Plane Bucks and Bounces Like An Angry Bronco

September 2, 2009

in Airplane Stories

I’ve been a frequent flier for longer than I can remember.  I’ve seen just about everything, and experienced just about everything.  With that in mind, some things that I either take for granted, or just let pass, are a true hell for others.  So here’s a story about a flight from hell – one for a few fellow passengers, AND a pilot! 

Dateline, 1989 – American Airlines – Miami to Newark 

As everyone knows, flights from Miami north to Newark NJ can be a bit dicey.  Especially when there are storms in the central states and the jet-stream is moving on its high-speed trajectory eastwards. 

I was seated in the aisle, next to a young couple.  About 20 minutes into the flight, we started getting bounced about.  The kind of bouncing that makes your stomach do that little flip-flop, and you can feel the tail end of the plane swing left and right.  Outside the window was streaming rain and flashes of lightning. 

The couple to my right were white-knuckled.  I could see where they were holding hands, and their skin was pale from the pressure of each other’s fingers.  Every time the plane jolted, they held their breath.  Flight attendants were seated the entire flight and sounds of vomiting passengers towards the rear of the plane were occasionally heard in the otherwise silent tension throughout the cabin.

 I decided to catch a nap – it had been a long day.  And for me, this was just another bumpy flight.  So I leaned my seat back and closed my eyes. 

I woke up about a half hour or 40 minutes later.  The plane was still bucking like an angry bronco.  The couple next to me were talking quietly, smiling, and playing chess with a little magnetic travel board.  Now, I’m not one to chit-chat on a plane, but I did ask them if they were becoming more comfortable with all the bouncing about.  The woman told me that what made them relax a bit was the fact that I was sleeping – she told me that they had both figured that if someone was apparently so used to the bouncing that they could go to sleep, then they probably shouldn’t be all that nervous.  Glad to oblige I guess… 

But it does get… worse… 

I learned afterwards that during the mid-late 1970’s, American Airlines had gone through a period where those people doing the hiring preferred Navy pilots.  Now, you might wonder what that has to do with anything, but remember how Navy pilots have to fly when landing on a carrier.  That carrier is moving about, and the runway is short.  It’s not entirely unlike landing on a steady runway when your plane is moving about. 

As we approach Newark, the storm is still very heavy.  The final descent has the couple a bit white knuckled again as the plane is constantly buffeted left and right.  The tail swings… the wings dip… the plane shakes and rattles… we approach the runway… I can see the lights…  At the last moment, I feel the plane pitch sharply to the right.  The pilot responds like a pro – he slams the plane down HARD…  just as one would do on an aircraft carrier. 

But an MD80 is not an F16… There was a bone-rattling jolt as we hit, along with a loud sound I was unable to identify.  Passengers screamed… air masks fell from the overheads…  engines roared loud as the plane “scraped” to a stop.  And it did stop.  Completely. 

And we sat there, not quite at the end of the runway.  A few moments later, the engines shut down.  After a confused few minutes, the pilot’s voice came over the speakers to give us the good news.  Apparently, he was forced to land the plane so hard, that more than half the tires had burst on impact.  We were unable to taxi to the gate.  After about 1/2 an hour, stair-mobiles and buses arrived to allow us to deplane. 

As I got off, the flight attendants offered their kind “buh-bye”  “thank you for flying with us”  etc. etc.  The pilot, however, stood in the cockpit door staring down the length of the plane and shaking his head and mumbling what seemed like obscenities to his first officer. 

I had waited for the very eager masses to exit, and was one of the last off of the plane.  I smiled to him and said… “rough flight huh.”  He nodded and told me I didn’t know the half of it.  Apparently, he’d be stuck in the plane for hours yet, as he was responsible for writing down the serial numbers of each and every air mask that had fallen from the overheads – almost a hundred of them.  I nodded sympathetically to that very tired Captain, smelling slightly of brimstone, and holding a clipboard with a ticket to “paperwork hell.”


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra September 2, 2009 at 2:26 pm

The scariest part of this story is that it was about an American Airlines MD80 flying in 1989 . . . and I am flying on an American Airlines MD80 in a few weeks. 20 years, same plane.


saw September 2, 2009 at 4:04 pm


Don't be scared 🙂 MD80s now flown by American are likely former TWA aircraft that were manufactured as late as 2000.



Demotage September 2, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Great story Saw!

Small quibble though…..While the Navy originally ordered the F16 in a "navalized" version – in testing they found the under carriage too prone to cracks, and cancelled their order in favor of developing the FA/18 Hornet. The Navy did fly F16's in theirTop Gun school – in fact, they were planes originally destined for the Pakistani Air Force that were embargoed. But they were only used to simulate enemy pilots due to the fact that their flight characteristics were similar to the Mig-29 Fulcrum and the Su25 Flanker fighters flown by the Soviets.

Bottom line – your former Navy pilots were more likely reliving their days in an F14 Tomcat or an FA/18 Hornet.

Reminds me a little of a time when I was flying from Sacramento to Orange County (John Wayne ;-/ ) . It was on United, where you can listen to air traffic control, and I heard ATC direct our pilot to change course. Our's too was likely ex-Air Force or Navy, because he followed the direction by standing the plane up almost 90 degrees on the wing, and banking that turn like a fighter. It was kind of fun – although not everyone in the cabin agreed.


saw September 3, 2009 at 1:42 am


Well… my extensive Navy fighter background comes almost exclusively from made for TV movies 🙂


ps September 3, 2009 at 5:26 am

saw- or maybe they were actually dc-8's formerly flown by National Airlines— 🙂


Adam September 5, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Landing on a carrier that's moving in rough seas, vs. a stabilized, but turbulent approach to a non-moving runway are completely different scenarios with no comparison. Plus, F-16's aren't Navy. They're Air Force aircraft, and therefore don't land on aircraft carriers.


Bruce Weatherby September 5, 2009 at 10:32 pm


There's plenty of 20 year old aircraft flying commercially. Nothing to be concerned about. Aircraft wear is measured in takeoff/landing cycles. Not hours, or miles, or years like a car. Hell, most of Northwest's DC-9's were built in the 1970's, with some of their oldest built in the late 1960's. Before most 727's were retired within the last four or five years, there were plenty of 25+ year airframes flying. Aircraft age has nothing to do with safety, despite the concern of the non-aviation knowledgeable public.

And yes, while American inherited TWA MD-80's, non were post 2000 new built. They were all early to mid 1980's produced MD-80's that TWA was flying. The production line closed in the 90's. About 95% of the flying public knows nothing about planes, flying and aviation, and this is evident by reading boards like this.


saw September 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm


TWA had orders for MD-80's that were delivered in early 2000 – those orders were inherited by AA. I'll check with you next time we're looking for exact dates – the points being made are still valid, despite your superior historical professor-type knowledge.


Point is – when either pieces are moving, the safest thing to do is minimize the time of partial contact. Like I said – I'm not a pilot so I'm certain the skills are different between the two scenarios, but the results are the same – which is the point.


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