It was August 9, 1978 when an Olympic Airways plane nearly crashed in central Athens, with the pilot managing to avoid disaster in the final seconds of the flight.
It was a hot August day at Ellinikon International Airport when 400 passengers boarded Olympic Airways Flight 411 to New York, most of them US citizens returning from their summer vacation in Greece. There were eighteen crew members on this long-distance transatlantic flight.
The pilot, Sifis Migadis, who was in charge of flying the 370 ton jumbo jet had 32 years of flying experience. Beside him was co-pilot Constantinos Fikardos, also a seasoned pilot with whom he flew frequently.
What happened in just 93 seconds that day will forever be etched in the minds of the 418 people on board the Olympic Airways Boeing 747.
Takeoff — and engine failure
At 2:00 p.m. that day, the crew took their seats and the aircraft entered the runway for takeoff. The plane was carrying 160 tons of fuel, as it would fly directly from Athens to New York.
During takeoff, the aircraft was unable to climb high enough; before the wheels could lift off the ground, an explosion was heard from the right engine, which had been damaged.
Migadis could not stop the plane and ordered Fikardos to pick up the wheels to continue the takeoff.
Meanwhile, the flight engineer, as soon as he saw the damage in the engine, shut off the water by turning off the water injection system in all the engines. With this, the aircraft lost 4,500 pounds of thrust.
The pilot was having trouble getting the Boeing 747 to climb high enough, and ground control people thought the plane would crash into the city of Athens.
With minimal altitude, the pilot managed to clear the first obstacle, which was a hill in the neighborhood of Alimos, 200 meters (656 ft) high.
Migadis flew at an altitude of only 209 meters (685 ft) before the aircraft began to lose altitude again. At the same time, Fikardos was sending desperate emergency signals to the control tower.
Airport alarms sounded as the huge jumbo jet flew over the apartment buildings of Kallithea and Nea Smyrni, nearly scratching the top of the Interamerican Building on Syggrou Avenue.
According to a stewardess, from the windows they could look outside and see the employees working in the offices staring at the plane, completely flabbergasted.
At that time, the plane was flying at a speed of just 160 miles per hour, at an incredible height of 55 meters (180 feet) above the ground.
The pilot decides to crash on a hill
Migadis chose to keep the plane stable in a horizontal position, because he knew the law of aerodynamics very well. As he said in an interview, he broke many aviation rules in order to keep his plane in the air.
He decided not to turn around and try to get out of the situation. He kept the jet straight ahead, as he had decided to try to get to Mount Egaleo, to crash the plane into an uninhabited area.
For those dramatic 93 seconds, the two men in the cockpit remained silent. At the same time, the engineer desperately tried to repair the engines in any way possible, while the pilots were focused, calm and collected.
This is the reason why most of the passengers did not understand what was going on and felt that the low flight over Athens was planned. In fact, some of them were taking pictures from the windows as they passed just above the rooftops.
At 2:05 p.m., a light breeze helped the Boeing 747 climb a few feet higher, which, combined with the reduced water, helped the plane turn slightly before the plane crashed into Mount Egaleo in Athens.
Landing at Ellinikon
Just before the plane crashed into Mount Egaleo, Migadis made a last second decision and performed some last resort maneuvers, managing to turn around and return to Ellinikon.
The people in the control tower didn’t know what was going on because there was no communication from the cockpit. When they saw the Boeing 747 returning from Piraeus, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
Migadis flew over the sea near Piraeus and drained some of the fuel, making the plane lighter, allowing it to bring the jumbo jet back safely to Ellinikon and land it.
The plane’s return was greeted with delirious applause from the ground. When Migadis got off the plane, he saw his two daughters waiting for him.
The two women had been alarmed by a cousin, who had seen the plane flying a few meters above the Panionios football pitch and told them it had nearly hit the light pylons and crashed.
Migadis’ composure, skill and experience undoubtedly saved thousands of lives, the plane crashed in a populated area. The plane flew at low altitude which seems impossible. Even Boeing engineers said it was not possible for this particular plane to stay in the air at such low speeds.
After the near-tragedy, Migadis, like the hero he was, took his place in the cockpit of a replacement plane and, at 6:00 p.m., with the rest of the crew, flew the 400 passengers above. across the Atlantic to New York. .
As Migadis said in a 1994 interview, “Those of us who survived that day are stowaways in life.”