The deadliest aviation disasters of all time
When the Wright brothers boarded their first plane, they were well aware of the risks involved in flying. The duration of their first flight was 12 seconds, but this paved the way for mankind to circumnavigate the globe not in 80 days, but in hours. The aviation industry has come a long way since then and air travel is now considered one of the safest modes of transportation. The chance of a plane falling out of the sky or a flight operation ending in danger is one in 20 million. However, scientists and engineers have been able to make safe aircraft due to past air crashes. In this article, we are going to go through the deadliest aviation disasters that have deeply shook the world.
Grand Canyon crash 1956
On June 30, 1956, a Douglas DC7 operated by United Airlines collided with the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation operated by Transworld Airlines in flight, killing 128. The Grand Canyon crash is considered by many analysts to be the first fatal accident involving commercial aircraft. The fact that the two planes collided in mid-air was quite devastating. A Board of Inquiry has been set up by the US government to investigate the crash. Both aircraft lacked the sophisticated and advanced equipment that modern airliners possess. The Lockheed Constellation was quite a significant aircraft in terms of design and structure as it had three rudders at its tail section. The Board of Inquiry analyzed all aspects of the incident and concluded that the accident was a by-product of a primitive flight dispatch system and the inability of the crew of both aircraft to take evasive action in time. As a result of this incident, the whole industry was revolutionized and reforms were introduced to prevent such disasters from happening again in the future.
1961 United Nations crash in Ndola
On September 18, 1961, a DC6 belonging to the United Nations crashed in Ndola, Zambia. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld and 15 others were killed in the air disaster. Dag Hammarskjöld was on a national tour in Zambia as part of a peacekeeping mission. It was widely believed that the UN DC6 had been deliberately shot down by insurgents fighting in the outskirts of Ndola. Witnesses reported seeing flames in the air just before the plane crashed. A high-level commission of inquiry has been set up by the United Nations to identify those responsible for the accident. The Board of Inquiry had neither CVR nor FDR, as older generations of aircraft lacked these crucial instruments. The investigation team found that the plane was not shot down by a missile and ruled out any possibility of foul play. The committee failed to discover the reasons for this accident and its final report led to the rise of numerous conspiracy theories. The UN has set up another high-level commission of inquiry to investigate the case. Investigators found that the pilots were using outdated approach charts that did not show much of the mountainous terrain present in the area. Additionally, the DC6 crew were overworked and suffered from fatigue and sleep deprivation, which limited their piloting abilities.
Collision between KLM and Pan-Am
On March 27, 1977, a 747 operated by KLM and another Boeing 747 collided on the runway at Los Redoes airport in the Canary Islands. This accident is considered one of the deadliest commercial aviation accidents which claimed the lives of 583 people. The Boeing 747 – also known as the “Queen of the Sky” – is considered the largest passenger aircraft. Captain Robert Bragg, who served as co-pilot on the Pan-Am flight, was among the lucky few to survive the crash. Conditions that day were quite foggy, limiting visibility. An act of terror forced authorities to close Gran Canaria airport and halt flight operations. Thus, many flights were diverted to the Canary Islands. Los Redoes Airport was small and lacked the manpower and resources to handle the massive influx of incoming diverted flights. However, in the evening, Gran Canaria airport was opened and flight operations resumed. Airline operators and air traffic controllers were now faced with the overwhelming task of getting planes back into the air. Also, the fog started to settle in as evening approached. The investigation team found that fog was the main contributing factor to the accident. However, the main culprit for the collision was the KLM crew. The KLM crew assumed that the air traffic controller (ATC) had given them clearance to take off, while the Pan-Am plane was still present in the middle of the runway. The fog prevented the KLM crew from observing the Boeing 747 Pan-Am. Miscommunication between the pilots and ATC led to a catastrophic disaster that could have easily been avoided.
