Air travel has always been the safest way to travel. Even when things go wrong aboard commercial aircraft, pilots are highly trained to react and assess whatever may go wrong.
However, accidents happen and in air travel, the results are often tragic. Put yourself at ease though, American air travel and commercial aviation in general has progressed to a point where airplane crashes are virtually non-existent, which is why they get so much attention when they happen.
Most of these accidents happened over 20 years ago. All of these crashes resulted in wide-sweeping maintenance reforms and programs.
10. Delta Airlines Flight 191
Pilots know that they must always be alert while at the controls of an aircraft. This was no more prevalent than on August 5, 1985 on board a Delta Airlines L-1011 landing at Dallas-Fort Worth International. With dangerous weather conditions surrounding the field, the crew decided to fly through a severe thunderstorm to land on time. The flight was coming from Fort Lauderdale, continuing to Los Angeles. Time was of the essence.
Just before the plane was set to land on runway 17L, a microburst occurred directly in front of the aircraft. A microburst is a violent downward gust of wind and disrupts what makes an airplane fly. The pilots lost all control of the aircraft and were directed to abort the landing and make another attempt at landing, but it was too late. The L-1011 crashed into a water tank just short of the runway, killing 136 of the 163 passengers and crew on board. A motorist on the ground was also killed in the crash.
The cause of the crash was determined as lack of training and procedures to avoid microbursts and the lack of information on wind shears.
9. American Airlines Flight 587
Just two months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, New York faced yet another aviation tragedy. An Airbus A300 aircraft taking off from JFK International bound for Santo Domingo crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood in Queens. Five people on the ground were killed by the impact along with all 260 passengers and crew on board.
Just a few minutes into the flight, the plane’s tail suddenly detached, sending the plane into an out of control dive. The cause of the crash was determined as co-pilot error. The A300 took off after a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 and encountered wake turbulence. The co-pilot aggressively used the rudder on the vertical stabilizer to counter the effects of the wake turbulence, ultimately leading to the structural failure causing the catastrophe.
The crash was the second deadliest air accident in North American history.
8. TWA Flight 800
Perhaps the most infamous crash on this list is the TWA flight 800 crash of 1996. Bound for Rome via Paris out of New York’s JFK International, the official National Transportation Safety Board report states that the aircraft began to fall apart shortly after takeoff due to an explosion caused by a short circuit in a fuel tank. Twelve minutes after departure, the flight plunged into the Atlantic Ocean near the Moriches Inlet off Long Island.
However, several witnesses claim seeing a projectile speeding towards the plane shortly before a large explosion broke the plane into three separate pieces. Conspiracy theorists speculate that the crash was caused by a US Navy ship accidentally firing on the plane.
The NTSB’s investigation took over four years and is one of the longest, most expensive investigations in United States history.
7. PSA Flight 182
While on its final approach into San Diego’s Lindbergh International Airport, Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182 encountered air traffic. A small Cessna 172 was also in the same airspace as Flight 182. Pilots were told to keep an eye on the traffic.
Flight 172 was a popular daily flight from Sacramento and the pilots had flown in similar approach patterns several times. As the Boeing 727 approached the field, they overtook the Cessna on their right side. The smaller aircraft collided with the much larger aircraft beneath the right wing, ripping off parts of the right wing and causing both aircraft to plummet to the ground below. In total, 144 people perished.
The Cessna pilot was wearing a sun visor (a standard piloting device used during IFR flying) that impaired his vision and did not see that he was about to be overtaken by the larger plane.
The accident triggered massive reforms from the FAA in regards to congested air traffic cities like San Diego.
6. American Airlines Flight 191
The DC-10 was a marvel of its age. It was a wide-body transcontinental aircraft that could carry over 250 passengers. American Airlines flight 191 may be the most horrifying plane crash in US history based on one factor: the visual evidence. An eyewitness saw the plane spewing smoke shortly after takeoff and quickly snapped this chilling photo
Flight 191 departed from Chicago O’Hare bound for Los Angeles International on May 25, 1979 to As the aircraft began its takeoff rotation, the left engine came loose and ripped over the wing. The violent rupture of the engine severed the hydraulic lines in the left wing, causing the aircraft to roll to its left. The pilots managed to keep the plane in the air for a few thousand feet, but before they could figure out what was wrong, the plane completely rolled over and crashed into a trailer park at the end of the runway.
Adding to the terror, the DC-10s had cameras at the front of the plane that were designed to show passengers the unique view of the aircraft rising into the air upon takeoff. Passengers very well could have seen their eminent doom on the televisions in the cabin.
