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5 of the Worst Plane Crashes in History

K S Lane is a student of science and is deeply passionate about educating others on her favorite topics.

5 worst plane crashes in history

5 worst plane crashes in history

The 5 Worst Plane Crashes in History

Plane crashes are the most disastrous of all transport accidents, largely because they often involve a catastrophic loss of life. One plane crash can kill as many as four or five hundred times more people than a car accident, and when a plane goes down, it can shake an entire nation to its core. Listed below are the five deadliest air accidents in history and the impact that they made on the aviation industry and on the world as a whole.

(If you’re about to get on a plane, I’d probably stop reading here.)

5. Turkish Airlines Flight 981: A Known Design Flaw

There were no survivors of the crash of Turkish Airlines flight 981.

There were no survivors of the crash of Turkish Airlines flight 981.

On the 3rd of March, 1974 Turkish Airlines flight 981 crashed in a French forest en route from London to Paris. The fault in the plane was an incorrectly closed latch in the cargo hold, which caused the cargo-door to burst open in mid-flight.

When the fuselage of an airplane is compromised (say, by a massive hole where the cargo-door should be) it leads to a phenomenon known as explosive decompression. Because the air inside the aircraft is much more pressurised than the air outside, a kind of explosion occurs, wherein the pressurised air is sucked out of the cabin.

In the case of Turkish Airlines flight 981, several rows of seats were literally ripped out of the plane along with the passengers in them and the floor of the cabin partially collapsed. Because of the massive damage sustained to the plane, the pilots were unable to land. There were 346 victims and no survivors of the resulting crash.

Impact of the Disaster

The worst thing about this accident? The design flaw in the latch of the plane was already on the radar of aviation authorities. American Airlines Flight 96 had experienced a similar problem with the cargo-door two years prior, though they had been luck enough to land safely.

It took this second incident for a change to be made, and all DC-10s (the plane involved in the accident) were grounded until the problem latch could be replaced. The reputation of the plane’s manufacturer, McDonnell-Douglas, was all but shattered. They saw their number of orders drop significantly, particularly for the DC-10, and they were later acquired by Boeing.

The DC-10 is no longer used for commercial flights, though some cargo companies do use them for shipping. Some people (me) have also come to refer to them by the nickname the 'Death-Chamber' 10.

4. Charkhi Dadri: Mid-Air Collision

The majority of the blame for the Charkhi Dadri disaster was found to lie with the Kazakh flight crew.

The majority of the blame for the Charkhi Dadri disaster was found to lie with the Kazakh flight crew.

The Charkhi Dadri disaster was the single worst mid-air collision in recorded history. On November 12, 1996 Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 763 collided with Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907 over India. The 349 people on board both planes were killed, with no survivors.

It’s hard to see how an incident like this could ever be called lucky, but the truth is that the crash could have been much, much worse. If the planes had both been carrying at full capacity then at least another 150 people would have lost their lives.

The cause of the crash was determined to be pilot error on the behalf of the Kazakh pilots, who misinterpreted directions from air traffic control and descended too quickly on their approach to Delhi airport, putting them directly in the path of the Saudi Arabian plane. The result of this error was a boom that could be heard for miles away and 349 lost lives.

Impact of the Disaster

Following the devastating crash, the Indian Civil Aviation Authority mandated that all aircraft landing or taking off from their country must have collision avoidance equipment. This was the first time that a country had ever made such equipment mandatory, and it sparked a shift in global aviation policy as more countries followed suit afterwards.

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3. Japan Airlines Flight 123: Crash in the Mountains

Only 4 people survived the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123.

Only 4 people survived the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123.

On the 12th of August 1985, Japan Airlines flight 123 took off from Haneda airport, Tokyo, bound for Osaka. Forty-six minutes into the routine flight, however, chaos erupted. The rear pressure bulkhead, (which helps maintain pressure in the aircraft and protects the plane from bursting) ruptured. This fault caused a rapid depressurisation in the cabin and also ripped off the tail fin of the aircraft and disabled the hydraulic systems, which are what allow the pilots to control the other mechanisms in the plane.

Without these essential functions, the pilots were left with a plane that was nearly impossible to fly. The aircraft began spinning out of control and after a terrifying 32 minute desperate struggle, the pilots finally lost the battle and the plane smashed into the side of Mount Ogura. 505 passengers and 15 members of crew were killed, and only four survived. These figures make the Japan Airlines Flight 123 disaster the worst single-aircraft crash in history.

