Near-Death Stories From Celebrities Who Survived Plane Crashes

We all know that air travel comes with inherent risks, unless you are Superman, whom we're pretty sure doesn't have time to read articles like this one. In particular, if you happen to be a celebrity or entertainer, whose job calls for you to travel all over the place for all kinds of reasons, it's pretty easy to see how the fear that your number will eventually come up could creep in. Some, like director Wes Anderson, won't fly without, er, pharmaceutical assistance (via Esquire); others, like the late, great football coach John Madden, simply rumbled all over the country on big, expensive buses rather than even entertain the thought of getting on a plane (via Sporting News).

Of course, accidents do happen, and they've happened to famous people often enough that we've written before about plane crashes that nearly wiped out entire bands. But the celebrities we'll be talking about today had scary, sometimes terrifying experiences in the air — and walked away to tell the tale.

Travis Barker

Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker has always seemed like a jet-setting sort, but that changed in a hurry in 2008. In September of that year, Barker — along with a security guard, personal assistant, and his good buddy Adam Goldstein, a.k.a. DJ AM — boarded a small plane bound for California from a recent stop in South Carolina. As they were lifting off, a tire blew out, forcing the pilots to attempt to bring it down. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough runway to do so, and the plane burst through a boundary fence, crossed a busy highway, and smashed into an embankment before exploding into a fireball (via Elle).

The only survivors of the crash were Goldstein and Barker, who emerged from the craft literally on fire. He suffered burns to two-thirds of his body, spent nearly three months in the hospital, and endured 27 surgeries and skin grafts — but as long as his physical recovery took, his emotional and psychological recovery took far longer. 

The extreme trauma of the crash and the loss of his friends stuck with him for a long time, causing severe depression and PTSD, according to Men's Health. Fortunately, he did eventually make a full recovery. "There's a million things that could happen to me," he told the publication in 2021. "So why should I still be afraid of airplanes?" That year, Barker took a huge step — onto a plane, the first time he had done so since the crash.

Harrison Ford

You're probably aware that the great Harrison Ford is something of an aviator. A long-time aircraft enthusiast, he received his pilot's license at the age of 53 (via Wide Open Country), and he's been jetting around the friendly skies ever since. Kind of like Han Solo, though, he's also a touch reckless, and with all that jetting, he's gotten into a mishap or two. Okay, well, two. That is to say, he's crash-landed aircraft twice.

According to the BBC, the first incident came in 1999, when Ford was forced to bring down a helicopter in a dry river bed while practicing — wait for it — emergency crash landings. (Hey, at least he got some good practice.) Then, in 2015, he made an emergency landing in his own vintage plane on an L.A. golf course when an engine failed, sustaining some pretty significant injuries (via the Guardian). While that may seem a tad... well, crazy, investigators said he absolutely made the right call in not trying to make it to the nearest airport. Also, cut him some slack — he's also employed his aviation skills in some truly awesome ways, tracking down a Boy Scout who had become lost in Yellowstone National Park in 2001 (via ABC News), commanding a supply airlift for victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and volunteering as a search and rescue pilot in Wyoming.

Paula Abdul

The multi-talented Paula Abdul has been in the public eye seemingly forever, except for several years in the '90s, when she seemed to just sort of vanish for a while. During her Las Vegas residency, she would pause mid-show to explain why: A 1992 plane crash in which she was involved, which necessitated over a dozen surgeries and left her in constant pain for pretty much the rest of the decade (via Yahoo! News).

As she began to tell this story with more frequency, some gossip websites (such as Jezebel) began shooting Abdul suspicious glances, noting that she has given different reasons for her chronic pain in the past (such as during a 2005 People interview, wherein she chalked it up to a cheerleading accident as a teen) and that there did not appear to be any FAA record of the accident Abdul describes. But in her conversation with Yahoo, she simply hand-waved the accusations, saying, "You know what? It's like, there are seven other people that were on the plane, who were in that plane accident with me. So, I really don't care what people have to say."

The surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd

In 1977, the legendary Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd endured one of the worst tragedies in the history of popular music when, just days after the release of their fifth album "Street Survivors," their chartered plane went down en route to a gig in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after running out of fuel. As reported in a Rolling Stone retrospective, it was a brutal crash; lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines all perished, along with both pilots and road manager Dean Kilpatrick.

