Friday, 27 March 2015

Plane crashes: Are they inevitable?

An aviation accident is defined by the Convention on International Civil Aviation  as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft, which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight until all such persons have disembarked, where a person is fatally or seriously injured, the aircraft sustains damage or structural failure or the aircraft is missing or is completely inaccessible.                              

I have flown in planes all over the world since 1941 and only once was I in a plane that can be referred to as having been involved in an aviation accident. My family (wife, two daughters, son-in-law and five grandchildren) were in a plane that left Orlando and landed in Atlanta in October 2013. The plane hit the runway quite hard and caused a fire in the rear engine. As soon as we stopped at the terminal, the captain ordered everyone to evacuate the plane at once. I couldn’t undue my seatbelt due to a broken right arm I got many years ago that caused permanent nerve damage to my arm and my wife couldn’t help me because while she was in the aisle reaching for me, she was shoved forward by the onrushing of passengers. Soon I was all alone trying to reach for the clasp. A flight attendant came to my aid and released the clasp and we ran out of the plane with smoke following close behind us. No. The plane didn’t explode but believe me—I was terrified because I thought I and the flight attendant were going to be engulfed in a fiery explosion. My fear however pales when you consider the fear that passengers have when their plane is spiraling down to earth at a very high rate of speed.

The very first fatal aviation accident was the crash of a Rozière balloon near Wimereux, France, on June 15, 1785, killing its inventor Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier as well as the other occupant, Pierre Romain. The first fatal flight accident involving a powered aircraft was the crash of a Wright Model A aircraft at Fort Myer, Virginia, USA, on September 17, 1908, injuring its co-inventor and pilot, Orville Wright, and killing the passenger, Signal Corps LieutenantThomas Selfridge.

Believe it or not, everyone should know that flying is the safest way to travel. Even in parts of the world with a high aviation accident rate, that rate is still far below other ways to get from point A to point B. Take car crashes for instance. According to the World Health Organization, road traffic accidents caused an estimated 1.24 million deaths worldwide in the year 2010. That is one person being killed every 25 seconds.

Admittedly, plane accidents are more horrifying because of the time that passes before the planes crash and the passengers are killed. But being burned alive in a car accident is more horrifying that being killed instantly in a plane crash.

Further, pilots are trained to be extremely careful in what they are doing when they are in the air whereas drivers of cars that are in fatal accidents are for the most part are either impaired, careless or driving like fools. That is why there is a greater risk of dying in a car crash than a plane crash despite the fact that there are thousands of planes in the air at any one time. In the United States alone, there are as many as 3500 planes in the air each day of the week. That comes to 1,277,500 flights in the United States every year. In the year 2014 there wasn’t one fatality from a plane crash in the United States. On average, there are as many as 43,000 people killed by car accidents per year in the United States.  Now you know why it is less likely that you will ever be killed in a plane than you will in a car.                                                             

Why do passenger planes crash? I will give you the main reasons why they crash.

Pilot error

This kind of error can come about because of a mistake, oversight, lapse in judgment, or failure to exercise due diligence by pilots during the performance of their duties. Usually in an accident caused by pilot error, it is assumed that the pilot in command (captain)  makes an error unintentionally. However, an intentional disregard for a standard operating procedure (or warning) is still considered to be a pilot error, even if the pilot's actions justified criminal charges for criminal negligence.

One of the most famous incidents of an aircraft disaster attributed to pilot error was the night time crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 near Miami, Florida on December 29, 1972. The captain, first officer, and flight engineer had become fixated on a faulty landing gear light and had failed to realize that the flight controls had been bumped by one of the crew altering the autopilot settings from level flight to a slow descent. Told by ATC to fly the plane over a sparsely populated area away from the airport while they dealt with the problem (with, as a result, very few lights on the ground visible to act as an external reference), the distracted flight crew did not notice the plane losing height and the aircraft eventually struck the ground in the Everglades, killing 101 out of 176 passengers and crew. The captain didn’t need all three to be concentrating on the problem. Someone should have been concentrating on flying the plane.

On the 27th of March 1977, a senior KLM pilot failed to hear, understand or follow tower instructions, causing two Boeing 747s to collide on the runway at Tenerife resulting in 583 people being killed.  

