In light of the recent crash of Germanwings flight 9525 on Tuesday, March 24th 2015, the world has been abuzz with talks of plane crashes and just how many of them are caused by pilots. While the co-pilot of flight 9525, Andreas Lubitz, has been accused of intentionally crashing the Airbus A320-200 into the French Alps due to severe depression and suicidal tendencies, there’s been several other aviation disasters in recent history that can be attributed to 0ne small error made in the cockpit. Often, these mistakes are completely preventable and are made unintentionally during a brief oversight or lapse in judgement.
While each of the crashes has been devastating, many of them have become textbook examples for training pilots on what not to do in the air in order to prevent catastrophes of the same nature. As such, the world has seen an impressive increase in aviation safety in the past twenty years and is only continuing to improve in the domain. While 75% of plane crashes are caused by pilot error, rarely have the same mistakes been made more than twice. Below, we highlight instances of engine failure, autopilot disengage, faulty landing gear, speed sensor misreads, radio miscommunication, fuel exhaustion and lost altitude that have marked some of the most fatal aviation disasters in history and have served as great learning examples on what to avoid in the future.
10. Air France Flight AF447
While the captain of Air France flight AF447 took a break, the plane’s autopilot suddenly disengaged and its co-pilot began receiving inconsistent readings for a few minutes – indicating that there was an issue with the plane’s speed sensors which were blocked by ice. After waking the pilot from his sleep, the co-pilot remained at the controls and raised the angle of the plane’s climb until it stalled three times and finally fell into the ocean, killing all onboard. The crash ultimately had little to do with the speed sensors and was blamed on the co-pilot’s choice to tilt the plane upwards as a response to the issue.
9. TransAsia Flight 235
Shortly after its takeoff on February 6th, 2015, one of TransAsia Flight 235’s engines experienced a flameout. As airplanes are able to fly on one engine alone, the pilot then shut off the engine – or so he thought. Instead, he accidentally shut off the correctly functioning one and left the plane powerless, at which point he unsuccessfully tried to restart both engines. The plane then clipped a bridge and plummeted into a Taiwanese river as the pilot desperately tried to avoid city terrain, killing 37 of the 53 onboard.
8. Eastern Airlines Flight 401
Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1972, killing 101 people on board and leaving 75 survivors to battle their way through swamp water to safety. Prior to landing, the flight crew was preoccupied with a faulty landing gear and didn’t notice that the autopilot had become disconnected, leading the aircraft to gradually lose altitude until it crashed. This is an example of what has become known in the industry as CFIT – Controlled Flight Into Terrain – which has happened in several other cases while pilots became overly distracted with one problem and didn’t notice their spatial surroundings until it was too late.
7. United Airlines Flight 173
United Airlines flight 173 suffered fuel exhaustion and crashed short of the runway in a suburban Portland neighborhood in 1978, miraculously only killing 10 of its 189 people on board. After becoming distracted with a faulty landing gear, the pilot decided to abort the plane’s initial landing to assess the problem and prepare passenger’s for an emergency landing. In the process, the flight crew became so absorbed with the issue that everybody failed to realize that the aircraft was about to run out of fuel. Flight 173 became a textbook example in aviation training in an effort to try to teach future flight crews to maintain situational awareness when problems occur in the cockpit.
6. KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736
Commonly referred to as the Tenerife Airport Disaster, flights KLM 4805 and Pan Am 1736 collided on a runway in the Canary Islands in 1977 after pilot miscommunication with radio traffic control. Due to an overcrowding of planes on the runway following a bomb explosion at a nearby airport and heavy fog, air traffic controllers were having a hard time keeping the runway organized, let alone being able to see it. From the tower, nobody was able to see that the Pan AM and KLM flights were sitting on the same runway. The pilot of the KLM flight misinterpreted a radio traffic controller’s muffled “OK” and assumed he was clear for take-off, instead of asking the controller to clarify. The flight then geared for take off, crashing directly into the Pan AM flight sitting on the runway and killing 583 people – making it the deadliest crash in aviation history.
5. Polish Air Force TU154
In 2010, Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife and several other military officials were killed when Polish Air Force plane TU154 crashed in Russia. The crash was a classic case of “get there-itis”, a term often referred to in the aviation community for when pilots risk dangerous landings or flying conditions because they don’t want to upset passengers, airline officials or the system in general. In this case, the pilot ignored automated warnings and attempted an unadvised landing in heavy fog; crashing into a forest and killing all onboard.
4. Adam Air Flight 574
Similarly to the crew’s lack of situational awareness aboard flight United 173, the crew of Adam Air Flight 574 became distracted with a malfunction of their inertial reference system and failed to realize that the plane had begun to descend and angle off centre. By the time the captain realized what was happening, it was too late in the plane’s descent to regain control and Flight 574 crashed into Indonesian waters and disintegrated, killing all 102 people on board.
3. Helios Airways Flight 522
The crash of Helios Airways Flight 522 was sadly caused by one very small pilot error that goes to show just how many crucial details are involved in flying an aircraft. During their pre-flight preparations, the flight crew didn’t switch the cabin pressurization to “auto” and lost consciousness due to a lack of oxygen while flying in the cabin. The plane continued to fly on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel, crashing into a mountainside in Greece and killing all onboard.
2. American Airlines Flight 587
With as much training as commercial pilots receive, sometimes they just cannot be prepared for what’s about to come their way. After encountering heavy turbulence, American Airlines Flight 587 turned from side to side due to the pilot over-applying a rudder pedal. Despite his desperate attempts to level the plane, the rudder failed from excessive stress and the aircraft rolled onto its side, crashing into five homes and killing 265 people.
1. Asiana Airlines Flight 214
On July 6th, 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash landed at San Francisco International airport after its tail section hit a seawall and became detached from the rest of the fuselage, killing three people. Investigations concluded that the pilot had selected the wrong autopilot mode, decreasing the plane’s speed which caused it to land short of the runway. This accident was a prime example of pilots’ reliance on automated systems and showcased the captain in question’s lack of monitoring awareness. By the time the crew realized how low they were flying at 100 feet, it was too late to conduct a go-around.
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