Air travel is by far the safest mode of transportation, but it has not always been this safe. There have been a number of major air-crashes and accidents involving commercial flights, since the birth of air travel. As flight travel expanded and the carrying capacity of flights increased, so too did the casualties from accidents. What is important to note is that each disaster ushered in new developments and standardizations in aviation safety and technology, making it the safest mode of travel today. Here are 10 of the worst aviation disasters that were caused by mechanical failure, human error, or climatic conditions.
What was to be one of the worst disasters in aviation history occurred as a result of a series of unfortunate events, starting with an explosion at Gran Canaria airport in Spain. This resulted in a number of flights being diverted to Tenerife Airport, including the ill-fated KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736. As a result of dense fog, the absence of ground radar, and miscommunication, the two Boeing 747s collided with each other on the ground, claiming the lives of all 583 passengers on board in both the flights of which only 61 passengers from the Pan Am flight survived.
The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 remains the worst air accident involving a single aircraft to date. The Boeing 747 was carrying 524 passengers, including crew when it crashed into mountainous terrain at Mount Takamagahara, north-west of Tokyo. The flight, which departed from Tokyo's Haneda Airport, was en route to Osaka. Just 12 minutes into the flight, the unthinkable happened, the aircraft suffered explosive decompression. This resulted in loss of the rudder and hydraulic systems, effectively crippling the pilot’s control over the aircraft. Despite this, the crew managed to keep the plane airborne for another half an hour, but it finally crashed into a ridge, killing 520 passengers, leaving just 4 survivors.
Charkhi Dadri is a small village to the west of New Delhi that would become infamous because of a disaster over its skies. The mid-air collision between Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763 and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907 remains the worst disaster of its kind to date. The collision occurred soon after the Saudia flight took off from New Delhi, while the Kazakhstan flight was readying for its arrival. As a result of poor English communication skills on the part of the Kazakhstani pilots and the absence of secondary surveillance radar at Indira Gandhi International Airport the flight paths crossed and the pilots were unable to avert a collision. All 349 people on both flights perished in the disaster.
Turkish Airlines Flight 981 crashed outside of Paris because of a design flaw and the failure of Moroccan baggage handlers to properly read and understand instructions provided to them in both English and Turkish language. As a result, the latch of the rear cargo hatch blew open mid-flight. This caused rapid decompression and severed cables that left the pilots with no control over the aircraft. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 plunged into the Ermonville forest, just outside of Paris, France, claiming the lives of all 346 souls on board.
The American Airlines Flight 191 crash remains the worst airline accident within the United States and it also brought disrepute to the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Disaster struck just moments after takeoff as one of the engines from the left wing of the plane separated from the aircraft, flipping over the top of the wing. This caused significant damage and it also resulted in severing the hydraulic fluid lines. The aircraft instantly went into a roll, turned over and plummeted into a nearby field. Investigations revealed that the disaster was caused by faulty maintenance procedures followed by the aircraft personnel, claiming the lives of all 273 people on board, as well as 2 on the ground.
On New Year’s Day 1978, Air India Flight 855 departed for Dubai, from Santacruz Airport, in Mumbai. The 747 being used for the flight was in fact the first of its kind procured by Air India in 1971. Tragically, the flight did not get very far and crashed into the Arabian Sea, just off the coast Mumbai, within minutes of takeoff. The disaster occurred as a result of equipment malfunction and failure of the crew to respond appropriately, as a result of spatial disorientation and their inability to check AI instrument readings with the actual horizon because of darkness over the sea. All 213 people on board perished in what is the second worst aviation accident in Indian territory.
The Air India Express Flight 812 is the third deadliest aviation accident to occur on Indian soil. The aircraft was headed to Mangalore from Dubai. Mangalore airport is just one of three airports in the country with table top runways, which means that the length of the runway is limited because of hilly terrain, with a sudden drop or gorge at one end. Navigating a landing requires great precision and heightened awareness. Unfortunately, in this case the aircraft’s pilot miscalculated the landing and landed beyond the usual touchdown point while making several several errors. As a result, the aircraft hurtled past the runway and fell over the cliff casuing the plane to disintegrate and catch fire. The accident took the precious lives of 158 individuals on board, with just 8 survivors.
The crash of American Airlines Flight 587 is the second-worst aviation accident to take place in the United States. The flight routinely flew between John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, and Las Américas International Airport, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Barely a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks the flight crashed soon after takeoff, arousing suspicions of terrorism. Investigations revealed that the disaster occurred as a result of pilot error. The rudder was overused as a response to wake turbulence generated by the flight that departed shortly before. As a result of rudder overuse, the vertical stabilizer detached from the aircraft and the engines also separated shortly before it fell to the ground. The plane crashed into a neighborhood in Queens, New York, killing all 260 people on board and 5 on the ground.
The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH370 gripped the headlines and imagination of many in 2014, as the aircraft mysteriously disappeared on 8 March 2014. The flight was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur when air traffic control lost all contact, without any warning or indication of any problems. Despite extensive searches being conducted by various nations across the southern Indian Ocean, no trace of the aircraft was recovered until a flaperon turned up on Reunion Island, a distance of 3,700km from the main search site, in July 2015. Search operations were the most extensive and expensive ever with more than half a million USD having been spent on the effort within a few months. According to experts, the flight changed course for unknown reasons and probably continued its flight until it ran out of fuel. All 239 people on board are presumed to have lost their lives in the disaster.
China Airlines Flight 140 regularly flew between Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, in Taiwan, and Nagoya’s Nagoya Airport, Japan. Unfortunately, the flight on 26th April 1994 turned out to be anything but routine when the First Officer on board inadvertently activated the TO/GA or Takeoff/Go-around button shortly before the Airbus A300B4-622R was to land at Nagoya. This button changes throttle position to that required for take offs and go-arounds. The pilots tried to correct the situation, but autopilot thwarted their efforts, as it is supposed to during TO/GA activation. The plane pitched sharply and decreasing airspeed resulted in a stall. The plane subsequently crashed killing 264 of the 271 people aboard. It remains the worst aviation accident for China Airlines and the second-worst on Japanese soil.
In case you are now filled with trepidation and anxiety about your next flight, you can breathe easy. Just 2 out these 10 disasters occurred in the last decade and this in itself should be a good indicator of flight safety today. While the human cost from such air crashes can never be measured, don’t forget that each of these unfortunate incidents led to improvements in aviation technology and safety, making air travel safer for all of us today.