Frequent flyers know the drill once aboard an aircraft. A cheery flight attendant walks everyone through the safety and emergency equipment and procedures should bad things happen to good planes. Many of us tune out the federally-mandated drill, perhaps because we’ve heard it so many times, perhaps to avoid thinking about situations where that little talk would pay off.
Bad things do happen to airplanes. Fortunately, death by plane crash is relatively rare on commercial flights. In 2018, fewer than 600 fatalities were recorded, making that year one of the safest for commercial aviation. That’s a mortality rate of one fatal accident for every 3 million flights.
Earl Weener, an aviation safety expert and member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), pointed out that air travel by private plane remains much more dangerous than commercial flight, evening the overall industry average:
“The message that I’ve been trying to get out is that while the airline industry has improved their accident rate in the U.S. by almost 80 percent over the last 10, 12 years, the general aviation industry has been flat.”
Following are a pair of chilling tales told by plane crash survivors who had the misfortune to be on one of those ill-fated flights.
- American flyer Matt Lehtinen was piloting a small plane on July 27, 2019, over Quebec when he noticed a problem with the oil pressure and that the operating temperatures were abnormal. Then, the craft’s engine stopped working. Lehtinen pulled the CAPS (Cirrus Airframe Parachute System) chutes to soften the landing blow.
That proved to be a good move. The puddle jumper and its occupant crashed between two trees. The father of two children emerged with only one small cut – but he was stranded hundreds of miles from help.
Lehtinen did what any reasonable person would do in that situation: he took a selfie.
Lehtinen turned on his cellphone camera’s video recorder document how he dealt with the dire situation. First, he held up an emergency phone, explaining that he was trying to get his SOS signal to work. Obviously rattled, the lucky airman recounted:
“She [his plane] blew oil. I was losing oil pressure.”
The force of the impact had completely split apart one door of the small plane, allowing the pilot to evacuate the wreck. A still-shocked Lehtinen realized that it might take a while for rescuers to arrive and worried that “the bugs are so bad.”
Using a lighter from the center console of the downed craft, Lehtinen built a fire and added wet turf to make it smoky as an aerial marker to guide emergency responders. The pilot’s ploy worked: a text popped up on the yellow emergency phone:
“The aircraft looking for you spotted the smoke.”
Five hours after narrowly avoiding sudden death, a rescue helicopter arrived to airlift the distressed pilot to safety who had made his video log “just so people can learn from this experience so something good comes out of it.”
- In 1944, nine WWII U.S. navy airmen were shot down after making bombing runs over the tiny Japanese island of Chichijima, located 700 miles south of Tokyo. Only one of them successfully avoided capture after the others swam ashore.
The eight “flyboys” who made landfall were rounded up by Japanese soldiers who, as was customary, tortured and beat them before executing them, either by beheading with swords or by multiple stab-wounds from bayonets and sharpened bamboo stakes.
Locals reported later that the island garrison’s surgeons removed the livers and thigh muscles from four of the corpses. Secret transcripts of the war crime trials and testimony of surviving Japanese veterans revealed the gruesome details:
Dr. Teraki cut open the chest and took out the liver. I removed a piece of flesh from the flyer’s thigh, weighing about six pounds and measuring four inches wide, about a foot long.”
The human meat was prepared to serve to the senior Japanese officers who washed it down with rice wine:
“Major Sueo Matoba decided to include American flesh in a sake-fuelled feast he laid on for officers including the commander-in-chief on the island, Gen Yoshio Tachibana. Both men were later tried and executed for war crimes.”
The major brought “a delicacy” to a party at his private quarters: a special-order of airman Floyd Hall’s liver. Matoba told Admiral Kinizo Mori, “I had it pierced with bamboo sticks and cooked with soy sauce and vegetables.” The victorious captors consumed “very small pieces” as “good medicine for the stomach.”
The sole survivor of the grisly war crime had ditched his plane further from the island’s shores than the other crews had. Then, he managed to clamber onto a life raft.
Japanese boats set out in hot pursuit to capture the lone survivor, only to be met by a fury of American planes whose hail of fire repelled the ships. The aviator stranded on the drifting raft was ultimately rescued by the USS submarine Finback.
The lucky pilot thought he was hallucinating when the hulking black sub surfaced right in front of him. He had been vomiting, bleeding from a head wound, and shedding fearful tears. The fortunate airman had a short message of gratitude for his responders:
“Happy to be aboard.”
The lone survivor? Former President George W. Bush – then 20-year-old Lieutenant George Bush. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the raid.