Amazingly, 20 people survived the crash, including guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell, drummer Artimus Pyle, and singer Leslie Hawkins. The band would eventually reunite 10 years after the tragic crash, with a few stand-ins: Former guitarist Ed King (who had departed the band before the crash), and guitarist Randall Hall, who had previously played in a band with Collins. Unfortunately, a drunken-driving incident in 1986 had left Collins paralyzed from the chest down, and he never fully recovered (via Ultimate Classic Rock). After a lengthy struggle with pneumonia, he passed away in 1990.

Kechi Okwuchi

Singer Kechi Okwuchi was not yet a public figure when her life permanently changed in 2005, and the fact that she later became one speaks volumes about her level of badassery. Then only 16, the Nigerian was headed home for the holidays from boarding school with the rest of her classmates aboard a commercial airliner. Shortly after takeoff, the plane encountered some rough turbulence — and shortly after that, Okwuchi's memory of the event becomes hazy. As she would later tell CNN, "I remember holding my friend's hand and then hearing this loud scraping sound like nails on the chalkboard. My next vivid memory is opening my eyes in the hospital bed in South Africa five weeks later."

Okwuchi, burned over most of her body, was one of only two survivors of her flight's crash. Incredibly, there was a bizarre silver lining: She says she woke up "knowing songs that [she] didn't know before," and suddenly able to sing very, very well. So well that when she appeared on "America's Got Talent" in 2017, she blew everyone away, making it all the way to the finals en route to another, much more pleasant life transformation. She's become a sought-after performer, and according to eSpeakers, a motivational speaker as well — which seems mighty appropriate.

Ben Cauley

Trumpeter Ben Cauley had the unenviable distinction of being the sole survivor of another of the most appallingly tragic aviation disasters in music history. Cauley was a member of the Bar-Kays, the Memphis funk outfit that began as the in-house band for the iconic Stax Records label. According to Billboard, the band was chosen by Otis Redding to be his opener shortly after the release of their first single as a proper band, "Soul Finger," in 1967 — which is how it came to be that every member of the Bar-Kays, save one, along with Redding, were killed when Redding's twin-engine plane went down on December 10, 1967.

As reported by WREG Memphis, bassist James Alexander was spared due to there being a shortage of room on the fateful flight. "Man, it's a very numb, empty feeling," he told the outlet in 2012. "It's a very empty feeling just to wake up, and guys earlier in that day you were laughing and talking with, and all of a sudden those guys aren't around." Cauley and Alexander rebuilt their band, which, of course, went on to legendary status and was inducted into the Memphis Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 (via the Memphis Flyer). Cauley died in 2015, while Alexander carries on with the Bar-Kays to this day, according to Tidal.

Jennifer Lawrence

In 2021, the super-famous actress Jennifer Lawrence shared a story with Vanity Fair that will have you clutching the arm of whatever chair you happen to be sitting in. In 2017, it seems that Lawrence was en route to New York City from Louisville, Kentucky, aboard a private plane when things started to get weird and scary. There was a loud sound and a sudden change in the air pressure; after conferring with the pilots, a fellow passenger informed Lawrence that an engine had been lost, but it was totally cool, the plane could still land safely with just one. Then ... the other engine went out, too.

"My skeleton was all that was left in the seat," Lawrence recalled. "We were all just going to die. I started leaving little mental voicemails to my family, you know, 'I've had a great life, I'm sorry.'" Fortunately, it wasn't her time to go. The pilots managed to bring the plane in for a very hard landing in Buffalo, and miraculously, nobody on board or on the ground was injured. 

Of course, Lawrence immediately had to board another plane to her destination, which must have taken nerves of concrete-reinforced steel. Just don't try to jive her with that old "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" adage: "It made me a lot weaker," she deadpanned. "Flying is horrific and I have to do it all the time."

Ric Flair

In the '80s, pro wrestling was all the rage, brother, and if there was a star nearly as big as Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, it would have to be "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, whose signature vocalization you may be hearing in your head right now. His star, however, almost literally came crashing to Earth before it even had a chance to rise. In 1975, before rasslin' really blew up on a national level, Flair was on his way to an event in Wilmington, Delaware with fellow wrestler Jimmy Valentine when disaster struck (via Bleacher Report). Upon approach to its destination, the plane ran out of fuel just short of the runway, mowing down three trees and a utility pole before crashing.

Flair broke his back in three places, while Valentine came away from the crash paralyzed. Flair was told he would never wrestle again, but we all know how that turned out — it took him all of six months to get back into action. Unfortunately, the plane's pilot was not so lucky, spending three months in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries.

