Today, flying in a commercial airplane is incredibly safe. But it wasn’t always such a certainty in the high skies. In fact, our relative modern safety only got that way because of some serious and hasty improvements over the last century of commercial air travel. And sadly, many of those improvements came about after tragic crashes and mass passenger deaths proved the need for new and updated systems in the first place.
This list takes a look at ten major airline crashes and incidents, and how they led to immediate and specific safety improvements for the industry as a whole. These ten tragedies were terrible for the loved ones of those lost. But in terms of saving future passengers even further heartache, they proved to be the catalysts of major airline improvements. Now, in no small part because of these ten harrowing historical events, air travel is as safe as it is today.
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10 Grand Canyon Air Crash of 1956
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On the morning of June 30, 1956, two different planes took off from Los Angeles International Airport. One was a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 bound for Chicago. The other was a Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation en route to Kansas City. But high over the Grand Canyon, as the planes crossed flight paths to go to their respective destinations, they collided in mid-air. The crash was catastrophic, as you might imagine; both planes fell quickly to the earth, and all 128 passengers and crew aboard were killed.
Immediately, the country was up in arms over such a horrible event. The federal government acted quickly, though, and initiated an oversight body we now know today as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) less than two years later to oversee and regulate aviation safety. Plus, the Feds spent more than $250 million to upgrade the nation’s air traffic control system. They felt that more eyes paying attention to flight paths would prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again. Having more eyes in the sky over the booming section of the transportation industry was much needed and well-received. And they were right—for thirty years.
On August 31, 1986, an Aeromexico DC-9 was flying out of Los Angeles International Airport when a small private plane entered its airspace. The tiny aircraft didn’t have a transponder on it, and the Aeromexico pilots quite literally didn’t know what hit them when the two planes collided. That second mid-air collision brought even more changes to the industry. For one, the FAA began requiring small aircraft to use transponders whenever they entered controlled areas around airports. Plus, all major airliners were outfitted with TCAS collision-avoidance radar systems. That change appears to have worked as intended; in the years since, no small plane has collided mid-air with a commercial airliner again.[1
9 United Airlines Flight 173
On the chilly, clear afternoon of December 28, 1978, a DC-8 was on approach to Portland, Oregon. The flight, United Airlines 173, was carrying 181 passengers on the trip. But as it descended toward the airport, it was clear there was a problem with the landing gear. So the pilots put the plane into a holding pattern and circled the airport for over an hour while they tried to figure out a fix. Because the fix took so long to come, the plane slowly began to run out of fuel. The flight engineer tried to gently warn the captain of the problem as things were headed that way, but the captain was brash, arrogant, and loud—and he ignored and talked over the flight engineer.
Because of that, the airliner started its emergency descent far too late and with far too little juice in the tanks. It never made the runway as intended and was forced to crash land in a Portland suburb as it sputtered out of fuel. The tragedy could have been considerably worse than it was; amazingly, only ten people were killed. Still, ten lives were lost in a situation that could have been resolved much sooner with better cockpit communication.
Horrified by the actions of the flight’s pilot during that hour in a holding pattern while working on landing gear issues, United Airlines immediately began working on new cockpit training procedures. The result was a concept called Cockpit Resource Management, or CRM.
That idea is now commonplace across all airlines in the industry, but it was truly radical at the time. It eliminated the traditional view airlines had of the infallibility of a plane’s captain over all others. Instead, it prioritized open and equal communication among the crew. Never again would a plane go down because a bossy captain domineered over others in the cockpit—at least, not if United could help it.
8 Delta Airlines Flight 191
It was supposed to be another normal day at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on August 2, 1985. That evening, a Lockheed L-1011 jet tagged as Delta Airlines Flight 191 was making its final approach to land. There had been thunderstorms in the area throughout the afternoon. As the plane descended below 1,000 feet (305 meters), its pilots noted the presence of lightning all around the craft. Suddenly, without any warning, a microburst wind shear struck the plane. The strong and fast downdraft completely shifted the wind around the jet and caused it to lose most of its airspeed in mere seconds.
