The 10 Biggest Air Disasters of All Time

About one in 10 Americans is afraid of flying, and perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider the air disasters that we've witnessed in the past 40 years. Most recently, the world has been awaiting news of the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, which departed from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 and never reached its intended destination (Beijing, China). It’s thought to have found its fate in the southern Indian Ocean, with 239 passengers unaccounted for. Experts from around the world have joined the search for the aircraft.

Despite the major disasters that have occurred, air travel is generally considered to be very safe. In the case of an air crash, it’s more likely these days that the crew and passengers will survive than die, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. MIT Professor Arnold Barnett told ABC News in 2011 that your chances of being killed in an air disaster in the US is around one in 14 million – meaning you could fly every day for 38,000 years before being in a fatal air crash.

What’s more, the International Air Transport Association, based in Montreal, found that every day in 2012, about 100,000 flights safely made it to their destination – making it the safest year of air travel ever recorded. They reported that Africa is the geographical location with the highest risk of air disasters, with Latin American coming in a distant second.

We've found the 10 biggest air disasters of all time and recorded all the important details - including how air travel changed forever in the aftermath. These 10 big air disasters were all accidental and all occurred among commercial aircraft carrying civilian passengers.

10 Air New Zealand – 257 People Died

In the late 1970s, Air New Zealand kicked off a sightseeing flight that took passengers in a loop from New Zealand to Antarctica and back again. However, in November 1979, Air New Zealand flight 901 collided with Mount Erebus (on Ross Island in Antarctica), killing all 257 people on board. Initially this disaster was thought to be due to pilot error, but further details were released after a Royal Commission which indicated that the flight path coordinates had been changed late in the piece and that the crew had not been given full details. This is New Zealand’s most deadly air disaster and was the last of Air New Zealand's commercial flights to Antarctica.

9 Nigeria Airways – 261 People Died

In July 1991, Nigeria Airways flight 2120 crashed near King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), due to a fire on board. All crew and passengers, totaling 261 people, died. Many of the passengers were Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca. After the air disaster, an investigation found that the lead mechanic had requested two tires be inflated before takeoff, but they were not and friction created during takeoff caused enough heat to start a fire. On top of that, the plane didn't have the right fire or heat sensors.

8 China Airlines – 264 People Died

China Airlines flight 140 crashed in April 1994 near Nagoya Airport in Japan, killing 264 of the 271 people on board. The cause was pilot error: the first officer accidentally pressed the “take-off” button before landing, and they were unable to rectify the situation after the autopilot began. Following this shocking air disaster, Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration ensured that China Airlines modified the A300’s flight control computers, and provide more training to pilots using that aircraft.

7 American Airlines – 265 People Died

Just two months after the September 11, 2001 disaster, this crash took place. American Airlines flight 587 departed JFK Airport in New York in November 2001, and crashed soon after in the area of Queens. All 260 crew and passengers died, and so did five people on the ground. Initial fears were that it was another terrorist attack, but an investigation found that pilot error caused the fatal disaster. American Airlines changed its pilot training program in order to avoid future disasters of this kind.

6 American Airlines – 275 People Died

In May 1979, American Airlines flight 191 took off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and crashed just moments later. Engine number (located on the DC-10’s left wing) came off, flipping over the wing and severely damaging the aircraft. This resulted in the most devastating accidental plane crash in history in the USA, in which the plane crashed into an open field. All passengers and crew died, totaling 275 people, due to the impact or the resulting fire. The resulting investigation found that poor maintenance procedures in the eight weeks prior to the flight caused the accident, and although the problems were rectified, the DC-10 suffered from a bad reputation after this shocking disaster.

5 Saudia – 301 People Died

In August 1980, a total of 301 people died on board Saudia flight 163. A fire broke out after takeoff from Riyadh International Airport, and despite the crew’s decision to make an emergency landing back at the airport, the plane burst into flames and passengers died due to smoke inhalation. This is one of the biggest air disasters of all time that didn’t involve some kind of crash. Those investigating the cause of the fire found two butane stoves on board. Despite being banned, many airlines at this time still allowed passengers to use them.

4 Turkish Airlines – 346 People Died

On the outskirts of Paris in March 1974, 346 people died after Turkish Airlines flight 981 crashed. The rear cargo compartment of the plane blew off, which left the flight’s pilots with literally no control. It was reportedly due to a design error, which was later corrected, but had been ignored at the time due to the costs and delays it could have caused. It’s a case that is now used as an example of ethics in the field of engineering.

3 Saudi Arabian Airlines & Kazakhstan Airlines – 349 People Died

In November 1996, mid-air collision resulted in the death of 349 people. In Charkhi Dadri (near New Delhi, India), Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 763 had just taken off and Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907 was arriving. The two planes crashed and the disaster’s investigation found that the Kazakhstan pilots couldn't communicate adequately in English and had difficulties with air traffic control commands. On top of that,  the airport used the same path for arriving and departing planes and didn't have the right software to support that.

2 Japan Airlines – 520 People Died

On an August 1985 flight from Tokyo to Osaka in Japan, a terrible mechanical fault on the aircraft caused the disastrous deaths of 520 people. The Boeing 747SR crashed into two ridges of Mount Takamagahara in Japan and made history as the most deadly crash of all time. Investigators found that several years earlier, the aircraft had been damaged but not repaired properly. Tokyo International Airport opened the Safety Promotion Center as a result of this air disaster.

1 KLM and Pan Am – 583 People Died

In March 1977, a bomb went off at Gran Canaria Airport, which meant that both KLM flight 4805 and Pan Am flight 1736 diverted to Los Rodeos Airport. However, a series of miscommunications coupled with dense fog, resulted in the two Boeing 747s colliding on the runway. On the KLM flight, all 248 people died, and 296 of the 335 people aboard the Pan Am flight also died. After this big disaster, changes were made to air traffic control phraseology and experienced flight crews were given greater opportunities to challenge the pilots if they didn't think something was correct.


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