Flying is one of the safest ways to travel -- just take a look at the numbers. According to the IATA, more than three-and-a-half billion people flew safely on 37.6 million flights in 2015. And while there were fatal crashes, 2015 also happened to be the safest year in aviation history. That being said, it's still not uncommon to have occasional niggling doubts about cruising in a large metal box at 35,000 feet. After all, while the stats focus on crashes, there are near-misses and emergency landings to consider. Just a brief scan of the Aviation Global Incident Map makes for uncomfortable reading (there's an emergency or forced landing popping up over the world map every few hours). So we consulted Patrick Smith, passenger-jet pilot and blogger behind Ask the Pilot, for his insider knowledge on the subject.
Smith points out that there are often gray areas around what actually constitutes an emergency or forced landing. "The majority of what the media describes as 'emergency landings' are actually routine diversions or precautionary landings," he says. "Pilots do not employ the term nearly as loosely as the media does. Actual emergency landings are rare, and you wouldn’t be making one if there wasn’t something serious -- or at least potentially serious -- going on."
Still, while some bizarre onboard incidents might not constitute the definition of an emergency landing, they can still force planes to unexpectedly land. "The most common reason for a diversion is an ill passenger," says Smith. "In-flight medical crises are very common and are the leading cause of diversions on long-range flights." And although medical emergencies may be the most common reason, we found that there are far stranger things that have led a plane to make an unscheduled landing. See for yourself below.
1. Blocked Toilets
When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. When an airplane’s toilets become unexpectedly blocked, the captain might not have another option but to turn the plane around or make an unscheduled landing. This was the exact dilemma on a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777 flying from Toronto to Pakistan. The plane was forced to descend to Manchester Airport after passengers blocked the toilets. According to Metro.co.uk, there was a quick five-hour pipe clean and the plane was back in business again.
2. Snakes on a Plane
Some incidents are stranger than fiction, while others follow the lead of thrillers like “Snakes on a Plane.” In this case, the snake in question was found on board a commercial flight in Mexico, causing passengers to panic. Unfortunately, Samuel L. Jackson was not on the plane to wrestle the snake when it popped out from an overhead compartment. Instead, the plane performed an emergency landing in Mexico City, where animal control personnel arrived to take control of the situation.
3. A Whitney Houston Impersonator
In one of the most bizarre cases we’ve come across, an American Airlines plane was forced to unexpectedly land after a female passenger would not stop singing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Flying from Los Angeles to New York, the plane diverted to Kansas City Airport after the passengers and crew “could take no more” of the classic tune.
4. A Passenger Jumping on the Snack Cart
Bad behavior on a plane while drunk is nothing new, but when a sober passenger decides to aggressively argue with fellow passengers and crew after climbing aboard the snack cart and riding it, well, that’s a little stranger. The bizarre incident, which took place on an IndiGo flight from Dubai to Kozhikode in India, caused the pilot to divert the plane to Mumbai, where the man was escorted from the plane by police.
5. A Prayer Box
While security precautions on flights are good, things got out of hand on one flight when a teenager’s prayer box was judged to be a suspicious device. A boy, who was flying from New York to Louisville on a US Airways flight, was using a tefillin — a set of small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah — to pray. After questioning the boy, crew members decided they hadn’t received a clear response and the plane made an unscheduled landing in Philadelphia. Explaining the reasoning behind the emergency landing, FBI Special Agent J.J. Klaber said, “This is something most Americans probably have not seen before.” He was most likely referring to the tefillin, but it’s also true of the emergency landing itself.
6. An Extremely Unpleasant Odor
When flying, the air in the plane’s cabin is recycled, which means when a severely bad odor attacks, there’s not much that can be done to escape it. When a passenger on a British Airways flight from London to Dubai suffered serious restroom trouble, the smell was so alarming that the captain had the to turn the plane around and land just 30 minutes into the journey. The offending passenger fortunately remained anonymous.
7. Bird Strikes
While birds striking a plane’s engine might seem like a fairly understandable reason for a plane to conduct an emergency landing, the frequency with which this is happening in the New York area makes things a little crazier. According to NBC New York, bird strikes have become increasingly common, especially at JFK, where nearby wetlands attract many migratory birds. In August 2016, birds forced down two flights in one day. One of the most famous emergency landings due to birds occurred on US Airways flight 1549. After multiple bird strikes caused the engines to fail, the plane ditched on the Hudson River. Thankfully, there were no fatalities and the world gained a new Tom Hanks film (“Sully”) out of it.
8. Gerard Depardieu's Bad Behavior
The plane may not taken off, but when a French movie star causes a taxiing Air France flight to turn around because he can’t resist urinating in a bottle, it deserves a spot on this list. The actor was Gerard Depardieu who, according to the “Telegraph,” was denied use of the toilets because the seat belt signs were lit and the plane was set to take off from Paris to Dublin. In response, he attempted to urinate into a bottle at the back of the plane. However, the bottle overflowed, creating a mess on the floor. The plane was forced to turn back and the actor was kicked off the flight.
- 7 Facts That Could Save Your Life in a Plane Crash
- Is Airline Travel Getting More Dangerous?
- 9 Common Travel Emergencies and How to Deal With Them
All products are independently selected by our writers and editors. If you buy something through our links, Oyster may earn an affiliate commission.