Without any knowledge of how to prevent the aftermath of that thunderstorm-induced wind shear, the pilots were helpless. The plane fell quickly and hit the ground hard just about a mile short of the runway. It landed right on top of a highway, crushing one vehicle and killing its driver. Then, it skidded to the left and crashed into two massive water tanks that had been sitting on the edge of the airport. In total, 134 of the 163 people on board the jet were killed, in addition to the one on the highway.
The FAA was rightly horrified by the sudden and inexplicable cause of the crash. So they began to meticulously study it. Soon enough, they realized the stormy weather conditions were at play, and they enlisted the help of NASA to figure out why. After seven years of careful research and experimentation, they had their answer: previously-unrecognized wind shear in thunderstorm conditions like that posed grave threats to planes.
So the FAA put in place more advanced radar and wind-shear detectors on all commercial airliners. Since the mid-1990s, when that directive was first pushed nationwide, there has only been one similar microburst incident related to wind shear.
7 United Airlines Flight 232
United Airlines Flight 232 had been a perfectly routine flight from Denver to Chicago that took off in clear conditions and was en route across the Midwest on July 19, 1989. But somewhere high in the air over Iowa, the DC-10 suddenly and inexplicably suffered total engine failure. The engine in the plane’s tail had severed the hydraulic lines, too, making the jet almost completely uncontrollable as it descended quickly toward the ground.
Captain Alfred Haynes heroically battled the sluggish, sinking jet. He tried to turn the plane toward an airport in Sioux City, Iowa, where he called for an emergency landing. Amazingly, he somehow made it all the way to the airport as the plane rocketed toward the earth. The landing was far from smooth, though, and the ensuing crash on and past the runway killed more than 100 of the 296 people on board.
As the dust settled on the tragic crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the FAA arrived to piece together what happened. They soon determined the accident had been caused by a tiny crack in the tail engine’s fan disk. That crack had come about during the initial manufacture of the DC-10’s titanium alloy.
Immediately, the FAA ordered a major overhaul of the DC-10’s hydraulics. By the late 1980s, the plane was already being slowly phased out by many airline companies, so the orders here only hastened the process. But the Sioux City investigation went far deeper than that: the NTSB and FAA henceforth required completely redundant safety systems in all future commercial airliners. Plus, they set out new mandates and guidelines for how engine inspections are to be carried out. In those two ways, they hoped to never deal with an engine-related breakdown like that ever again.
6 US Airways Flight 427
US Airways Flight 427 was on approach to the airport in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 8, 1994, when the Boeing 737 suddenly fell out of the sky. In just seconds, it plunged more than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) straight down to the ground after abruptly and inexplicably rolling left. The plane crash killed all 132 passengers and crew on board, sending the American aviation industry into a tailspin of its own.
Immediately after the crash, US Airways blamed the plane for faltering at a key moment in flight. In turn, Boeing blamed the pilots, citing their errors that caused the crash rather than a mechanical failure of any kind. The FAA pulled out the black box and sought the truth. Soon enough, they had uncovered the reason for the 5,000-foot drop. During descent, the jet’s rudder inexplicably moved into the full-left position. That triggered a roll from which the pilots were unable to recover. The only problem was that nobody could explain why the rudder moved the way it did. Had the pilots messed up? Or was the plane the issue?
After nearly five full years of painstaking investigation, the NTSB and the FAA concluded the plane itself was at fault. A jammed valve in the rudder-control system had caused the rudder to reverse on itself and flap into its full-left slot. Up in the cockpit, the pilots frantically tried to press on the right rudder pedal the whole way down. But every time they did, the rudder went left, pushing the plane into its deathly dive.
Forced to own up to its mistake, Boeing spent more than $500 million to immediately retrofit all 3,000 of its active commercial jets. New rudder valves and control systems were implemented with the hope of preventing any similar tragedies in the future. And that wasn’t all. After the crash, because of public conflicts between Boeing and the victims’ families who wanted answers for their loved ones’ deaths, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. That act officially transferred survivor and victim services to the NTSB in order to help facilitate the legal and financial aftermath of future crashes.