On November 12, 1996, the world's deadliest mid-air collision was the 1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision  involving  Saudia  Flight 763 and Air Kazakhstan Flight 1907 over Haryana, India. The crash was mainly the result of the Kazakh pilot flying lower than the assigned clearance altitude. All 349 passengers and crew on board both aircraft died. 

On August 19, 1980, Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 163, a Lockheed L-1011 became the world's deadliest aviation accident that did not involve a physical crash. The crew performed a successful emergency landing after a fire broke out in the aft C-3 baggage compartment, which eventually burned through the ceiling of that compartment and then expanded into the aft passenger cabin. While the crew managed to land the plane safely, the Captain did not stop immediately and order an evacuation. Instead, he took the time to taxi off the runway and by then, everyone had become unconscious and no one opened any doors to begin the evacuation. All 301 passengers and crew died in the fire before rescue ground crews could open any door.    

On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, New York, just after departing John F. Kennedy International Airport bound for Las Américas International Airport, Santo Domingo. The first officer's overuse of the rudder in response to wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines 747 was cited as the cause of the crash. All 260 people on board, as well as five people on the ground, died from the crash.

On 26 April 1994, China Airlines Flight 140 was completing a routine flight and approach at Nagoya Airport, Japan, when the Airbus A300B4-622R's First Officer inadvertently pressed the Take off/Go-around button which raises the throttle position to the same as take offs and go-arounds. The action and the two pilots' reaction resulted in a crash that killed 264 (15 crew and 249 passengers) of the 271 (15 crew and 256 passengers) people aboard.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100 that crashed into Mount Salak in Indonesia in 2012 was on a demonstration flight for potential buyers and journalists It had a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) but this had been switched off by the pilots who assumed that the computer was malfunctioning. Unaware that they were near the mountain, the crew were also distracted by conversations with potential buyers in the cockpit. All 45 people on board died.

Eastern Airlines flight 401 smashed into the Florida Everglades in 1972. The crash happened after all three members of the crew became obsessed with finding why a single indicator light had not come on when the landing gear was lowered. While they investigated, and not noticing that the autopilot had been accidentally switched to a setting that allowed a steady descent, they did not realize they were heading for disaster until it was too late. Everyone on board were killed.

In 1978, the crashing of United Airlines flight 173, led to a fundamental change in the way pilots were trained. The captain allowed it to run out of fuel while circling Portland, Oregon. It crashed with the loss of 10 lives. As the fuel was running down, the crew was investigating whether the landing gear had deployed properly after a noticeable jolt and the plane turning to the right instead of landing as soon as possible.

The stupidest incident that resulted in everyone in the plane being killed was when the pilot let his young son sit in the co-pilot’s seat. The boy began playing with the controls and before the pilot could stop him, the plane crashed killing everyone on board.

For fatal accidents, one calculation puts the primary cause as "pilot error" in 50% of all cases.

Mechanical problems

The deadliest single-plane crash in 1985 was when a Boeing 747, Japan Airlines flight 123, crashed into a mountain, killing 520 people. It was caused by mechanical problems—a badly repaired rear pressure bulkhead ruptured leading to total loss of control. Incidentally, there was only four who survived.

AeroPeru flight 603 crashed into the sea off Peru in 1996 after the instruments stopped working and the computer bombarded the crew with a series of baffling emergency messages. A maintenance worker had forgotten to remove tape from "static ports" needed to feed data to the instruments. At night over the sea, it was impossible for the crew to know their altitude and subsequently, a wing hit the water. All 70 people on board died.

n 2010 a Qantas Airbus 380 faced disaster over western Indonesia. One of the engines failed, a wing and the landing gear were both damaged and there was a problem with the fuel system. The plane's computerized system began bombarding the cockpit with misleading error messages. The pilots chose to ignore the computers. Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny managed to land the plane in Singapore with no loss of life.

On the 9th of January, 2011, an IranAir Boeing 727 broke into pieces near the city of Orumiyeh, killing 77 of the 100 people on board. The pilots had reported a technical failure before trying to land.

On the 8th of May 2003, as many as 170 people were reported dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the rear ramp of an old Soviet plane, an Ilyushin 76 cargo plane, apparently fell off, sucking the passengers out of the rear of the plane.

