What it's like being a passenger on a plane during an emergency landing

What it's like being a passenger on a plane during an emergency landing

For someone who loves travelling and the aviation industry, the things that can go wrong are not usually what you want to think or talk about.  

But aircraft emergencies make for a very strange fascination. I'm not talking about actual crashes, but other emergency situations that happen mid-air.

For more than a decade, thousands of people have tuned into live air traffic control transmissions being streamed on the internet - New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong; all of the world's busiest airports can be listened in on.

And it was from New York, via the internet, that I heard my first ever real, live emergency landing - little did I know I was listening to one of the most historic events in aviation history.

I had a handful of New York scanner channels mumbling away in the background on my computer the moment Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger transmitted the now historic words.

"We're gonna be in the Hudson."

"We're gonna be in the Hudson."
"We're gonna be in the Hudson." Photo credit: Getty Images

I remember frantically calling the Auckland newsroom to tell them what I'd heard. Of course, this was within seconds of the plane coming down. There was nothing on CNN or CBS just yet so it took a bit of convincing.

"Just give CNN 10 minutes and then you'll see it," I said.

Sully went on to become an American hero after landing the plane successfully on the Hudson River with none of the 155 people onboard losing their lives.

Aircraft tracking apps such as FlightRadar24 have brought together a global network of passionate aviation enthusiasts who together make it possible for anyone with a phone or a PC anywhere in the world to check on the speed, height and location of just about any flight at any time.

But it's the 'emergency alert' function of the app that can be the most exciting. It's able to tell users the moment an aircraft declared an emergency, no matter where in the world it's flying.

There are many apps that keep you up-to-date with what's happening in the world of aviation.
There are many apps that keep you up-to-date with what's happening in the world of aviation. Photo credit: Getty/Newshub

For years, this became my obsession. I'd follow an aircraft, checking on its altitude, working out where it might divert to and then if I was lucky, I'd be able to listen to a livestream of the air traffic controllers at its destination airport and find out what had caused the emergency in the first place.

I'm leaving on a jet plane, but I do know when I'll be back again.
I'm leaving on a jet plane, but I do know when I'll be back again. Photo credit: Dan Lake/Newshub

In December, 2019, I was flying to the east coast of the United States for work and after a very early wake up, I boarded my American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas.

I've flown out of LAX many times and I'd like to think I'm pretty familiar with the procedures for landing and taking off from the massive airport, so just a few minutes into the flight I could tell something wasn't quite right. We weren't really going in the direction of Texas, and weren't getting any higher either.

My actual flight as captured on FlightRadar24.com
My actual flight as captured on FlightRadar24.com Photo credit: FlightRadar24.com

Then my phone beeped. It was an aircraft emergency notification. The flight number looked familiar, so I checked my boarding pass and yes, it was my flight that had declared an emergency.

Via the app I was able to keep an eye on my flight's speed and altitude, which all seemed fine, so I wasn't too worried. A quick search on Twitter for my flight number revealed there were already 'plane geeks' from around the world (I can use that term because I am one) discussing what could be wrong with the flight and what it could do next.

Would it land full of fuel, or would that make it too heavy? Would it head out over the Pacific and burn fuel for a while and then attempt a landing?

All of these scenarios had been discussed on Twitter before the captain finally spoke to us passengers onboard.

"Due to an issue with the aircraft, we will not be heading on to Dallas, we will be returning to LAX."

"No shit," I said out loud as I looked out the window and down the wing of the aircraft as it undertook a long looped turn not far from the runway we would soon be landing on.

We returned to land almost straight away.
We returned to land almost straight away. Photo credit: Dan Lake/Newshub

The onboard Wi-Fi was great. Not only was I watching my flight live, but I was also listening to the control tower working out a landing plan with the pilots. There was an issue with cabin pressurisation, which explained why we were flying relatively low.

It also allowed me to send a WhatsApp message to my mother excitedly telling her that the plane I was on was about to make an emergency landing, which wasn't a good idea.

She didn't share my excitement and instead worried. A lot.

Despite being full of fuel, cargo and passengers, the decision was made for the flight to land immediately.

The Los Angeles Fire Department and medical crews lined the runway and we finally touched down, using most of the runway to come to a complete stop.

After that, there was no fuss, no explanation and no apologies. Everyone just walked off the plane like nothing had happened.

My naivety about US domestic air travel showed at this point. As a Kiwi I'm used to the process of being rebooked on the next available flight to my destination being pretty straightforward and not hugely difficult to organise.

I suddenly realised why so many people describe American airports and airlines as horrible. And some 14 hours later, when I still hadn't reached my destination, horrible is probably too polite of a word to describe the experience.

But nonetheless I felt like I'd ticked off some life experiences.

I'd been on a plane that had been in an emergency landing, I'd been treated like cattle running from one aircraft to another in terminals at various airports around the US to ensure I'd make my connection (think Home Alone 2) and, as I'd discover when I arrived on the other side of the country, I ticked off one more life experience.

Lost luggage.