Accidents and mishaps have plagued us humans ever since we began to fly. While some have been a result of sheer miscommunication, others were an outcome of poor airline maintenance. One thing is for sure though, aviation accidents have intrigued one and all.
Did You Know?
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, scheduled from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, lost radio contact on March 8, 2014, with 12 crew members and 227 passengers on board. No crash site or debris has been found, and the flight is assumed lost with no survivors. If this is true and no survivors are left, this would be the second-deadliest airline disaster involving a Boeing 777.
According to a study conducted by the Boeing Company on worldwide commercial jet airplane crashes or accidents between the years 1959 and 2011, there have been 1,789 accidents reported; of these 603 were categorized as fatal.
The following OpinionFront article gives you information on some of the most deadly aviation disasters in accordance with their death toll.
Although the airline crash of the American Airlines Flight 11 and the United Airlines Flight 175 resulted in 1,692 and 965 deaths respectively, these events have not been included in this write-up since, technically, they do not fall under ‘accidents’ or ‘disasters’. Instead, they have been an outcome of an internal attack (hijack). Similarly, the destruction of Air India Flight 182 and Pan Am Flight 103 was caused by yet another internal attack (bomb), hence, these disasters too are not a part of this list.
China Airlines Flight 140
Aircraft:- Airbus A300B4-622R
Location:- Komaki, Japan
Date:- April 26, 1994
China Airlines flight 140 was a scheduled flight between Taipei and Nagoya. After a routine flight to Nagoya, however, tragedy ensued during the landing.
When the plane was about to land at Nagoya Airport, the First Officer accidentally pressed the ‘takeoff/go around’ (TO/GA) button, which suddenly changed the angle of the landing. The pilot tried to rectify the mistake by reducing the extent of the throttle but was unable to do so since the autopilot, acting as if in takeoff conditions, negated his efforts to perform actions that would be counterproductive during takeoffs.
The plane, now in a nose-high position, experienced aerodynamic stall, i.e., its nose had gone so high that it couldn’t climb, and as a result, it lost airspeed. This caused a fatal crash that killed 264 people, with only 7 survivors.
American Airlines Flight 587
Aircraft:- Airbus A300B4-605R
Location:- New York City, U.S.
Date:- November 12, 2001
AA flight 587 was a scheduled flight between New York and Santo Domingo.
Almost immediately after its takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, Flight 587 hit wake turbulence (aerodynamic disturbances caused behind a plane due to the plane’s movement) from a Japan Airlines plane that had taken off a short while before. To counter this relatively minor problem, the First Officer tried to minimize the effect of the wake turbulence by shifting the rudder from left to right. This violent motion caused the plane’s stabilizer and rudder to come loose after about 20 seconds of constant aggressive handling from the First Officer.
The plane’s stabilizer (tail) detached and fell into Jamaica Bay. This caused the plane to pitch downwards. The aerodynamic load due to the uncontrolled dive tore the engines from the wings moments before impact. The fuselage of the plane crashed into Belle Harbor, destroying three houses instantaneously. The wreckage was further harmed by fire.
The crash resulted in 265 fatalities: 251 passengers, 9 crew members, and 5 people on the ground. The timing of the crash, coming so soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, initially raised fear of another wave of terrorist attacks; these fears were assuaged by the authorities with minimal delay.
American Airlines Flight 191
Aircraft:- McDonnell Douglas DC-10
Location:- Chicago, Illinois
Date:- May 25, 1979
AA Flight 191 was a scheduled passenger flight that had undergone a maintenance checkup just two weeks before (May 11), and had been deemed fit to fly. Even on the fateful day, the airport staff didn’t notice anything wrong with the plane during its taxi run.
Moments after its takeoff from the O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, the left engine of the American Airlines Flight 191 stopped working and split from the plane. The free-falling engine damaged the hydraulic fluid lines and the left wing of the plane before eventually crashing onto the runway. It also took out the plane’s radio communications system, which was powered by the engine. As a result, airport staff wasn’t able to convey to the pilot that the engine had come off. The left wing stalled when the plane attempted to ascend, whereas the right wing was still in a working condition and produced a lift. This caused the plane to veer towards the left reaching a bank angle of 112°, causing it to roll and consequently plummet to the ground.
273 people, including all 258 passengers, 13 crew members, and 2 bystanders on the ground, were killed in the accident, which was chalked off to a failure to carry out proper maintenance and to spot the potentially threatening condition beforehand.