5 Air Canada Flight 797
Air Canada Flight 797 was flying high at 33,000 feet (10,058 meters) on June 2, 1983, when suddenly, things went haywire. The DC-9 had been on the way from Dallas to Toronto on an otherwise uneventful flight when, high up in the sky, smoke started wafting out of the lavatory all the way at the back of the plane. Obviously, that was alarming to the flight attendants, who called into the cockpit to relay the unsettling situation to the pilots. Thinking quickly, the pilots called for an emergency landing as smoke began to very quickly fill the entire cabin and cockpit.
It was fortunate that the pilots moved to land as fast as they did because just as they got down to the ground in Cincinnati, the smoke had nearly completely engulfed the cockpit itself. The pilots could barely see the instrument panel as they touched down, but thankfully, the landing went smoothly, and the plane came to a full stop on the runway. But sadly, that’s when tragedy struck.
As per protocols, flight attendants moved to open the emergency exits in order to get all the passengers off the plane. But the introduction of outside air sent the combustible internal cabin aflame, and in a split-second, a massive flash fire broke out on the plane. Sadly, of the 46 people on board, 23 of them died—including Canadian folk music hero Stan Rogers. The passengers must have thought they had avoided disaster when the plane safely landed, only to sadly wind up right in the thick of it after touchdown.
In response, the FAA moved quickly to mandate all aircraft bathrooms be equipped with working smoke detectors. Commercial airlines also had to install automatic fire extinguishers in their lavatories. Plus, seat cushions on all jetliners were soon retrofitted with fire-blocking layers. And the floor lighting we all know of from ubiquitous airline safety videos was mandated for immediate installation. All that, combined with recent planes being built with more fire-resistant interior materials, forever changed the industry after the tragic Air Canada incident of 1983
4 ValuJet Flight 592
The 1983 Air Canada incident may have been a critical moment for the FAA as far as anti-fire measures were concerned within the cabins of commercial jets. However, it wasn’t the only anti-fire measure that needed to be adopted. And sadly, just like the 1983 tragedy, this second mandate would also only come after a major tragedy.
On May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 plunged out of the sky and crashed into a rural part of Florida’s swampy Everglades. The plane had hit the earth at a shockingly fast speed, even relative to most air crashes, and nearly disintegrated upon impact. The FAA was horrified by the rapid descent and sudden crash. And as they began to investigate what happened, they came to a shocking conclusion about a fire that had started on board—this time, in the cargo hold.
The government determined the ValuJet fire had been caused by chemical oxygen generators that had been illegally and incorrectly packaged pre-flight. The generators were improperly stored down in the cargo hold, and an inevitable bump during flight had set one of them off. The resulting heat started a fire in the cargo hold. Plus, the oxygen from the now-operating generator only further fueled the flames. Because the fire spread so quickly, the plane’s pilots had no hope of getting down to a runway in time to safely evacuate. All 110 people on board were killed instantly, then, when the plane plunged into the swamp.
In response, the FAA mandated that all commercial jet cargo holds must have operating smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers—much like what they demanded of lavatories after the 1983 incident mentioned above. In addition, the FAA also greatly tightened its rules about what sorts of hazardous cargo are allowed to be carried on commercial flights.
3 TWA Flight 800
When TWA Flight 800 blew up not long after leaving New York City on July 17, 1996, the entire world waited to see why. The plane had seemingly exploded in mid-air for no reason whatsoever. Naturally, world governments were concerned it had been the target of a terror plot or even a military attack. And with 230 lives lost on the flight that had been bound for Paris, there were thousands of loved ones and family members mourning the awful tragedy.
Amazingly, the NTSB spent months carefully reassembling the wreckage collected from the ocean. And during that time, they definitively ruled out the possibility of a bomb or attack being the cause of the crash. But they still couldn’t totally pinpoint the exact issue. What they knew was that fumes in one of the plane’s almost-empty off-wing fuel tanks had ignited. What they didn’t know was why—or how to prevent it from happening again.
