Air transport is undoubtedly the fastest and safest mode of transport in the world today. In the past 5 years, only one fatal plane crash has taken place in the U.S. When you consider the fact that over 30,000 flights take off daily in the U.S., air transport has a very impressive safety track record. It is however important to note that air transport hasn’t always been this safe. Some very serious plane crashes have had to take place over the years for air transport safety to be enhanced. In this article, we will be interested in some of the worst plane crashes that have changed the way planes are made today.
Deadly plane crashes have had to happen over the years for serious flaws in aircraft engineering and operations to be identified. If you are interested in finding out how flying became so safe and reliable, you are in the right place. Below are 10 deadly crashes whose influence triggered serious changes in the way planes are made today. The crashes will be ranked according to factors such as; fatalities, how the crash triggered historic upgrades, the cost of those upgrades, the cost airlines incurred and the cost of investigations among other factors.
10 Nova Scotia: Swissair Flight 111 (Cost of investigation: $39 million)
The crash of Swissair Flight 111 in Nova Scotia which took place on 2nd September 1998 has to be one of the deadliest plane crashes in history given the fact that the crash left all 229 people on board dead. The crash triggered one of the most expensive investigations lasting over 4 years. By the end of the investigations, over $39 million had been spent. The investigators however found out the exact cause the crash i.e. a faulty in-flight entertainment system whose insulation caused arching in the vulnerable kapton wires located above the cockpit. This in turn caused a fire which spread rapidly because of the flammable Mylar insulation in the fuselage. The plane crash triggered an insulation swap-out upgrade in over 700 McDonnell Douglas jets flying around the world at that time.
9 Long Island: TWA Flight 800 (Cost of investigation: Over $50 million)
This 17th July 1996 TWA Flight 800 plane crash is another deadly crash that changed how planes are made today. TWA Flight 800 exploded in flight after taking off from John F. Kennedy airport bound for Paris. The explosion killed all the 230 people on board. The NTSB immediately commenced investigations in the midst of speculation that the crash was caused by a terrorist bomb in the plane. After carrying out extensive investigations, the NTSB concluded that the crash was caused by a short circuit that caused a spark in the planes fuel gauge sensor. The investigation’s salvage and recovery costs amounted to $5 million. The total cost of investigations was more than $50 million. The findings however resulted in a very useful upgrade i.e. electrical spark elimination which reduces the chances of sparks in a plane’s fuel tanks.
8 MIAMI: ValuJet Flight 592 (Cost of investigation: $55 million)
The ValuJet Flight 592 plane crash also makes it to this list because of the fatalities the crash caused (all 110 people on board died), the cost of the investigation and the upgrade the crash triggered. According to the NTSB, this 11th May 1996 crash was as a result of a fire caused by a malfunction in the DC-9’s chemical oxygen generators. After investigations were concluded, the FAA ordered a fire prevention upgrade directing all commercial airlines to install automatic fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in cargo holds.
7 MAUI: Aloha Airlines Flight 243 (Estimated upgrade cost: Over $100 million)
Aloha Airlines Flight 243 is another plane crash that changed the way planes are made today. Although this 28th April 1988 plane crash didn’t result in many fatalities, it resulted in a very important upgrade. Aloha Flight 243 lost a large part of its fuselage killing a flight attendant and leaving scores of passengers injured. Miraculously, the plane landed safely. The NTSB’s investigation laid the blame squarely on the plane’s age. The 19 year old plane had suffered widespread corrosion and fatigue damage after flying a record 89,000 plus flights. The resulting upgrade dubbed retiring tin required tightened maintenance and inspection requirements in the tune of millions.