On March 3, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, crashed in a forest northeast of Paris, France. The London-bound plane crashed shortly after taking off from Orly airport. All 346 people on board died. It was later determined that the cargo door detached, which caused an explosive decompression that caused the floor just above it to collapse. The collapsed floor severed the control cables, which left the pilots without control of the elevators, the rudder and No. 2 engine. The plane entered a steep dive and crashed. It was the deadliest plane crash of all time until the Tenerife disaster in 1977.

On May 25, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191, following improper maintenance and the loss of an engine, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10, lost control and crashed near O'Hare International Airport in Des Plaines, Illinois. The crash resulted in the deaths of all 271 passengers and crew on board, as well as two people on the ground. It remains the deadliest commercial aircraft accident in the United States history.

On January 1, 1978; Air India 747-200; Bombay, India: The plane crashed in the sea shortly after takeoff, killing all 190 passengers and 23 crew. This accident was due to a failure of an attitude detector.

Bad weather

On the 24th of July, 2014, Air Algerie AH5017 disappeared over Mali amid poor weather near the border with Burkina Faso. The McDonnell Douglas MD-83 was operated by Spain's Swiftair, and was heading from Ouagadougou to Algiers carrying 116 passengers—51 of them French. All are thought to have died.

On the 23rd of July 2014, forty-eight people died when a Tawainese ATR-72 plane crashed into stormy seas during a short flight. TransAsia Airways GE222 was carrying 54 passengers and four crew to the island of Penghu. It made an abortive attempt to land before crashing on its second attempt.

On the 26th of July 2011, some 78 people are killed when a Moroccan military C-130 Hercules crashes into a mountain near Guelmim in Morocco. Officials blamed bad weather.

On the 8th of July 2011, a Hewa Bora Airways plane crash-landed in bad weather in Democratic Republic of Congo, killing 74 of the 118 people on board.

Passenger planes shot down

A Siberian Airlines plane was heading to Novosibirsk, Russia from Tel Aviv, Israel when it was shot down and crashed into the Black Sea on 4 October, 2001. All 78 passengers onboard were killed. The Ukrainian military denied its involvement at first. However, Ukrainian officials later admitted that its military could have mistakenly shot the plane down during a training exercise. Compensation was paid to the victims's relatives.

In September 1993, a total of 136 people died when three Tupolev civilian airliners belonging to Transair Georgia were hit by rebel missiles and gunfire in the breakaway region of Abkhazia during its war of independence with Georgia.

The following day, a T-154 was shot down while attempting to land at Sukhumi airport. The attack killed 108 of the 132 people on board. 

An Iran Air Airbus A300, which was bound for Dubai, was shot down in airspace above the Gulf on 3 July, 1988. The plane was mistaken for an F-14 fighter plane that had been sold to Iran before the 1979 revolution. An American cruiser, USS Vincennes launched two missiles at the plane, downing it and killing all 290 passengers and crew onboard. The American government later compensated the families of victims.

A Korean Airlines passenger jet, which was travelling to Seoul, South Korea from New York, was shot down by a Soviet fighter plane on 1 September, 1983, killing all 269 passengers and crew on board. The plane was shot when it veered off-course and strayed into Soviet territory. Soviet leaders initially denied knowledge of the incident but later admitted the country's role, claiming that the aircraft had been on a spy mission. Not likely.

Rhodesia Flight 827 was hit by a missile fired by rebels on the 12th of February 1979. All 59 people on the plane were killed in the crash.

A Libyan Airlines Boeing 727-200 plane was shot down by Israeli fighters in Egypt's Sinai Desert on 21 February, 1973. It was believed that the pilots got lost due to bad weather and equipment failure over northern Egypt, resulting in the plane entering Israeli-controlled airspace over the Sinai desert. After firing warning shots and giving signals to land, two Israeli fighter jets shot down the plane. Out of 113 people on board, only five, including the co-pilot, survived.

On the 23rd of July 1954 a Cathay Pacific C-54 Skymaster carrying 19 passengers and crew was flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong when it was shot down by a mainland Chinese Army fighter plane off the coast of Hainan Island. Ten people died. China said it had mistaken the plane for a military aircraft on an attack mission. Sure and the Jews eat bacon. In 2005, my wife and I flew on a Cathay Pacific passenger plane from Hong Kong to Bangkok. Fortunately for all of us in that plane, there were no Chinese fighters in our area.

