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Airlines

The Most Deadly Aviation Accidents in History

The Most Deadly Aviation Accidents in History
Jeff Edwards

A new report, produced by the lead counsel for the victims of Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302, analyzes 37 years of airplane crash data to find some surprising and not-so-surprising results. While flying continues to be the safest way to travel, the study reveals that unexpected chains of events can still create a recipe for unspeakable tragedy.

In September, Robert A. Clifford, the founder of the storied Chicago-based law firm Clifford Law Offices, was named Lead Counsel in the U.S. federal district court case involving the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 Boeing 737 Max aircraft in March. This week, the law firm, famed for representing victims of airline disasters, including the September 11th terrorist attacks, has published a study of every aviation accident and incident reported to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from 1982-2018.

Those Who Ignore History are Doomed to Repeat it

The just-released Aviation Accidents and Incidents: Analysis of 37 Years of Airplane Crash Data report finds that there is seldom a single cause of serious airline disasters not involving terrorism. In some cases, an unlikely string of events occurred in quick succession. When mechanical failures, pilot error, communication breakdowns and/or bad luck happen simultaneously, the results can be catastrophic. In other cases, however, simply following accepted protocols, rectifying known mechanical issues or proper training might well have prevented historic tragedies.

“In the wake of the deadly crashes involving Boeing’s 737 Max 8, airline and general aviation safety are back in the world’s collective consciousness,” the report’s authors explained. “While air travel is often touted as one of the safest forms of transportation, these incidents have underscored the fact that when accidents occur, the results are often catastrophic. In just two crashes, 346 passengers and crew were killed – 157 in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash and another 189 in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash. While the 737 Max 8’s were grounded, hundreds of other planes and aircraft crash each year. In 2018 alone, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigated 1,581 aviation accidents and incidents that left 847 people dead and another 768 people injured. This information left us to wonder, how often do planes crash? How many people have been killed in aviation and airline accidents? Which planes and which manufacturers are involved in the most crashes?”

The report also lists the ten most deadly air disasters in history. The list specifically excludes disasters involving terrorism and acts of war.

Air New Zealand Flight 901

The tenth deadliest air crash, not attributed to terrorism, occurred on November 18, 1979, when Air New Zealand Flight 901 flew directly into Mount Erebus in Antarctica. All 257 souls on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 were lost.

The cause of the sightseeing crash was initially attributed to pilot error, but the investigation was later revisited by a Royal Commission of Inquiry which revealed that the computer coordinates of the flight deck navigation equipment had been changed without the crew’s knowledge causing the pilots to believe they were safely over water when the plane unexpectedly crashed into the mountain. Accusations of a cover-up led to many of the airline’s top management being purged from the organization.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Pedro Aragão

Nigeria Airways Flight 2120

An even more deadly air disaster occurred in July of 1991 when Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 burst into flames shortly after takeoff from Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED). All 261 passengers and crew members on the charter Douglas DC-8-61 flight lost their lives.

The tragedy was caused by what has been termed as “improper maintenance.” In this case, a mechanic’s warning that one of the plane’s tires was under-inflated was ignored because the means to inflate the tire were temporarily unavailable. Instead, the plane was allowed to take off resulting in the tire catching fire. The pilots, unaware of the issue, retracted the landing gear which allowed the tire fire to spread and consume the aircraft, eventually reaching the fuel tanks with catastrophic results.

 

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/航空事故調査委員会

China Airlines Flight 140

On April 26, 1994, 264 passengers and crew members died when China Airlines Flight 140 slammed into the ground on approach to Nagoya Airport, which was later replaced by Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO). Seven passengers on the Airbus A300B4-622R survived the crash and resulting fire.

Blame for the disaster was placed on the flight crew’s misunderstanding of how the plane’s automated systems behaved. The crash was ruled to be due to pilot error, but Airbus later acknowledged that similar (though less serious) incidents had occurred involving other A300-600R employing the same automated systems. The company had previously introduced software updates to help prevent potential flight crew confusion.

Image Source: Wikimedia/ NTSB

American Airlines Flight 587

Just weeks after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, on November 12, 2001, the seventh deadliest air accident in history occurred over Queens, New York. The American Airlines Airbus A300B4-605R crash resulted in the deaths of all 265 passengers on the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Las Américas International Airport (SDQ). Five people on the ground were also killed when debris rained down on the New York City neighborhood.

After initial concerns that the disaster was related to recent terrorist attacks, the crash investigation eventually focused on the captain’s excessive use of the rudder to help stabilize the aircraft after entering turbulence from the wake of an aircraft that had taken off ahead of the American Airlines plane. NTSB investigators ruled that the pilot’s actions not only caused the vertical stabilizer to separate but were also entirely unnecessary.