6 Los Angeles: Aeromexico Flight 498 (Estimated cost of upgrade: Over $1 billion)
Although the post Grand Canyon system did a pretty good job before TCAS, it failed to account for small planes. The system’s fault led to the 31st August 1986 Aeromexico Flight 498 mid air collision with a Pipper Archer plane which resulted in 82 deaths in total including 15 who were on the ground. A 4-seater Piper Archer encroached into the path of Aeromexico Flight 498 knocking off the plane’s left horizontal stabilizer. Both planes dropped from the sky into a residential neighbourhood killing all 67 people on board and 15 on the ground. After the crash, the FAA launched a major upgrade requiring all planes to have a new collision avoidance system known as TCAS. The upgrade is estimated to have cost over $1 billion considering all planes around the world had to install a TCAS system costing between $12,000 and $73,000 at the time.
5 Fort Worth: Delta Airlines Flight 191 (Airline costs: 24.7 million)
This 2nd August 1985 plane crash also deserves to be in this list considering it killed 134 people out of the 163 people that were on board. As Delta Flight 191 approached Dallas Fort Worth Airport, lightning flashed around the Lockheed L-1011 plane when the plane was 800 feet above the ground. The plane encountered a microburst in the process resulting in an abrupt downdraft shift which caused the plane to lose airspeed in seconds. Delta Airlines Flight 191 hit the ground missing the runway. The plane crash triggered a downdraft detection upgrade amounting to millions of dollars. Delta airlines also incurred a huge loss ($24.7 million) in injury and wrongful death claims on top of the cost of their jetliner.
4 Cincinnati: Air Canada Flight 797 (Estimated upgrade cost: over $150 million)
Air Canada Flight 797 crashed on 2nd June 1983. Although the fatalities were less than most crashes featured in this list, Air Canada Flight 797 resulted in a very important plane upgrade that prompted installation of Lav smoke sensors on all planes. Air Canada Flight 797 started producing smoke from the rear lavatory 33,000 ft above the ground heading to Toronto from Dallas. Smoke started to fill the plane’s cabin prompting an emergency descent. After landing safely in Cincinnati, the plane caught fire before everyone got out. 23 people out of the 46 people who were on board died. Following the accident, the FAA ordered that every plane be fitted with automatic fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. The FAA also ordered that planes be built with fire proof seat and floor material.
3 Portland: United Airlines Flight 173
United Airlines Flight 173 crashed on 28th December 1978 in Portland killing 10 out of the 189 passengers and crew onboard. According to the NTSB, the crash was caused by lack of teamwork in the cockpit between thr captain and his flight engineer. As a result, the crash triggered one of the most intense cockpit crew training upgrades dubbed cockpit teamwork. The captain of flight 173 failed to heed the flight engineer's warning of diminishing fuel supply. As a result, the DC-8 plane ran out of fuel crashing and killing 10 people on board. This crash triggered a training program known as CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) aimed at improving how cockpit occupants work together.
2 Grand Canyon: United Airlines Flight 718 & TWA Flight 2 (Upgrade costs: $250 million)
This 30th June 1956 plane crash is one of the deadliest and most expensive in terms of upgrade costs. The mid air collision accident between United Airlines Flight 718 & TWA Flight 2 in the Grand Canyon sparked a $250 million upgrade in the then ATC (Air Traffic Control) system. Today, that’s about $2 billion. The cost was however justified considering no collisions have taken place in the U.S. since then. Nothing more needs to be said about this crash that claimed 128 lives.
1 Pittsburgh: USAir Flight 427 (Upgrade costs: $500 million)
This 8thSeptember 1994 crash is definitely one of the deadliest crashes to influence how planes are made today considering the crash killed all 132 passengers and crew onboard. USAir Flight 427, (a Boeing 737) rolled suddenly plunging into the ground moments after the plane began its landing approach in Pittsburgh. Investigations revealed that the plane’s rudder had suddenly moved left triggering a sudden roll. It took 5 years for the NTSB to finish its investigations concluding that a jammed valve in the plane’s rudder control system was to blame for the fateful accident. Boeing spent a record $500 million to upgrade its 2800 planes flying around the world at the time.
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