An aviation accident is roughly defined in the Convention on International Civil Aviation Annex 13 as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have disembarked, in which a person is fatally or seriously injured, the aircraft sustains damage or structural failure and/or the aircraft is missing or is completely inaccessible.
An aviation incident is also defined there as an occurrence other than an accident, associated with the operation of an aircraft, which affects or could affect the safety of operations.
An accident in which the damage to the plane is such that it must be written off, or in which the plane is destroyed is called a hull loss incident.
Aircraft crashes, often with serious consequences, are an ever-present danger in air travel. This is because of the unforgiving nature of flight, where a relatively insubstantial medium, air, supports a significant mass through dynamically active technological means. Should this support fail, there is limited opportunity for remedial action. Because of this, aircraft are designed to minimise the chance of failure, and pilots are trained with safety as a primary consideration. Despite this, accidents still occur, though statistically flying is the safest form of transport. In fact, the relative rarity of incidents, coupled with the often dramatic outcome, is one reason why they still make headline news. Nevertheless, while the odds of being in a plane crash are nowadays distinctly low compared to other means of transportation, the chances of dying in such a disaster are notably higher.
Many early attempts at flight ended in failure when a design raised to a height for a launch would fail to generate enough lift and crash to the ground. Some of the earliest aviation pioneers lost their lives testing aircraft they built.
Percy Pilcher was another promising aviation pioneer; he died testing The Hawk (September 20, 1899). Just as with Lilienthal, promising designs and ideas for motorized planes were scrapped after his death.
The Wright Flyer nearly crashed on the day of its historic flight, sustaining some damage when landing. Three days before, on a previous flight attempt, Wilbur Wright overcontrolled the aircraft in pitch and crashed it on takeoff, causing minor damage in the first known case of pilot-induced oscillation.
US Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first person killed in a powered fixed-wing aircraft on September 17, 1908 when his aircraft, piloted by Orville Wright, crashed after propeller separation failure during military tests at Fort Myer in Virginia. Selfridge died of a fractured skull. Wright suffered broken ribs, pelvis and a leg.
Plane crashes with large numbers of casualties set in with the early passenger flights of the 1920s. The yearly death toll of plane crashes exceeded 100 for the first time in 1928, and 1,000 for the first time in 1943. Since 1945, the number of deaths has fallen below 1,000 only five times, in 1974, 1975, 2004, 2007, and 2008.
Approximately 80 percent of all aviation accidents occur shortly before, after, or during takeoff or landing, and are often described as resulting from 'human error'; mid-flight disasters are rare but not entirely unheard of. Among other things, the latter have been caused by bombs, as in the 1988 Lockerbie incident, mid-air collisions such as in the 2002 Überlingen crash and structural failure, as in the 1954 Comet disasters and 1988 Aloha Airlines incident.
An accident surveyof 1,843 aircraft accidents from 1950 through 2006 determined the causes to be as follows:
The survey excluded military, private, and charter aircraft.
A study by Boeingdetermined the primary cause of Airline hull loss accidents (worldwide commercial jet fleet), from 1996 through 2005, to be:
That study included 183 accidents, with known causes for 134 of them. The remaining 49 were unknown, or awaiting final reports.
Previous Boeing studies showed higher rates for Flight Crew Error:
Trantolo & Trantolo concluded that some common causes of airplane accidents include :
Aircraft manufacturers are often slow to accept that aspects of design might play a role in accident causation, finding it more convenient to state that human crew members were responsible. In fact, the complex interaction between the human crew and the aircraft often creates a fertile ground in which human error may flourish.
The deadliest aviation-related disaster of any kind, considering fatalities on both the aircraft and the ground, was the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001 with the intentional crashing of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. The crashes killed 2,988, most of them occupants of the World Trade Center towers or emergency personnel responding to the disaster.
The March 27, 1977, Tenerife disaster remains the accident with the highest number of airliner passenger fatalities. In this disaster, 583 people died when a KLM Boeing 747 attempted take-off and collided with a taxiing Pan Am 747 at Los Rodeos Airport. Pilot error, ATC error, communications problems, fog, and airfield congestion due to a bombing and a second bomb threat at another airport, which diverted air traffic to Los Rodeos, all contributed to this catastrophe.
The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985 is the single-aircraft disaster with the highest number of fatalities. In this crash, 520 died on board a Boeing 747. The aircraft suffered an explosive decompression which destroyed its vertical stabilizer and severed hydraulic lines, making the 747 virtually uncontrollable.
The world's deadliest mid-air collision was the 1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision involving Saudia Flight 763 and Air Kazakhstan Flight 1907 over Haryana, India. The crash was mainly the result of the Kazakh pilot flying lower than the altitude for which his aircraft was given clearance. Three hundred and forty-nine passengers and crew died from both aircraft. The Ramesh Chandra Lahoti Commission, empowered to study the causes, also recommended the creation of "air corridors" to prevent planes from flying in opposite directions at the same altitude.
On March 3, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981 McDonnell Douglas DC-10 crashed in a forest northeast of Paris, France. The destination was London but the plane crashed shortly after taking off from Orly airport. There were a total of 346 people on board; all of them perished in the crash. It was later determined that the cargo door had detached which caused an explosive decompression which in turn caused the floor just above to collapse. When the floor collapsed it severed the control cables, which left the pilots without control of the elevators, the rudder and the No. 2 engine. The plane entered a steep dive and crashed. It was the deadliest plane crash of all time until the Tenerife disaster in 1977.
