Bizarre Plane Crashes

A segue for the ages. A look at remote-controlled flying lawnmowers was all good fun — a humorously instructive look at the exotic potentials of aerodynamics. I even cracked a joke that “somebody might get hurt.” But never in my wildest flights of fancy did I expect to hear that somebody had actually been killed by one of the damn things.

True story. In 1979 at Shea Stadium, in a football game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, the halftime show featured an aerial circus of remote control airplanes. One of those RC craft was our flying mower. The mower was the star attraction, zipping the length of the field and buzzing around the flagpole to the applause of thousands of Jets fans. Until, that is, the machine went into a dive from which it never recovered, slamming into the bleachers and striking two people, one of whom later died.

David (last name withheld), who today lives in Colorado, was there and saw it happen. “The last demonstration was the flying lawnmower,” he remembers. “It was painted red. Until this point in the program, all the planes had been kept over the field. The mower was much faster than the others, however, and the pilot brought it back across the crowd. It passed above my head, then out for a second run toward the flagpole. Over the crowd, it began to lose altitude, crashing into the stands at about the 50 yardline. The pilot was standing near me. He was a barber by profession, I remember hearing.”

“Jets and NFL front office have hushed this up over the years,” writes Ken Fratto, on a football page called Jets Insider.com. It’s interesting to learn that conspiracy theories follow not only high-profile crashes of widebody jetliners, but those of remote control novelty toys. TWA 800, KAL 007…and the ’79 halftime show at Shea.

It’s debatable that “crash” is really the appropriate term here. Use of the word “pilot” seems a similar stretch. And don’t bother scouring the home pages of the FAA or the NTSB for transcripts or conclusions of “probable cause.” No black boxes on the mower. Meanwhile, you really have to feel for the victim. I’m uncertain where death by remote control flying lawnmower fits into the hierarchy of ignominious demise, but it has to be somewhere near the top.

The temptation now is to launch into a catalogue of history’s most bizarre and embarrassing aviation crashes. But even for a wise-ass like me certain things are sacred, and constructing a list of air disaster bloopers just isn’t funny.

Well, it is and it isn’t. I’ll keep this brief, but if I had to choose a favorite, for lack of a better term, it’d probably be the crash in Kinshasa, Zaire — as it was then called — of a Russian turboprop in 1996. The plane went down seconds after takeoff, plowing into a crowded market. The kicker: more than 300 people killed, none of whom were on the plane. Notice the vague “more than,” for nobody knows the exact number of victims. Estimates of the death toll range from 250 to more than 400.

See, isn’t that a riot? In Zaire, it was a riot, literally. Angry survivors from the marketplace apprehended the pilots, who’d escaped the wreckage with minor injuries, beating and threatening to kill them.

The catastrophe can be seen here, in a rendering by Congolese painter Cheri Cherin, one of Kinshasa’s best known artists.

Another contender would be the crash two years earlier of an Aeroflot Airbus A310 over south-central Russia. A synopsis of this accident at Airsafe.com includes the following: “March 1994: Lost control and crashed after the captain had allowed at least one child to manipulate the flight controls.”

En route between Moscow and Hong Kong, the captain invited his 13 year-old son to sit at the controls of the twin-engine widebody. As the captain demonstrated the turn functions of the plane’s autopilot system, his son began rotating the control wheel in the opposite direction of the captain’s inputs. The boy’s applied force caused sudden disconnect of the autopilot, immediately sending the plane into a severe turn. The boy panicked, and before the crew could recover, the aircraft stalled, spun, and crashed near the city of Novokuznetsk, killing all 12 crew and 63 passengers. The captain’s daughter had been in the seat moments earlier, and apparently had done a better job.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.