When a large airplane crashes, it’s headline news around the world. A disaster of this kind is intrinsically shocking; dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent people killed in a tragic event that can often seem completely random and wickedly capricious. It can create or enhance a fear of flying, regardless of what statistics might say: Depending on which source you believe, the odds of dying in a plane crash can range from 1 in 10 million to 1 in 29 million. In contrast, you have approximately a 1 in a million chance of being struck by lightning.
Disasters that involve flight don’t necessarily have to result in deaths of hundreds in order to create news around the world. For example, one of the entries on this list only claimed two victims, but it led to a mystery that still has not been solved decades later. Another entry on this tragic list is a plane crash that ended with four fatalities, but it has become so memorable that a specific term was even developed to reference it, because of the people involved.
Sadly, there was only ever going to be one horrific event that could top a list of this nature. It didn’t just shock the world, it actually changed the world, and its effects can still be felt years after the act. Airlines are constantly trying to improve their safety and security, but the nature of this particular method of transport means that there will always be incidents that have the potential to shock the world, either via mass loss of life, or the loss of a few poor souls who had an effect on many.
10. Tu-154 crash: 96 fatalities
Unfortunately, there have been many more plane crashes with more victims than this particular flight. However, this one destabilized a whole country and demonstrated that there is no discrimination in regard to wealth and power when it comes to becoming a flight-disaster victim. On April 10, 2010 this Polish Tupolev Tu-154M aircraft crashed into a Russian wood, killing everyone on board. This included the Polish president Lech Kaczyński and his wife, a former president, a whole host of Polish officials and ministers and even relatives of the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre, when 22,000 Polish people were murdered by the Soviet secret police.
9. Air France Flight 447: 228 fatalities
This disaster shocked the world by the nature of the airplane’s disappearance. Experts were stunned by how such a large passenger plane, an Airbus A330, could just vanish from the sky. The aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean whilst en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, on June 1, 2009. But it took nearly two years for investigators to find the infamous “black boxes,” the flight recorders that are usually bright orange. The plane had entered a deadly stall that the pilots simply could not correct.
8. Pan Am Flight 103: 270 fatalities
Before December 1988, there would not have been many people who had heard of Lockerbie, a small town in southern Scotland with a population of just over four thousand. But on December 21, 1988 a huge aircraft came smashing into the sleepy community, killing everyone on the plane and 11 more people on the ground. This disaster soon became known as the Lockerbie Bombing as it was revealed that a terrorist attack by Libyan agents had been the cause of the incident.
7. MH370: 239 missing, believed to be dead
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been shocking and bewildering the world since its disappearance on March 8, 2014. Months later and dozens of searches over five phases have not, at the time of writing, managed to throw up any sign of the missing aircraft. Somehow, a Boeing 777 over 200 feet long has vanished whilst travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Another search area is due to be defined, with Malaysian, Chinese and Australian services sweeping parts of the Indian Ocean to look for signs of the stricken craft. Unbelievably, an executive for Malaysia Airlines commented that it could even take decades to find the lost plane.
6. Disappearance of Amelia Earhart: 2 fatalities
The press and the public adored Amelia Earhart; there have been few aviators who have achieved the level of fame this woman from Kansas enjoyed. Her fame was deserved thanks to her adventures: the first woman to fly over the Atlantic, the first person to cross the USA in a tiny autogyro and the first person to fly over the Atlantic twice. Along with a flight navigator called Fred Noonan, Earhart planned to fly a Lockheed Electra 10E around the world, in 1937. However, on the final stretch of the epic voyage, the plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. It is possible the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean, or the intrepid duo managed to land somewhere but later died. Whatever happened, her disappearance shocked the world, and her legacy lives on.
5. Tenerife Airport Disaster: 583 fatalities
On March 27, 1977 a Boeing 747 operated by KLM smashed into another Boeing 747, operated by Pan Am, whilst attempting to take off in Tenerife, Spain. A combination of human error, poor weather conditions and mass flight diversions led to confusion on the runway. The KLM plane managed to stay airborne for a brief moment, but the amount of damage it had received after hitting the Pan Am aircraft caused it to explode, killing everyone on board. Although most of the passengers on the Pan Am plane were also killed, miraculously there were 61 survivors, who managed to live through what was then the world’s worst aviation disaster.
4. Hindenburg Disaster: 36 fatalities
There was a time when giant Zeppelins were a frequent sight in the sky. But when the LZ 129 Hindenburg airship caught fire whilst trying to dock in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, a disaster occurred which shocked the world and ended the time of the airships. Thirty-six people were killed as the now infamous words “Oh, the humanity”” were uttered by broadcaster Herbert Morrison, who watched the huge craft burst into flames and subsequently crash.
3. Space Shuttle Disasters: 7 fatalities on each occasion
On January 28, 1986 the world looked on in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated barely a minute after take-off. Shuttle launches always attract large television audiences and extensive media coverage, the Challenger particularly so because of the participation of Christa McAuliffe, who beat out over 11,000 entrants to become the first teacher in space. On 1 Feb, 2003, another space shuttle, Columbia, broke apart as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts.
2. The Day the Music Died: 4 fatalities
On February 3, 1959 a Beechcraft Bonanza 35 crashed into a cornfield in Iowa and killed its three passengers and one pilot. A tragic accident under any circumstances, but this incident shocked the world because of who the passengers were. Music stars The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly were the occupants of the doomed airplane. The famous song “American Pie” by Don McLean is about the crash and is also the source of the term “The Day the Music Died.”
1. 9/11: 2,996 fatalities
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are inarguably one of the most shocking events of the last few decades – indeed, one of the most shocking moments in history. Nearly three thousand people perished when four airplanes, AA Flight 11, UA Flight 175, AA Flight 77 and UA Flight 93 were hijacked by al-Qaeda operatives and used as weapons. AA Flight 11 and UA Flight 175 were used to destroy the Twin Towers in New York, AA Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon and UA Flight 93 was probably targeting the White House or the US Capitol when it was brought down in a field after passengers fought the hijackers for control. The horrible events of 9/11 not only shocked the world, they changed the world.
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