Christie Brinkley

Among readers of a certain vintage, the word "supermodel" will forever be associated with Christie Brinkley, who is improbably just as stunning today as she was in the '80s. In 1994, during a backcountry ski trip in Telluride, Colorado, Brinkley — along with her then-8-year-old daughter Alexa and several friends — were being piloted via helicopter to a difficult run when her getaway became an absolute nightmare. In a People interview that year, she recalled, "We just dropped. All of a sudden it was like someone cut the cords to the elevator, like the mountain was sucking us in, zooming into us. And I remember thinking, 'Oh, my god, this is really happening. This is not a movie effect ... This is not a ride in Disney World.'"

Indeed it was not, and the group found themselves coming in rough atop a 12,800-foot peak. Unbelievably, nobody was killed, and the group was rescued by ... yet another helicopter, which must have been a little on the nerve-jangling side (via USA Today). According to Woman and Home, Brinkley endured chronic pain in one hip for 26 long years before finally undergoing a replacement in 2021. In an Instagram post that year, she told her followers, "12 years ago I was told it needed to be replaced but the surgery was daunting ... [but] I decided to finally take time for myself and do something about the pain that had progressively influenced my decisions ... I can't tell you how happy I am to have done this."

Leonardo DiCaprio

Megastar Leonardo DiCaprio has certainly been at the center of more than a few entertaining yarns courtesy of his long and fruitful career in the moving pictures, but in 2016 as a guest on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, he spun one himself that had every jaw in the house on the floor. While on board a flight to Russia, the actor related that he was taking a leisurely glance out the window when he caught sight of something he neither expected nor wanted to see: One of the plane's engines "[turning] into a fireball" (via People).

This unfortunate occurrence came thanks to a wayward flock of birds, and DiCaprio said that while everyone aboard knew something was amiss, he was the only one to actually witness just why that was. "I kind of felt like I had already died and gone to heaven because no one said anything," he said, but he had not: the pilot managed to bring the craft in for an emergency landing, and even though everyone aboard walked away uninjured, they were treated to another round of terror before reaching safety. "All of our tires exploded and there was a hundred different ambulances there," DiCaprio remembered, before delivering the capper on his lively tale: "And, it was on CNN. That was another bummer."

Ernest Hemingway

When it comes to 20th-century novelists, few loomed as large over the literary world as Ernest Hemingway. His spare, stark prose and unerring narrative gifts, as demonstrated in stone-cold classics such as "The Old Man and the Sea" and "The Sun Also Rises," influenced generations of writers after him, all leading up to his much-deserved win of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Only months before his win, however, while on safari with his wife in Africa (he was also a total badass), he experienced a series of events more improbable than anything to be found in fiction.

According to a New York Times report that year, the pair were on a sightseeing jaunt when their flight "cracked up" and crashed "in the wilds," which sounds like the beginning of a survival thriller. Fortunately, they were shortly picked up by boat ferrying tourists to Murchison Falls, where they boarded a rescue plane ... which promptly crashed upon takeoff. Somehow, nobody aboard that flight was injured either, and Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway were able to make their way back home with a story to tell that nobody could be forgiven for viewing with extreme skepticism.

Jane Froman

If you're familiar with the work of Jane Froman, then get back to bed, Grandpa, it's too late to be reading Grunge articles. Seriously though, folks, Froman was a superstar of the '30s and '40s, a gifted singer and actress despite a lifelong struggle with stuttering. That struggle turned out to be nothing compared to what she would face later in life, though. In 1943, on her way to a USO show in Europe, her Pan-Am flight went down, crashing into the Tagus River in Portugal (via Historic Missourians).

Froman suffered horrifying injuries, including a broken arm and ribs, and damage to both legs so severe that amputation was seriously considered for both. She was determined, though, to make it back in front of her adoring fans — and so she did, summoning the willpower to recover enough to return to the stage just eight months later, albeit in a wheelchair. In 1945, she even returned — on crutches — to entertain the troops, and despite enduring roughly three dozen operations and a 6-month-long treatment for depression, she continued to perform into the '50s. 

In 1952, she was given the Hollywood biopic treatment, being portrayed by the legendary Susan Hayward in "With a Song in My Heart" — but as good an actress as Hayward unquestionably was, she was no Jane Froman on the mic. According to the Oscars website, Hayward was nominated for a Best Actress statue for her role — but Froman herself supplied her singing voice.