Passenger planes destroyed by terrorists

Passenger airliners as well as cargo aircraft have been the subject of plots or attackes by bombs and fire since the near the start of air travel. Many early bombings were suicides or schemes for insurance money, but in the latter part of the 20th century, political and religious militant terrorism became the dominant motive for attacking large jets. There has been 86 cases related to airliner bombings, 53 of them resulting in deaths.

United Airlines Chesterton Crash 1933 Boeing 247 was destroyed by a bomb, with nitroglycerin as the probable explosive agent. A Chicago gangland murder was suspected, but the case remains unsolved. It is thought to be the first proven act of air sabotage in the history of commercial aviation.

Canadian Pacific Air Lines In-flight bombing occurred in 1949, Joseph-Albert Guay packed a bomb made of dynamite in the baggage carried by his wife. The explosion occurred after takeoff leading to the death of all 19 passengers and 4 crew. Guay was later put on trial and sentenced to death by hanging on 12 January 1951.

In 1955, Jack Gilbert Graham packed a bomb containing dynamite in a suitcase carried by his mother on United Airlines Flight 629. The explosion killed all 39 passengers and all 5 crew members. Graham was executed in 1957 for the pre-meditated murder of his mother, as there was no federal statute then for the carrying out of an airplane bombing.

 Continental Airlines Flight 11, registration N70775, was a Boeing 707 aircraft which exploded on May 22, 1962 in the vicinity of Centerville, Iowa, while en route from O'Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, to Kansas City, Missouri. It was later discovered by investigators that one of the passengers, Thomas G. Doty, had brought a bomb on board the aircraft. This was the first in-flight bombing of a jet airliner by a suicide bomber.

The Aden Airways DC3 registered VR-AAN was destroyed on 22 November 1966 at 1220 HRS. Investigations revealed a bomb had been placed by 'Ali, the son of Amir Mohammed bin Said, Prime Minister of Wahidi (not in modern Yeman) who wanted to prematurely succeed him as Amir.

Cyprus Airways Flight 284 was in 1967 a de Havilland Comet owned by British European Airways was flying between Athens, Greece and Nicosia, Cyprus when it suffered an explosion in the cabin, killing all 66 on board. Cause is unsolved, but a recovered seat cushion showed traces of a military plastic explosive. It is believed the bomb was placed by terrorists hoping to kill the Greek general in command of the Cyprus army who was to be aboard but cancelled shortly before departure of the plane.

Swissair Flight 330 on February 21, 1970, a Convair CV-990 Coronado jet named “Baselland” was flying on the route with 38 passengers and nine crew members. A bomb detonated in the aft cargo compartment of the aircraft. All aboard the aircraft were killed.

On October 6, 1976 Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 exploded after takeoff from Barbados. 73 were killed. US-allied Cuban exiles in Venezuela were convicted of placing a bomb in the plane.

During Middle East Airlines Flight 438 in 1976, a bomb exploded in a cargo bay of a Boeing 720B enroute from Beirut, Lebanon to Dubai. 

Pan Am Flight 830 on August 11, 1982 was a Boeing 747. A bomb was placed under a seat which later killed a 16-year-old Japanese boy and  injuring 15. The bomb was placed under the seat by Mohammed Rashed who was linked to a Palestinian terrorist organization. The bomb exploded as the plane crossed the Pacific Ocean, filling the rear passenger cabin with smoke, screams and blood. Rashed was arrested in Greece and later convicted of murder and released in 1996. He also convicted in 2006 by a United States court. Credited for his cooperation against associates, Rashed was released from federal prison within days after spending more than fourteen years in custody in Greece.  

On 23 September 1983, Gulf Air Flight 771 on approach to Abu Dhabi International Airport, a bomb exploded in the baggage compartment. Most of the dead were Pakistani nationals. The bomb was apparently planted by the militant Palestinian Abu Nidal organization for protection money payments.

Air India Flight 182 in 1985 a transatlantic flight was the first 747 destroyed by sabotage. The aircraft exploded in-flight over the Atlantic by dynamite placed in a stereo tuner with timers purchased by Sikh separatists. A total of 329 people were killed, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 Britons, and 24 Indians. A similar second bomb intended for Air India Flight 301 exploded at the Tokyo airport killing two baggage handlers and injuring four others. This is the first plot to target two planes at the same time. No one was actually convicted of the bombing of the plane but a Sikh living in Canada was convicted of the bombing in Tokyo.

