5 of the Worst Plane Crashes in History

Updated on September 8, 2018
K S Lane profile image

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

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. | Source

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.

What kind of impact was made?

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. | Source

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.

What kind of impact was made?

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.

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. | Source

On the 12th of August 1985 Japan Airlines flight 123 took off from Haneda airport, Tokyo, bound for Osaka. 46 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 battle the pilots finally lost their 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.

What kind of impact was made?

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. | Source

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 case 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.

What kind of impact was made?

The disastrous 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 to the crash 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. | Source

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 his 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.

What kind of impact was made?

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.

Crash
Type of plane/s involved
Total casualties
Turkish Airlines flight 981
A McDonnell Douglas DC-10
346
The Charkhi Dadri collision
A Boeing 747 and an Ilyushin Il-76
349
Japan Airlines flight 123
A Boeing 747SR
520
The Tenerife airport collision
2 Boeing 747s
583
The 9/11 attacks
2 Boeing 767s and 2 Boeing 757s
2,996
A summary of the five worst plane crashes in aviation history

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 contribute to commercial airplanes being the safest method of modern travel, with a minuscule 0.07 deaths per billion miles flown.

Do you ever want to be in a plane crash?

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Were you paying attention?

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Sources:

  • https://list25.com/25-worst-aviation-disasters-and-plane-crashes-in-history/5/
  • http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/asi:turkish-airlines-tk-981
  • http://www.airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=528591
  • https://flyawaysimulation.com/news/4176/
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/comment/tenerife-airport-disaster/
  • http://www.history.com/topics/9-11-attacks
  • http://www.cityam.com/215834/one-chart-showing-safest-ways-travel


Questions & Answers

    © 2018 K S Lane

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Fynn Schultz 

        2 weeks ago

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

      • profile image

        Diane Wetherill 

        6 weeks ago

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

      • profile image

        Alina 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • RobinReenters profile image

        Robin Carretti 

        7 months ago from Hightstown

        Thanks for replying back to me

      • K S Lane profile imageAUTHOR

        K S Lane 

        7 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

        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!

      • RobinReenters profile image

        Robin Carretti 

        7 months ago from Hightstown

        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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