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Plane Facts: Accidental Pilots, Walter “Taffy” Holden And Helen Collins

In some cases, the pilot at the controls had no intention of being there. Sometimes, it works out better than anyone could have imagined.

Accidental Pilots
Photo by Paul Lucas from Leicestershire, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s rare when a passenger somehow ends up behind the controls of an aircraft they don’t know how to fly, but it happens. Most of the time, the results are tragic, but the chances of survival go up if the accidental pilot can figure out how to use the radio to reach out for help. In those cases, either another pilot in the area or air traffic control will attempt to talk them down calmly. There are at least seven known cases where an individual was able to land an aircraft they weren’t qualified to fly. One of the most incredible cases was in the 1960s, when an engineer conducting ground testing in an XM135 Lightning, one of the fastest aircraft in the world at the time, accidentally took off. Miraculously, he landed safely. So did an elderly woman in 2012 after her husband died behind the controls of a twin-engine Cessna 414. So, for those of you who have fantasized about heroically landing a plane, this one is for you. 

Engineer Who Accidentally Took Off In An XM135 Lightning: Walter “Taffy” Holden

Flight Experience: Some

Top Speed Of The Aircraft He Knew How To Fly: 138 mph

Top Speed Of The XM135: Mach 2.0

Time The Aircraft Could Reach 39,000 Feet From Ground Level: 150 seconds

How One Pilot Describes Flying It: “Like being saddled to a skyrocket”

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Date Of Incident: July 22, 1966

Location: RAF Lyneham airfield in England

Why He Was In The Plane: Tasked with testing different electrical configurations

Testing Process: Rev engine to high RPM, taxi 90-120 feet, cut off engine, apply brakes, rinse and repeat

Test Pilot Typically Present: Yes

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Test Pilots Available That Day: None

How The Takeoff Happened: Inadvertently engaged afterburner

Method To Disengage: Pushing gate keys behind throttle, which he couldn’t locate

Able To Disengage After Takeoff: Yes

Radios On Board: 0

Ejection Seat Operational: No

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Failed Landing Attempts: 2

Method He Used For Successful Landing: Pretended to be landing the taildragger he trained in

Result: Successful, with tailstrike on runway

Distance He Stopped From End Of Runway: 300 feet

Age Holden Flew West: 90

Age Of Woman Forced To Land A Twin-Engine Cessna 414: 80

Name: Helen Collins

How Her Son Described Her: “As frail as frail could be”

Certified As A Pilot: No

Reason She Took The Controls: The pilot, her husband, suffered fatal heart attack

Time It Took Her To Figure Out The Controls: 90 minutes

Want to read another Plane Facts article? Learn Aircraft Carriers here.

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