Four historical crashes that lead to safer sky nowadays

Alev Takil

Experts claim that the risk of dying on a plane is one in 11,000,000, when dying in a car accident are about one in 5,000.While air travel can be associated with unprecedented safety, comfort, and speed, unfortunately every coin has a dark side. We looked at four major historical commercial aircraft crashes and the significant safety improvements made in their aftermath.  

Why do airplane crashes happen? 

Aircraft crash due to several reasons. About 53% of fatal accidents are the direct result of a pilot mistake. The weather is behind 12% of all plane crashes. Last but not least, approximately 8% of plane crashes are caused by sabotage.

Takeoff and landing are considered to be the most dangerous parts of a flight. During these stages, planes are flying low and slow, and if a problem occurs, pilots have not much time to react. On the other hand, if something happens during the cruising stage, the flight crew has more time and possibilities to resolve the issue. Boeing statistics show that 20% of fatal accidents happen during the takeoff. In comparison, it was estimated that only 8% of fatal plane crashes occur during cruising. 

Learning from mistakes: how past crashes influences current safety

United Airlines Flight 826 mid-air collision with Trans World Airlines Flight 266

United Airlines Douglas DC-8 collided in mid-air with Trans World Airlines (TWA) Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation near Miller Field, New York, United States on December 16, 1960. The accident claimed 134 lives,  including six people on the ground. 

To get extensive details about the  disaster, for the first time investigators used data from a flight recorder or a“black box”. The accident made the air-traffic providers reevaluate the safety modernization at the governmental level. 

The Federal Aviation Agency, later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration, enacted new regulations to prevent the recurrence of mid-air collisions. One of the rules required all pilots operating under instrument flight to report all malfunctions on navigation or communication equipment.  Also, the planes had to maintain a 250 knot limit near airports. The United Airlines Douglas DC-8 was traveling at 301 knots.

Tenerife Disaster: KLM Flight 4805/Pan Am Flight 1736

On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747 aircraft collided on the runway in Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport, TFN) in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The accident, which claimed 583 lives, remains the deadliest in aviation history. 

Several simultaneous events lead to this tragedy. The same day of the KLM and Pan Am flights, the CIIM terrorists exploded one bomb at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Airport. They were threatening to explode a second bomb, which forced police to shut down the airport to search for it. Many flights, including KLM flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were diverted to Los Rodeos Airport. 

The airport had only one runway and one major taxiway parallel to it, with four short taxiways connecting the two. That led to the runway incursion. The incursion and a series of miscommunications among the two flight crews and Air Traffic Control, according to the Spanish authorities, were fundamental causes of the accident. The KLM plane initiated takeoff, while the Pan Am jumbo jet was still on the same runway. 

After the accident, authorities introduced crucial changes to international airline regulations. All control towers and flight crews worldwide were required to use standardized English phrases. The hierarchy among crew members was deemphasized in favour of decision-making by mutual agreement. The accident is also seen as a turning-point after which the now-standard crew resource management was “born”.

Air India Flight 182: the deadliest act of aviation terrorism until 9/11

On June 23, 1985, Air India Boeing 747  was flying from Toronto, Canada to New Delhi, India. While nearing the coast of Ireland, a bomb planted in the jumbo jet’s  cargo hold exploded. The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 120 miles off the Irish coast, killing all 329 people on board. 

While the Air India crash was not the first fatal air accident associated with the bomb explosion.  

After the Flight 182 tragedy, air carriers took risks seriously and introduced more extensive security measures. New security programs generated new approaches to protecting passengers, airports and aircraft around the world. It also transformed the civil aviation program and changed the international environment. The new security measures introduced by both India and Canada included: 

  • Physical inspection of all carry-on baggage using hand-held devices or x-ray equipment.
  • Control of boarding passes.
  • Security screening of flight decks, cabin crews, and all passengers.
  • No inspection exemptions for Indian VIPs, embassy staff or ambassadors.
  • Constant surveillance of baggage on the ramp and in transit carts.
  • Preparation of catering supplies and inflight food in a secure area.
  • Extensive background checks for airport workers.
  • Efficient sharing of security intelligence information with domestic and international partners

Pan Am Flight 103 bombing 

On December 21, 1988, the plane was on route from London Heathrow airport to JFK airport in New York. The Boeing 747-100, called “Clipper Maid of the Seas”, had 259 people on board, including 16 members of the crew. 30 minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 31 000 feet, a large explosion ripped the plane apart. The aircraft fell to earth and smashed into Lockerbie town, Scotland, leaving a massive crater at the center of the town. Besides everyone on board the aircraft, 11 people were killed on the ground. 

The investigation conducted by the FBI and its Scottish partners determined that Pan Am Flight 103 had been destroyed by a bomb.

This terrible disaster led to a number of safety precautions that we know nowadays. After the Flight 103 crash, the government had tightened security measures and took an exhaustive look at U.S. aircraft safety. The fatal accident in Lockerbie also led to the introduction of the professional victim assistance program. The purpose of the program was to make sure that families of the victims get information and help through one of the most horrible things that can happen to somebody.

After the Pan Am accident, the compulsory inspection of 100 % of hold baggage became a world widely confirmed procedure. Although it increased luggage processing times, it also made air travel much more secure.

As per aviation safety report “Safer Skies Initiative To the Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, House of Representatives”, due to aircraft security measures improvements, better ground navigation aids, increased air radar coverage, development of navigational equipment to warn pilots of impending crashes, the number of fatal accidents for general aviation decreased from 6 per 100,000 flights in 1960 to less than 2 per 100,000 flights in the late 1980s. 

For commercial aircraft, thanks to a combination of the abovementioned safety improvements, in the U.S. fatal accidents per one million aircraft departures decreased to less than two in every million departures within a decade.

Should you return your flight ticket and give up flying? 

Definitely, not. There are several reasons why you should not give up on air travel. First of all, the plane crashes do not happen all the time. It might look like aircraft keep falling apart in the air due to an engine malfunction or bird who accidentally flew into one of the motors. 

Media tends to extensively cover fatal accidents, often giving less attention to the crashes when most of the passengers actually survive. According to a spokesperson for Boeing, fatal accidents occurred once every 200,000 flights in the 50s and 60s. Nowadays fatal accidents occur once every two million flights.

Secondly, not all the plane crashes end up with death.  Since 1983, more than 95% of the passengers survived plane crash accidents, according to the U.S. National Transport Safety Board. The organization investigates every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation. 

95% of plane crash victims walk away from the accident. The plane remains the safest type of travel, despite all the crashes it went through in history.

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