I don`t need to give you the details of the hijacking of the three passenger planes by terrorists in the United States on the 11th of September 2003 in which all the passengers and crew were killed as it is common knowledge.  

Planes missing

There is a number of aircraft and their air passengers who have disappeared in flight for reasons that have never been definitely determined, particularly in cases where the air frame of the aircraft or body of a person has never been recovered. Prior to this century, there weren’t that many passengers that went missing. Even the first 13 years of this year, none were missing. However, on the 8th of March 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing with 239 passengers and crew. At the time of this writing, it still hasn’t been found despite the extensive search for it.

Pilots purposely crashing planes

The thought of dying in a plane crash because a pilot chooses to commit suicide this way is frightening. Many years ago, this almost happened to me.  A girlfriend of mine and I were invited by her former boyfriend to go for a ride in a small plane he had rented. We were about to take off when he got a radio call telling him to return to the hanger. A month later, he went up into the air by himself and deliberately dove the plane into the ground. He was killed naturally.

There have been 9 instances in which pilots have deliberately crashed their passenger planes into the ground.  

24 March 2015—150 fatalities GERMANWING

Germanwing Flight 4U 9525 Airbus A320 made a gradual descent and crashed into the French Alps. The co-pilot had locked the captain out of the cabin and then set the auto pilot into a gradual decent until it crashed into a mountain.

 29 November 2013 – 33 fatalities, LAM

LAM Flight 470 entered a rapid descent while en route between Maputo and Luanda and crashed in Namibia. Investigations revealed that the crash had been caused by intentional actions by the pilot, which included making control inputs that directed the aircraft to the ground.  

31 October 1999 – 217 fatalities, Egypt Air

Only half-an-hour after taking off from JFK Airport in New York Egypt Air flight 990 entered rapid descent, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean some 100 km from Nantucket Island Massachusetts, killing everyone on board. The descent happened moments after the captain left the flight deck, with investigations suggesting that the relief pilot had intentionally sent it into the ocean. There was, however, no conclusive evidence and the claim was heavily disputed by Egyptian authorities.

 11 October 1999 – 1 fatality, Air Botswana

An Air Botswana pilot who had been grounded for medical reasons took off in an ATR-42 and proceeded to make various demands over the radio before crashing into two similar aircraft at Gaborone Airport. It was a good thing he wasn’t flying the plane with passengers on board.

19 December 1997 – 104 fatalities, Silk Air

During a flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore, Silk Air flight 185 crashed in Indonesia after entering a rapid descent.  It has been suggested by amongst others the US NTSB that the captain may have committed suicide by switching off both flight recorders and intentionally putting the Boeing 737 in a dive, possibly when the first officer had left the flight deck. The captain had apparently been experiencing various work-related difficulties in the 6 months prior to the incident. 
21 August 1994 – 44 fatalities, Royal Air Maroc

A Royal Air Maroc pilot was accused of switching off autopilot and intentionally steering an ATR-42 into the Atlas Mountains shortly after takeoff from Agadir, Morocco in 1994. 

13 July 1994 – 1 fatality

A Russian Air Force engineer stole the aircraft at the Kubinka AFB to commit suicide. The aircraft crashed when there was no more fuel left. 

22 August 1979 – 4 fatalities

A young military mechanic who had just been fired entered a hangar at Bogotá Airport, Colombia and stole a military HS-748 transport plane. He took off and crashed the plane in a residential area.

 26 September 1976 – 12 fatalities
Shortly after getting divorced, a Russian pilot stole an Antonov 2 airplane and directed it into the block of flats in Novosibirsk where his ex-wife lived.


When I said that there is a greater chance of being killed in a car accident than flying in a passenger plane, I was right. However, I am not downsizing  the risk undertaken when you fly in a passenger plane. There really is a risk of being killed in a passenger plane. During the first 13 years of this century, there have been 2,225 accidents involving planes around the world. And what is really frightening is that as many as 17,849 people flying in those planes have been killed during those years. Now I appreciate the fact that those numbers are horrendous but when you consider just how many motor vehicle accidents and how many people are killed in those accidents around the world during those 13 years, the plane statistics are like a drop in the bucket.  That is why you are safer in a plane than you are in a car. I know that I take a greater risk driving in my car than I do in flying in a plane and for this reason, I am not afraid to fly in a plane. 

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