Air India Flight 182
On June 23, 1985, a Boeing 747 operated by Air India broke up in flight and lost contact with air traffic control while flying over the Atlantic Ocean. The flight was operating on the Montreal-London-Delhi route. An air crash investigation team has been set up by the authorities concerned to investigate this accident. Investigators learned that the 747 flew with five, instead of the conventional four engines required by Boeing 747s for safe flight operations. The engine, however, was mounted aft of a wing and was not operational. Air India, in order to bring one of its engines back to India in a cost effective manner, opted for this specific strategy. Obtaining an additional engine led to the production of asymmetric thrust. However, the pilots were compensating for it by using the rudder, as indicated by the flight data recorder. The cockpit voice recorder painted a worrying picture, as it cut off the recording quite suddenly. Investigators obtained the smoking gun they were looking for when they discovered residue from explosives found in the wreckage. In addition, Montreal airport employees revealed that they loaded a suitcase on the plane whose owner never boarded. This luggage was suspected of containing explosive materials which, according to the investigators, would have exploded in full flight at cruising altitude. The bag belonged to Talwinder Singh Parmar, a separatist activist and Sikh fighter, fighting for the formation of Khalistan [an independent state for Sikhs]. His militant group has been accused of staging numerous other attacks that attacked India’s sovereignty. Talwinder Singh Parmar was finally apprehended and put on trial.
American Airlines Flight 77
The incident of September 11 changed the world forever. Millions of people around the world watched the planes crash into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon with a sense of dread. American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Washington Dulles International Airport, but ATC lost verbal contact with the plane once it reached cruising altitude. Although the aircraft was visible on radar, the crew did not comply with the instructions given by ATC. Air traffic controllers watched in horror as the plane began to turn back toward Washington and begin to descend rapidly. A few minutes later, the aircraft disappeared from secondary radar. Air traffic controllers tapped into the main radar to monitor the plane’s movement. The plane also disappeared from primary radar and minutes later controllers learned that American Airlines Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon. On the same day, minutes before American Airlines 77 crashed, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. United Airlines Flight 175 departing from Los Angles and heading to Boston crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. The fourth hijacking attempt failed as passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 overpowered the hijackers, but failed to save the plane from crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. Al-Qaeda accepted responsibility for the hijacking of the four planes. Concrete steps have been taken and many new regulations have been enforced worldwide by aviation regulators. For example, the crew must now keep the cockpit door closed during flight. In addition, passengers are thoroughly screened at major airports around the world.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The MH-370 crash is actually a mystery so far. Several pieces of marine debris found on the African coast and nearby islands were confirmed to be pieces of Flight 370. On March 8, 2014, the Boeing 777 operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur. ATC lost contact with the doomed flight as the plane flew over Phuket Island. Malaysian authorities announced the disappearance after more than six hours. Initially, rescue operations were limited to the Strait of Malacca alone. However, the Malaysian military claimed that its radars detected the flight of MH-370 over Malaysia after it lost all contact with the ground. The aircraft made a sharp turn over the city of Penang, before heading south towards the Indian Ocean. Penang was the hometown of MH-370’s captain, Captain Zahari Ahmed Shah. Critics and analysts believed anyone in the cockpit flew over Penang to take a last look and bid farewell to the city. Satellite data further revealed that MH-370 continued to fly southbound towards Australia over the Indian Ocean for about seven hours.
This new data forced the authorities to search for the plane in the Indian Ocean. However, the Indian Ocean is considered one of the largest bodies of water in the world and looking for the plane there is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The search operation was called off in 2018. Aviation experts claimed that one of the pilots, most likely the captain, depressurized the cabin once the co-pilot left the cockpit and turned off the aircraft’s transponder. plane that provides precise coordinates. He then continued to fly the plane for seven hours, before the plane eventually ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean. Many conspiracy theories are associated with this phantom flight, but the disappearance remains a mystery.
One can only hope that improved technology will further reduce the risk of aircraft crashes in the future.