Impact of the Disaster

Investigators eventually determined hat the cause of the rupture in the bulkhead had been improper repair after an incident more than seven years prior to the accident. This caused tightening in regulations and policies regarding aircraft repair by authorities, to ensure that no easily preventable disaster of this magnitude could ever occur again.

2. Tenerife Airport: Collision on the Runway

Only 61 of the 396 passenger aboard Pan Am Flight 1736 survived the Tenerife airport disaster.

Only 61 of the 396 passenger aboard Pan Am Flight 1736 survived the Tenerife airport disaster.

On a foggy afternoon in the Canary Islands, the most disastrous aircraft collision in recorded history unfolded. A previous terrorist incident at a neighbouring airport had meant that Tenerife was heavily congested with traffic. KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were both taxiing out onto the runway of the packed airport when the unthinkable happened; the KLM Boeing 747 rammed directly into the Pan Am plane.

Remarkably, 61 of the 396 of the passengers on the Pan Am flight survived, while every single passenger and crew member aboard the KLM were killed after fire engulfed the plane. Between the two aircraft, a total of 583 people were killed.

Investigators determined that the cause of the crash was a series of unfortunate events, beginning with the low visibility on the runway due to the fog and ending with the disastrous errors committed by the pilot of KLM Flight 4805, who appeared to mishear directions by air-traffic controllers and took off down the runway before he’d received clearance to do so.

Impact of the Disaster

The crash shook the aviation industry to its very foundations. An experienced pilot had made an incomprehensible error that had lead to the deaths of 583 passengers. In response, aviation authorities stressed the importance of using standardised phraseology, which are pre-determined phrases that indicate what a pilot it doing, in radio communications. In this, they hoped to avoid any future accidents that may have stemmed from the kind of vague communications that the pilot of the KLM flight used ("We are now, uh, at takeoff").

Cockpit procedures were also reviewed, contributing to the establishment of crew resource management as a foundational part of pilot training.

1. 9/11: Terrorist Hijacking

The 9/11 attacks left a deep scar on U.S history.

The 9/11 attacks left a deep scar on U.S history.

The 9/11 attacks are without a doubt the most infamous plane disasters of all time. On the 11th of September 2001, two Boeing 767s and two Boeing 757s were hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists. The first two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York, the third hit the Pentagon in Washington D.C and the last, which had been intended for the White House, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. All in all, 2,996 people were killed in the attacks.

Impact of 9/11

The attack had severe wider consequences including the beginning of the 'War on Terror.' In regards to the aviation industry, huge reforms regarding airplane security were made, particularly in the U.S, in an attempt to ensure that a disaster of this magnitude would never occur again.

A summary of the five worst plane crashes in aviation history

CrashType of plane/s involvedTotal casualties

Turkish Airlines flight 981

A McDonnell Douglas DC-10


The Charkhi Dadri collision

A Boeing 747 and an Ilyushin Il-76


Japan Airlines flight 123

A Boeing 747SR


The Tenerife airport collision

2 Boeing 747s


The 9/11 attacks

2 Boeing 767s and 2 Boeing 757s


In Summation

And there we have it: five of the worst plane crashes in history. Every life lost in the skies is a tragedy, but at least the victims' families can find solace in the fact that the disasters listed here all had profoundly positive effects on the aviation industry and, in some cases, uncovered flaws in the way planes are built and piloted that would go on to save many lives in the years to come.

It's these disastrous accidents that have contributed to commercial airplanes becoming the safest method of modern travel, with a minuscule 0.07 deaths per billion miles flown.

Were you paying attention?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What caused Turkish Airlines flight 981 to crash?
    • A terrorist hijacking
    • Pilot error
    • A faulty cargo door
    • Faulty ailerons
  2. The Charkhi-Dadri disaster was what type of crash?
    • A botched landing
    • A single-aircraft crash
    • A runway crash
    • A mid-air collision
  3. How many people were killed in the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123?
    • 230
    • 645
    • 505
    • 520
  4. The Tenerife airport disaster was found to be caused by pilot errors by which crew?
    • Neither- it wasnt pilot error at all
    • The KLM crew
    • The Pan Am crew
  5. The two aircraft involved in the 9/11 attacks were?
    • 2 Boeing 767s and two Boeing 757s
    • 3 Boeing 767s and a DC-10
    • 2 Boeing 787s and two Boeing 757s
    • A Boeing 787 and three Boeing 767s

Answer Key

  1. A faulty cargo door
  2. A mid-air collision
  3. 520
  4. The KLM crew
  5. 2 Boeing 767s and two Boeing 757s

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What safety measures should I take when flying on an airplane?