Iran Air Flight 655
Aircraft:- Airbus A300B2-203
Location:- Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf
Date:- July 3, 1988
This aviation disaster has been embroiled in controversy ever since it occurred. This is one of those rare times that a civilian aircraft has been shot down by the armed forces, having mistaken it for an enemy fighter plane. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled flight from Tehran to Dubai, with a stopover at Bandar Abbas. As the flight took off from Bandar Abbas and carried out its flightplan over the Persian Gulf. USS Vincennes, having entered Iranian waters (a fact later suppressed by the American investigation team), mistook it for a Tomcat fighter plane and fired at it in self-defense. The U.S. claimed that the ship was in international waters, and it was simply defending itself. This was in spite of the fact that though only the U.S. and Iran used F-14 Tomcats at the time, the Iranian versions weren’t equipped with anti-ship weapons.
Iran claimed that the plane’s radio signals were in the range reserved for civilian aircraft, and distinct from the one used by military aircraft. The U.S. later apologized for the “human error” that had caused the tragedy, and paid USD 61.8 million as compensation without accepting legal liability.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
Aircraft:- Boeing 777-200ER
Location:- Hrabove, Donetsk Oblast
Date:- July 17, 2014
The MH 17 tragedy is also an unfortunate instance of a civilian aircraft being shot down by armed forces. The flight was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, when it was shot by what is believed to be a Buk surface-to-air missile in an area under the control of the Donbass People’s Militia. The Militia is pro-Russia, and the assailants are suspected to be Russian citizens. Ukrainian Security Services even went so far as to claim that Russia had a hand in the felling of the plane.
The plane lost radio contact at approximately 4.15 pm local time, indicating the approximate time of the missile impact. The impact killed all the occupants of the plane on the spot. In the aftermath of the crash, the Russian and Ukrainian governments blamed each other for the crash, with Russia responding that the crash was the responsibility of the country in which it occurred. The crash is still under investigation, and fresh details may yet emerge.
Saudia Flight 163
Aircraft:- Lockheed L-1011-200 TriStar
Location:- Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Date:- August 19, 1980
Saudia Flight 163 was a passenger flight carrying 287 passengers and 14 crew members from Karachi, Pakistan to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with a stopover at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It caught fire shortly after takeoff, leaving all its occupants trapped in the burning wreck. It remains the deadliest aviation disaster that didn’t involve a crash or collision.
Upon takeoff from Riyadh International Airport on the evening of August 19, its cargo caught fire 7 minutes into the flight. Once the fire was confirmed, which took about 4 minutes, the pilot decided to return to Riyadh airport. In spite of a safe landing, the aircraft did not stop at the first taxiway, the pilot not having ordered an emergency evacuation, and eventually halted at the second taxiway. This stationed the plane farther from the safety crew, who were waiting at the first taxiway. When the rescue personnel finally arrived at the scene, they couldn’t open the doors of the plane for 15 more minutes. The plane was destroyed in the fire, but the occupants were found to have died due to asphyxiation and smoke inhalation rather than burns.
The practice of Middle Eastern airlines of allowing Muslim passengers to carry butane stoves on board so that they could follow Islamic dietary laws was roundly criticized in the aftermath, with one report even going so far as to directly blame one of the passenger’s stoves for the accident. The practice, technically illegal at the time but still clandestinely practiced, was completely stopped after this disaster.
Turkish Airlines Flight 981
Aircraft:- McDonnell Douglas DC-10
Location:- Ermenonville forest, Oise, France
Date:- March 3, 1974
The Ermenonville air disaster is the fourth most deadly aviation accident in history. It is the deadliest single-plane crash that left no survivors, and the deadliest airline disaster on French soil. Turkish Airlines Flight 981 was headed towards Heathrow, London, after a stopover at Paris, having first taken off from Istanbul, Turkey.
The crash was caused by the rear cargo door blowing off. The door, which was designed to withstand pressures of up to 300 psi, gave way on a pressure of just 15 psi (for comparison, 15 psi is about half the pressure in your average car tire), due to airport staff in Turkey filing down the door’s pins by 6.4 millimeters. The explosion of the door and the consequent air pressure caused a fissure in the passenger bay, situated above the cargo bay, and a section of the floor carrying six occupied seats was blown out of the plane. The destruction of the cable lines running below the cargo hold caused the pilot to lose control of the plane. After the cables snapped, the plane went into a nosedive and crashed into the Ermenonville Forest about 72 seconds after the cargo bay door had blown off. The crash killed all 335 passengers and the entire crew of 11 on the spot.
Charkhi Dadri Mid-air Collision
Aircraft:- Saudi Arabian Flight 763 and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907
Location:- Charkhi Dadri, India
Date:- November 12, 1996
The Charkhi Dadri collision is the second deadliest airplane collision in history, and the deadliest mid-air collision ever. It is also the deadliest plane crash on Indian soil.