Engineers and aviation experts worked painstakingly for years on the case. Eventually, they came to a conclusion: the tank had most likely lit up and exploded due to an electrical spark after a wire bundle nearby short-circuited. That led to a sudden spark in the fuel-gauge sensor over the wing and, from there, a near-instant tragedy.
Since that terrible time, and thanks to that long investigation, the FAA has now mandated major changes to reduce the risk of sparks from faulty or worn-down wing wiring. Those changes include a major development pushed by Boeing to produce a fuel-inerting system. That system, now used on commercial airliners worldwide, injects nitrogen gas into fuel tanks. It is meant to reduce the chance of electrical sparks and, thus, explosions. They made sure that system was standard on new planes they manufactured in the 21st century and also quickly began to retrofit older planes to ensure updated safety, too.
2 Air France Flight 447
Air France Flight 447 was scheduled to head to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, overnight on June 1, 2009. Sadly, amid some severe thunderstorm activity out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it lost all contact with way-station air traffic operators on the western tip of Africa. From there, it never showed up in Paris at its designated time, and French authorities immediately sent out search parties to figure out what happened.
Several days later, pieces of aircraft wreckage were spotted floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next two years, both government-funded outfits and private companies used high-tech tools to recover most of the fuselage, bodies of dozens of the 228 people killed in the crash, and the all-important black box. It was that black box recorder that wound up telling the tale of what happened on the fateful flight.
As it turned out, the pilots of Air France Flight 447 were struggling in the hours before it went down with readings of frozen pitot tubes. Those tubes are used to track the speed of the aircraft, but at some point, as the flight crested and leveled out at 38,000 feet (11,582 meters), they faltered. From there, the relief pilots on duty at the time seriously overreacted to the situation. During their panic over being unable to get a reading on the plane’s airspeed, one pilot pulled it up into a stall from which it would never recover.
The black box’s shocking findings confirmed what many airline industry critics had long suspected: Airline pilots had begun to rely too heavily on computers in flight instead of going back to the basics on which they were trained years before. The computers’ fly-by-wire systems—common to many of both Boeing and Airbus models at the time—were also criticized. However, Boeing offered its pilots the ability to override the automation if necessary.
After the Air France disaster, though, the ability to override computer inputs became standard. And even more importantly for pilots, airlines began seriously retraining their charges to learn when and how to manually take over the plane and fly it as they’d been taught long before, regardless of what their on-board computers may be reporting.
1 Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
Two major commercial airline crashes within just a few months’ time radically altered Boeing’s deployment of their 737 MAX 8 aircraft. On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, and plunged into the Java Sea just moments into flight. Then, five months later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa and crashed into the ground just six minutes into what should have been a routine flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Between the two crashes, 346 people lost their lives. And the fact that they happened in such relative rapid succession—and both in new Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplanes—made airline officials worldwide leery that something was seriously wrong.
After the Ethiopian Airlines crash in early 2019, Boeing and the FAA jointly determined it was best to ground all 737 MAX 8 jets. Then, as investigators began to look at what could have caused the two crashes, answers quickly started coming. For one, officials found that the new aircraft had been equipped with a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which gave pilots significant trouble. It would mistakenly push the plane’s nose down despite pilots’ best efforts at pulling up after takeoff.
From there, Boeing had to correct major wiring issues in all their downed aircraft and repair the flight control systems to ensure the MCAS was operating as intended. They also devised new training for pilots to ensure that those flying the plane had even more specific and explicit information about the system and how it worked. By November 2020, the 737 MAX 8 was deemed safe enough to once again take to the skies. That wasn’t the end of the problem, though; in April of 2021, the aircraft manufacturing company ordered a second worldwide grounding to fix another persistent software problem. And future issues in 2021, 2022, and even early 2023 suggested that the planes could yet be grounded once more.