Answer: I'm answering this with a disclaimer: air travel is one of the safest transport options available. You're far more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, and I'll bet that you don't even think about the risks before getting into your car in the morning to go to work. That being said, I can understand why people feel unsafe traveling by plane. There are a few things that you can do to give yourself peace of mind and prepare yourself for any kind of emergency situation.

1. Make sure you read the safety card. This is probably an obvious one, but the amount of people who ignore both the card and the safety demonstration is astounding. Listen carefully to the flight attendants when they explain what to do in the event of an emergency, read the safety card and after you've done this make sure to stop for a moment and ask yourself whether you really understand what to do in an emergency situation. If not then re-read the card, or if you're really stuck ask one of the flight attendants to explain it to you.

2. Keep your seatbelt on. Again, this seems obvious, but on almost every flight I've been on I've looked over and seen people with their belts unbuckled. After you've finished your ascent, the little light indicating that you absolutely have to have your seatbelt on will go off, but this isn't a cue to immediately take it off. All that it means is that if you need to take your seatbelt off and stand up to use the bathroom or stretch your legs, it's safe to do so. When you're seated, you should still keep your seatbelt on at all times. This is to stop you getting injured during unexpected turbulence (again a disclaimer: it's extremely unlikely that you'd experience turbulence that could cause you serious harm, but if you're worried then keeping your seatbelt on definitely won't hurt).

3. Stay calm! I'm not sure of the exact statistics, but I'd bet you anything that more people experience panic attacks on planes each year than people who die in crashes. Pilots go through rigorous training and are highly experienced before they even get to fly as first officer, and planes these days are held to the highest maintenance standards and have incredibly powerful technology on board that's designed to give you a safe and comfortable flight. With every crash on this list, safety standards have improved and improved. There's really nothing to worry about, especially if you adhere to the basic safety rules that I covered in points one and two. Relax and enjoy your flight!

Question: How far ahead can pilots see?

Answer: Visibility from the cockpit depends on a lot of different factors, including the type of aircraft, the altitude, and the weather. At cruising altitude for passenger jets (FL380) on a clear day, pilots can generally see about 300 miles ahead, but this can drop drastically in hazy or cloudy conditions. The good news is that generally, pilots don't actually need to see very far. Modern technology warns planes if they're in danger of colliding in mid-air, and navigation equipment tells pilots if they're straying off course. Even on takeoff and landing instrumentation can assist them when visibility is poor.

© 2018 K S Lane


Jimmy on October 24, 2019:

Some of the crashes like the Turkish Airlines crash were design flaws. Which the crew unfortunately can't do anything about. But the Dutch KLM crash is a really horrible mistake by impatient pilots who were trying to rush a flight. It's sad how human impatience caused so many people to die.

solomon tamirat on March 11, 2019:

its the most tragic accident...Boeing 737 max 8 ET 302 being among these...157 including 8 flight crew all dead yesterday march 10,2019 at 2:44 after 6 minutes from A.A international airport smash down around bishoftu,it was flaying into Nairobi Kenya

Fynn Schultz on September 07, 2018:

Have to get on a plane next week... uh oh

Diane Wetherill on August 09, 2018:

It is really awful that because of some mere mistakes (especially KLM pilot's mishearing) hundreds of people lost their lives...

Alina on July 15, 2018:

I got full marks in your quiz! Really interesting to read about the impacts of the plane crashes. Even though lives were tragically lost, at least good could come of it.

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 09, 2018:

Thanks for replying back to me

K S Lane (author) from Melbourne, Australia on February 08, 2018:

Hi Robin,

The safety of plane travel has actually improved exponentially over the past few decades, and it remains the safest way to travel with only 0.07 deaths per billion passenger miles. However, it can seem like the amount of plane crashes has increased during modern times, which is mainly because of better reporting. Don't let a few freak accidents ruin your idea of flying!

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 08, 2018:

I love to fly but it used to be the spice of life now it became so disastrous too many crashes better technology would really help

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