The first airline involved in the crash, a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin II-76, was on a charter service descending to land at New Delhi. The other aircraft, a Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) Boeing 747-168B, had just taken off. While the former was told by the air traffic control to descend to an altitude of 4,600 m at a distance of 74 miles from the airport, the latter, taking off into the same direction from which the Ilyushin was coming, was cleared to climb to an altitude of 4,300 m.
However, instead of descending to the height of 4,600 m, the Kazakhstan Airlines plane descended to 4,400 m, and still kept coming lower despite being warned by the air traffic control at New Delhi. By the time the pilot noticed the mistake, the two planes had collided. The Saudia Boeing, whose left wing collided with the Ilyushin’s tail, split apart in mid-air before crashing, while the Ilyushin remained intact, but was uncontrollable due to the damage to the tail, and eventually crashed. Only 6 passengers weren’t killed on the spot, but succumbed to their injuries later.
Japan Airlines Flight 123
Aircraft:- Boeing 747SR-46
Location:- Ueno, Japan
Date:- August 12, 1985
Japan Airlines Flight 123 accident is the worst single-aircraft crash in aviation history. The crash occurred due to a mechanical failure, and sent the plane crashing into the ridges of Mount Takamagahara in Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, at approximately 6.44 pm local time.
Having taken off from Tokyo International Airport to proceed towards Osaka International Airport, the rear pressure bulkhead of the aircraft failed 12 minutes into the flight. A rear pressure bulkhead is an airtight barrier at the end of the cabin. Having been repaired incorrectly earlier, the bulkhead burst open, causing explosive decompression due to the rushing of air out of the pressurized cabin. The air pressure tore off the vertical component of the tail of the plane, and destroyed the hydraulic lines. This completely drained the hydraulic fluid. The loss of hydraulic control structures and the vertical stabilizer set the nose of the plane in an up-down bobbing motion.
The pilots tried to regain control by deploying differential engine thrust, but after descending to around 4,000 m they lost control of the plane, which began to drift from its original flight path. It eventually collided into the ridges of Mount Takamagahara, 32 minutes after the rear bulkhead exploded, which resulted in the death of 505 passengers and 15 crew members. Remarkably, four passengers survived.
A notable aspect of this crash was the proficiency of the air crew. Despite the equipment failing them, the fault can’t be attributed to the pilots, since keeping the plane airborne for 32 minutes even after suffering such a vital structural failure was a result of their skill at their trade. During simulations conducted later, no other flight crew managed to keep the plane airborne for as long as the actual crew.
Tenerife Airport Collision
Aircraft:- Boeing 747-121 and Boeing 747-206B
Location:- Tenerife, Spain
Date:- March 27, 1977
The Tenerife airport collision is the deadliest disaster to befall a commercial airplane in history. With both planes being Boeing 747s, albeit different variations, this is also the deadliest aviation disaster for any single type of aircraft.
The disaster involved two airports in the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria Airport on the island of Gran Canaria and Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport) on the island of Tenerife. When operations at Gran Canaria Airport were temporarily suspended due to a bomb blast, much of its air traffic was diverted to Los Rodeos Airport. This included the two airlines involved in the disaster―KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736. Due to the unexpected traffic, officials at Los Rodeos were also forced to park many of the planes on the taxiways.
By the time the Gran Canaria Airport reopened and the planes lined up to fly to their destination, a dense fog had engulfed Tenerife. Owing to the blocked taxiway, both 747s were forced to use the sole available runway to taxi for takeoff. Neither the planes nor the controller noticed that two planes had lined up on the same strip, as the lack of ground radar installations meant that the controller only relied on the radio messages from the two planes.
As the result of a series of miscommunications, KLM Flight 4805 began to takeoff without knowing that Pan Am Flight 1736 was still on the runway. It was revealed during the investigation that the KLM pilot hadn’t received authorization to takeoff, but thought he had due to confusing phrasing from air traffic control. This resulted in a ghastly collision, completely destroying both planes and killing a total of 583 people.
The lessons from this disaster were learned swiftly, and eventually the Crew Resource Management was developed. Pilots were instructed to pay greater attention if the crew noticed something amiss, and the crew was, correspondingly, encouraged to uninhibitedly voice any misgivings they might have. The terminology of air traffic controllers was molded into a standardized form, and, most notably, the word ‘takeoff’ was now only allowed to be uttered while actually clearing a flight for its takeoff.
The lessons of these terrible disasters, if this can serve as a silver lining, were learned and assimilated quickly, with each disaster, while lamentable, making the industry more capable of fending off another. As a result, flying is now among the safest forms of travel in the modern world, and the probability of such disasters occurring again is being reduced to as small as possible with every new technological advance.