On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 crashed off the southwest coast of Ireland when a bomb exploded in the cargo hold. On board the Boeing 747-237B were 307 passengers and 22 crew members, all of whom were killed when the plane disintegrated. One passenger checked in as "M. Singh". He didn't board the flight but his suitcase that contained the bomb was loaded onto the plane. Mr. Singh was never identified and captured. It was later found out that Sikh extremists were behind the bombing and that it was a retaliation for the Indian government's attack on the sacred Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, which is very important for the Sikhs. This was at the time the deadliest terrorist attack involving an airplane.
On September 1, 1983, a Soviet Sukhoi-15 shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was carrying 269 passengers and crew.
Iran Air Flight 655 was a civilian airliner shot down by US missiles on Sunday 3 July 1988, over the Strait of Hormuz killing all 290 passengers and crew aboard, including 66 children, ranking it seventh among the deadliest airliner fatalities.
On May 31, 2009, Air France Flight 447 broke up in mid air over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil. All 228 passengers and crew were killed.
Aviation safety has come a long way in over one hundred years of implementation. In modern times, two major manufacturers still produce heavy passenger aircraft for the civilian market: Boeing of the United States of America and the European company Airbus. Both have placed huge emphasis on the use of aviation safety equipment, now a billion-dollar industry in its own right, and made safety a major selling point -- realizing that a poor safety record in the aviation industry is a threat to corporate survival. Some major safety devices now required in commercial aircraft involve:
When measured on a passenger-distance calculation, air travel is the safest form of transportation available: these figures are the ones mentioned by the air industry when quoting statistics on air safety. A typical statement is this one by the BBC: "UK airline operations are among the safest anywhere. When compared against all other modes of transport on a fatality per mile basis air transport is the safest - six times safer than traveling by car and twice as safe as rail."
However, when measured by fatalities per person transported, buses are the safest form of transportation and the number of air travel fatalities per person are surpassed only by bicycles and motorcycles: is this last statistic the one used by the insurance industry when calculating insurance rates for air travel.
For every billion kilometers traveled, trains have a fatality rate 12 times larger than air travel, while automobiles have a fatality rate 62 times larger. On the other hand, for every billion journeys, buses are the safest form of transportation. By the last measure air transportation is three times more dangerous than car transportation and almost 30 times more dangerous than bus.
A 2007 study by Popular Mechanics found that passengers sitting at the back of a plane are 40% more likely to survive a crash than those sitting in the front, although this article also quotes Boeing, the FAA and a website on aircraft safety, all claiming that there is no safest seat. The article studied 20 crashes, not taking in account the developments in safety after those accidents. However, a flight data recorder is usually mounted in the aircraft's empennage (tail section), where it is more likely to survive a severe crash.
Aircraft Crashes Record Office (ACRO)
The Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office (ACRO) compiles statistics on aviation accidents of aircraft capable of carrying more than six passengers, not including helicopters, balloons, or fighter airplanes. The ACRO announced that the year 2007 was the safest year in aviation since 1963 in terms of number of accidents. There had been 136 accidents registered (compared to 164 in 2006), resulting in a total of 965 deaths (compared to 1,293 in 2006). 2004 was the year with the lowest number of fatalities since the end of World War II, with 766 deaths. The year with most fatalities was 1972, with 3,214 deaths.
Annual Aviation Safety Review (EASA)
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is tasked by Article 15(4) of Regulation (EC) No 216/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 February 2008 to provide a review of aviation safety on an annual basis.
The Annual Safety Review presents statistics on European and worldwide civil aviation safety. The statistics are grouped according to type of operation, for instance commercial air transport, and aircraft category, such as aeroplanes, helicopters, gliders etc. The Agency had access to accident and statistical information collected by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). States are required, according to ICAO Annex 13 on Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation, to report to ICAO information on accidents and serious incidents to aircraft with a maximum certificated take-off mass (MTOM) over 2250 kg. Therefore, most statistics in this review concern aircraft above this mass. In addition to the ICAO data, a request was made to the EASA Member States to obtain light aircraft accident data. Furthermore, data on the operation of aircraft for commercial air transport was obtained from both ICAO and the NLR Air Transport Safety Institute.
In the United States, most civil aviation incidents are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). When investigating an aviation disaster, NTSB investigators piece together evidence from the crash and determine the likely cause or causes. The NTSB will also investigate incidents which occur overseas in collaboration with local investigation authorities where the crash has involved a US-registered aircraft, where there has been significant loss of American lives, or when the type of aircraft involved is built by an American manufacturer.
In the United Kingdom, the agency responsible for investigation of civilian air crashes is the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) of the Department for Transport. Its purpose is to establish the circumstances and causes of the accident and to make recommendations for their future avoidance.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (BST/TSB), an independent agency which reports directly to Parliament, is the Canadian agency responsible for the advancement of transportation safety through the investigation and reporting upon accident and incident occurrences in all prevalent Canadian modes of transportation - marine, air, rail and pipeline.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is the federal government body responsible for investigating transport-related accidents and incidents within Australia. It covers air, sea, rail travel. It is an agency of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.
Retirement of flight numbers
It is common for an airline to cease using the flight number after a fatal crash. This is not always the case; see, for example, Japan Airlines 123, American Airlines Flight 587, Aeroflot Flight 593, Aero Flight 311, Iran Air Flight 655, United Airlines Flights numbered 608, 624, and 823, and Aer Lingus Flight 712.
Lists of airliner accidents
Lists of military aircraft accidents
Published - July 2009
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