All 258 passengers and 13 crew were killed in the crash. The cause of the crash was determined to be negligent maintenance. American Airlines mechanics were using unapproved, dangerous shortcuts while performing routine maintenance on the plane, which led to the stripping of load bearing screws and bolts on the left engine.
5. The Park Slope Plane Crash
Among the rarest of plane crashes are mid-air collisions. Perhaps the most infamous US mid-air collision occurred in the skies above New York City in 1960.
A United DC-8 en route from Chicago O’Hare was on approach to Idlewild Airport (Now named JFK Airport). A TWA Lockheed Constellation was in the same airspace, but scheduled to land at LaGuardia Airport. With Manhattan and most of the five boroughs covered in rain and fog, both aircraft were using their instruments to navigate their way to their respective airports. After the DC-8’s navigational systems failed. The crew did not notify air traffic control and veered 12 miles off course, right into the path of the Constellation.
The two aircrafts collided in mid-air. The Constellation was ripped apart and immediately crashed in Staten Island and New York Harbor. The DC-8 remained airborne for a short time before crashing in Brooklyn, just nine miles away from LaGuardia.
All 128 people on board both planes died, including six people on the ground. There was a sole survivor of the crash, an 11-year-old boy from the United flight who died of pneumonia the day after the crash.
4. USAir Flight 427
A USAir 737-200 was on final approach to Pittsburgh International from Chicago O’Hare on September 8, 1994. Just a few miles from the runway, the plane violently pitched over, sending the pilots into a panic. Cockpit recordings of the pilots detail the confusion that followed shortly after the plane entered the dive.
The pilots were unable to recover the aircraft and it crashed near a major shopping center just seconds after the plane went into an 80-degree dive, killing all 132 souls on board. The 737’s faulty rudder jammed after hot hydraulic fluid entered the freezing cold valve in the rudder. This was one of two rudder issues that caused fatal crashes aboard 737 aircraft in the 1990s.
3. Alaska Airlines Flight 261
A flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Seattle was preparing for an intermediate stop on January 31, 2000 in San Francisco. Over the serenity of the Pacific Ocean, catastrophe was about to strike.
The MD-83 aircraft had just begun its initial descent into the Bay Area when it violently pitched down without warning, resulting in a 7,000-foot nosedive. Caught off guard, the flight crew scrambled to keep the plane in the air. After regaining control and stabilizing the aircraft, the pilots began troubleshooting the problem. The horizontal stabilizer on the tail of the plane had jammed and required a tremendous amount of force from the pilots to keep the plane level. Reports state that the pilots were each pulling 140 pounds of force on the controls before the final dive.
The crew stated their intention to land at Los Angeles International. Just after informing air traffic control about their situation, the aircraft encountered its second nosedive. The pilots were unable to recover from the dive, even after attempting to fly the plane upside down like Denzel Washington in the movie Flight. The aircraft hit the Pacific Ocean at suicidal speeds, killing all 83 people on board.
The cause of the crash was faulty maintenance. The jackscrew that held the horizontal stabilizer in place had been stripped and resulted in a violent mechanical failure.
2. Pan Am Flight 759
The Pan Am Boeing 727 took off from New Orleans International Airport (Now Louis Armstrong International) on July 9, 1982 bound for Las Vegas. The airport was surrounded by severe weather, but air traffic control cleared the plane for departure.
Immediately after takeoff, a violent wind shear hit the plane, causing it to lose lift just 150 feet off of the ground. The plane was airborne for just a few seconds before it began to clip trees and houses before exploding upon ground impact. The crash killed all 153 passengers and crew on board and four people on the ground.
Despite the massive tragedy, a miracle was born out of it. A baby in one of the houses destroyed by the crash somehow survived by being protected from a structural fire by a piece of the wreckage.
1. Valujet Flight 592
One of the worst airlines in US history also experienced one of the worst air disasters in US history. On May 11, 1996, a Valujet DC-9 jet departed from Miami for a short flight to Valujet’s hub in Atlanta. Valujet’s low-cost fares were made possible by Valujet’s cost-cutting maintenance program. It all came to a head that day.
The aircraft had already faced problems in the years prior, including several aborted takeoffs and landings. Just 10 minutes into the flight, the passengers and crew began to smell smoke. A loud bang followed the smoke smell and the aircraft lost all electrical power. The pilots declared an emergency and requested to land at the nearest airfield. Unfortunately, all on board were overcome by the smoke and lost consciousness. The aircraft slammed into the Florida Everglades, killing everyone on board.