While several of my articles have touched on negligence or controversy in the world of aviation, they tend, in the end, to bolster its reputation for safety. Some people, eager for some whistleblowing or a sizzling expose, have been disappointed, expecting dirt but instead finding a pilot who ultimately asks the jaded traveler to extol, rather than revile, the experience of commercial flight, even as you’re battling incipient thrombosis in 45J. As of yet, nobody from the Air Travelers Association has submitted an indignant protest to Salon, so maybe I’m on to something.
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If you want to understand what inspires me, please go back and read Airplanes Don’t Get No Respect. Nobody is paying me to parrot the industry’s party line; the airlines have their lobbyists who can do that much more effectively than I can. If it seems I shy from the occasional opportunity to indict, it’s because, with various asterisks, flying happens to be exactly as dependable as its advocates, this one included, have always maintained, and despite what David Stempler (see Air Travelers Association above) or anyone else leads you to think, neither the FAA nor the much maligned airlines are out to screw you or get you killed.
That said, I promised to indulge the morbid fascinations of some of you, and here goes. What follows is a list of the ten worst airplane crashes ever, with a short synopsis for each.
In an interview years ago, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut was asked how he’d like to die. And most of us, I suppose, occasionally play out our own deaths in line with some exciting script. “In a plane crash on Mount Kilimanjaro,” was Vonnegut’s answer. And if you think about it, there’s something evocative about that — a jet getting lost in the fog, smacking into the side of that big Tanzanian mountain. Is it the Kilimanjaro part, or the plane crash part? Or both?
You’d be hard pressed to find people who think of airplane crashes as anything but the cold hard triumph of gravity over some hulking contraption, but frankly there’s a certain mystique to some of them. Not a morbid, bloody mystique, but something romantic. Don’t miss the point, as none of this, of course, means a damn thing to the people who are unlucky enough to be killed, or their loved ones. It’s not the violence that makes the difference — the ascending G-forces or the body count. The mystique is a contextual thing — the event as a whole, and as we come to see it in retrospect. Not just plane crashes, but all disasters. If the Titanic sinking hadn’t had a mystique, it wouldn’t have been a blockbuster love story 80 years later. A boat hits an iceberg and 1200 people die — and somehow we make a love story out of the wreckage?
Since overall number of fatalities is the standard measuring stick, one could argue the World Trade Center attacks deserve top billing, as indeed some on-line aviation sites have ranked them. However, the planes-as-weapons phenomenon changes things, and to include the twin tower implosions here would be a certain stretch, no less than a Cessna detonating a bomb over a crowded city could justify the subsequent body count as an “air disaster.” (A turboprop once plowed into a crowded market in Zaire killing over 300 people, only two of whom were aboard the airplane!) To level the field, perhaps we should remove all on-the-ground casualty figures from crash totals. This seems the fairest method by which to compare accidents, and is something everyone who compiles air safety data should consider in light of last year’s events. For now though I’ve retained any on-ground deaths in the following tallies. If you choose to further research any of this, please be wary of info you come across on the Internet. There are many sites that feature this material, with varying degrees of accuracy.
1. March 27, 1977. Two Boeing 747s, operated by KLM and Pan Am, collide on a foggy runway at Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands killing 583 people. The KLM jet departed without permission and struck the Pan Am jet as it taxied along the same runway. Confusion over instructions and a blockage of radio transmissions contributed to the crash.
2. August 12, 1985. A Japan Air Lines 747 crashes near Mt. Fuji after takeoff from Tokyo on a domestic flight killing 520. The rupture of an aft bulkhead, which had undergone faulty repairs following a mishap seven years earlier, caused destruction of part of the airplane’s tail and rendered the jet uncontrollable. A JAL maintenance supervisor later committed suicide, while the president of the airline resigned, accepting full, formal responsibility for the crash and visiting victims’ families to offer a personal apology.
3. November 12, 1996. An Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane from Kazakhstan collides in midair with a Saudia 747 near Delhi; all 349 aboard both planes are killed. The Kazakh crew had disobeyed instructions, and neither airplane was equipped with collision-avoidance technology.
4. March 3, 1974. In one of the most notorious and gruesome crashes ever, a THY (Turkish Airlines) DC-10 crashes near Orly airport killing all 346 passengers and crew. A poorly designed cargo door had burst from its latches, and the subsequent depressurization caused failure of the cabin floor and impairment of cables to the rudders and elevators. Out of control, the plane slammed into the woods northeast of Paris. McDonnell Douglas, maker of the DC-10, which would see even more controversy later, was forced to redesign its cargo door system.