American Airlines Flight 191

The deadliest air accident in the U.S. occurred in May of 1979 when American Airlines Flight 191 suddenly slammed into the ground shortly after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD). In addition to the two people on the ground who were killed, 273 souls aboard the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 were also lost.

Investigators blamed improper maintenance for the series of events that resulted after a jet engine separated from the plane and then hit the wing further damaging the aircraft. The crew attempted to compensate for the loss of an engine and the loss of hydraulic fluid, but after briefly flying inverted, the plane stalled completely and plummeted to the ground near the end of the runway.

Image Source: Wikimedia/NTSB

Saudia Flight 163

Despite making a successful emergency landing following an onboard fire, Saudia Flight 163 still ranks as the 5th deadliest air accident in history. Although the plane safely landed at Riyadh Air Base, all of the 301 passengers and crew members on the plane died of smoke inhalation as fire continued to consume the Lockheed L-1011-200 aircraft.

Investigators traced the initial fire to a butane stove in the baggage hold. The resulting blaze burned through the floor of the cabin causing passengers to scramble to the front and rear of the cabin.

Turkish Airlines Flight 981

All 346 onboard a Turkish Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10 from Istanbul to London lost their lives when a cargo door blew off the plane mid-flight in March of 1974. The catastrophic failure not only caused the plane to experience explosive depressurization, but the door also damaged critical cables causing the pilots to lose control of the plane which eventually crashed in a forest north of Paris.

Although investigators determined that the latch to the door was improperly secured, it was ruled that the crash was the result of a design flaw that allowed workers to improperly secure the door in the first place. This design flaw was also attributed to the rapid decompression of an American Airlines DC-10 flying from Detroit to Buffalo nearly two years earlier. In this earlier accident, the plane was able to make an emergency landing and no lives were lost.

Charkhi Dadri Mid-Air Collision

On November 12, 1996 a Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747-168B collided with a Kazakhstan Airlines Illyushin II-76TD above India. There were no survivors on either aircraft. All 349 passengers and crew members were killed.

Investigators ruled that the pilot of Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907 ignored air traffic control instructions (possibly in an attempt to avoid severe weather) by descending into the path of the much larger plane. The pilot’s lack of English language skills was considered a contributing factor to the third deadliest air accident ever.

Japan Airlines Flight 123

The second deadliest air accident in history was caused by a massive inflight structural failure of a Boeing 747-146SR jumbo jet. The August 12, 1985 air disaster resulted in the deaths of 520 people.

Investigators say the plane suffered an explosive decompression inflight as the result of faulty repairs by Boeing mechanics following an incident seven years earlier in which the plane’s tail section struck the runway. As a result of the flawed repair work, the plane partially broke apart before crashing near Mount Osutaka, just 32 minutes after declaring an emergency onboard.

Tenerife Airport Disaster

The deadliest air accident (involving passenger planes not intentionally brought down) remains the disaster on a foggy day in March of 1977 involving two Boeing 747 jumbo jets at Los Rodeos Airport, now known as Tenerife North Airport (TFN). All told, 583 passengers were killed when the KLM and Pan Am planes collided on the runway. Remarkably, 61 passengers in the front section of the Pan Am plane survived the fiery crash.

The disaster was eventually attributed to pilot error on the part of the KLM crew. Although weather and heavy traffic due to an incident at nearby Gran Canaria Airport (LPA) contributed to the catastrophe, it is believed that the KLM crew mistakenly believed that they had clearance from the control tower to take off despite the fact that the Pan Am plane was on the runway.

View Comments (3)

3 Comments

  1. Jackie_414

    October 30, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    American Airlines 587: “After initial concerns that the disaster was related to recent terrorist attacks, the crash investigation eventually focused on the captain’s excessive use of the rudder to help stabilize the aircraft after entering turbulence from the wake of an aircraft that had taken off ahead of the American Airlines plane. NTSB investigators ruled that the pilot’s actions not only caused the vertical stabilizer to separate but were also entirely unnecessary.”

    Wasn’t the captain. Better be careful or you are going to get a libel suit from the captain’s family.

  2. DeltaFlyer123

    October 30, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    The reason there are multiple causes for every accident is that there are multiple backups for all the critical components and systems. A single failure, or even several unrelated failures are manageable because of all the backups. Designers keep adding backups until the probability of failure from a single incident is less than one in a billion.

  3. baggins

    October 30, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    AA Flt 587 “After initial concerns that the disaster was related to recent terrorist attacks, the crash investigation eventually focused on the captain’s excessive use of the rudder to help stabilize the aircraft after entering turbulence from the wake of an aircraft that had taken off ahead of the American Airlines plane. NTSB investigators ruled that the pilot’s actions not only caused the vertical stabilizer to separate but were also entirely unnecessary.”

    In fairness to the pilot, it was also determined that the pilot’s actions were a result of the AA pilot training materials. The training materials were revised after the the report was published.

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