail.

      I can appreciate that it must have been a scary experience, particularly if you are unaware of what is happening.

  5. Rick says:

    I have not had a truly bad experience on an airliner but when the engine failed on the single engine airplane I was piloting, it got pretty tense until we glided to a landing at Greater Cincinnati Airport.

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