5. June 23, 1985. A bomb planted by a Sikh extremist blows up an Air India 747 enroute between Toronto and Bombay (with stops in Montreal and London). The airplane fell into the sea east of Ireland killing 329. Investigators in Canada cited shortcomings in baggage screening procedures, screening equipment, and employee training. A second bomb, intended to blow up another Air India 747 on the same day, detonated prematurely in a luggage facility in Tokyo before being loaded aboard.
6. August 19, 1980. A Saudia L-1011 bound for Karachi returns to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, following an in-flight fire that broke out just after departure. For reasons never understood, the crew takes its time after a safe touchdown and rolls to the far end of the runway before finally stopping. No evacuation is commenced, and the airplane then sits with its engines running for more than three minutes. Before any doors can be opened by the inadequately-equipped rescue workers at Riyadh, all 301 people on the widebody die as the passenger cabin is consumed by a flash-fire.
7. July 3, 1988. An Airbus A300 operated by Iran Air is shot down over the Straits of Hormuz by the US Navy destroyer Vincennes. The crew of the Vincennes, distracted by an ongoing gunbattle, mistakes the A300 for a hostile military aircraft and destroys it with two surface-to-air missiles. None of the 290 occupants survived.
8. May 25, 1979. As an American Airlines DC-10 lifts from the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, an engine detaches and seriously damages a wing. Before its crew can make sense of the situation, the airplane rolls 90 degrees and disintegrates in a huge fireball about a mile beyond the runway. With 273 fatalities, this remains the worst-ever crash on US soil. Both the engine pylon design and airline maintenance procedures were faulted by NTSB investigators, and all DC-10s were temporarily grounded.
9. December 21, 1988. Two Libyan agents are later held responsible (one is convicted) for planting a bomb aboard Pan American flight 103, which blows up in the night sky over Lockerbie, Scotland killing 270 people, including 11 on the ground.
10. September 1, 1983. Korean Air Lines flight KL007, a 747 carrying 269 passengers and crew from New York to Seoul (with a technical stop in Anchorage) is shot down by a Soviet fighter after drifting off course — and into Soviet airspace — near Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) later attributes the mysterious deviation to “A considerable degree of lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the flight crew.”
These accidents comprise twelve airplanes and ten airlines. Pan Am, now of course defunct but for decades one of the world’s highest-profile companies, played a role in two of them, as did the lesser-known Saudia (today called Saudi Arabian Airlines). In Saudia’s case, the company was absolved of blame in the midair collision (see No. 3), but its crew acted inexplicably in the fire at Riyadh (see No. 6). An interesting breakdown also includes the following:
Number of Boeing 747s involved in the ten crashes: 7
Number resulting from terrorist sabotage or that were shot down mistakenly: 4
Number that occurred in the United States: 1
Number that occurred prior to 1974: 0
Number that occurred during the 1970s or 1980s: 9
Number in which pilot error can be cited as a direct or contributing cause: 3
Number that crashed as direct result of mechanical failure: 3
To reduce these events to numerical abstraction can seem a cheap dissection. By using cold numbers, for instance, one could surmise the 747 is the most dangerous plane in the sky, neglecting the fact it also carries the highest amount of passengers in a single wallop. Still, we find some interesting and unexpected points, not the least of which is the lack of crew error in all but three of the ten disasters. This is particularly intriguing to pilots, considering the amount of human-factors analysis that’s forced down our throats in training. Design flaws in the case of the DC-10 catastrophes in Chicago and Paris, meanwhile, play into many passengers’ fears of bizarre mechanical failures diagnosed by this same author as “irrational.” Those of you solicitous for some corporate negligence can cite the mistakes of JAL, and all of us can sigh nervously over what remains to be done in the wake of bombings against Pan Am and Air India.
Glean what you will, and granted there are lessons we’re yet to learn, but remember that in the USA alone some 30,000 commercial airplanes depart safely each day. If I may borrow from a previous article of my own: The annals of commercial aviation — more or less an eighty year history — are full of accidents, a fact, however frustrating, inherent in the evolution of technology and safety. We should learn to be more comfortable with this. For in spite of such, the numbers remain firmly on your side, by a wide enough margin that none of us should be dissuaded from taking to the skies.
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.