Terror in the Sky: The Top 5 Biggest Air Disasters in History

Top 5 Air DisastersWhy is there a huge hole in the side of the World Trade Center?

On the morning of Sept 11, 2001 I flipped on the Today Show morning news program in Los Angeles a few minutes before 6am. They were showing a video of a huge gaping hole in the side of one of the World Trade Center buildings, with a massive black cloud billowing out. One of the anchors, Katie Couric said, “As Matt just mentioned we have a breaking news story to tell you about. Apparently a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center here in New York City.”

A few minutes later, at 903am, out of the side of the screen, a second plane screamed into view and then slammed into the side of the other tower at full speed.

The worst aviation related disaster of all time was happening live on my television.

World Trade Center Attacks – New York City, 2001

When factoring in deaths on both aircraft and the ground, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001 was the worst aviation related disaster of all time. The two planes involved were American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. In addition to the New York airplane attacks, there were two other planes involved in the terrorist operation.

Second aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center

Image shows second aircraft (UA Flight 175) crashing into the World Trade Center.

The first of the second group of planes was American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. – 184 people were killed. In Pennsylvania, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into an open field, killing 44—that brought the total number of deaths due to the September 11 terrorist attacks to 2,996 (which included the 19 terrorists).

The terrorists were tied to al-Qaeda and their leader Osama bin Laden. At first he denied involvement but finally admitted responsibility in 2004. The initial U.S. armed response was the War on Terror, targeting the Taliban in Afghanistan, as they were protecting and helping many al-Qaeda terrorists.

At home the American government started the Patriot Act, which radically increased government and police power to monitor personal communication and information including email, phone conversations, medical records and more. Critics said that Americans had lost many of the civil liberties that they had fought long and hard for and that the new rules invited government over-stepping. However, polls at the time showed many Americans believed the possible loss of privacy was part of the price to try to locate and apprehend terrorist cells.

Despite massive intelligence efforts, Osama bin Laden could not be found. Over the years he taunted his pursuers with periodic videotape messages released to worldwide media. On May 11, 2011 American Navy Seals dropped into a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where recent intelligence led them to believe bin Laden was living. In the ensuing firefight, bin Laden was killed, his body taken to Afghanistan to be fully identified, and then was buried at sea.

At the World Trade Center, many people died from the initial impact of the planes crashing--American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower at 846am and United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower at 903am. Many more died when the buildings fell due to the internal structural failing from the intense heat of the fires. The South Tower fell first at around 959am, while the North Tower fell at 1028am.

In Washington, American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the side of the Pentagon at 937am while United Airlines Flight 93 crashed at Shanksville, PA 1003am. On Flight 93, various passengers were on cell phones getting reports from friends and families that other planes had crash landed in NYC.

Rescue workers at the Pentagon after the crash of Flight 77

Rescue workers at the Pentagon after the crash of Flight 77.

Remains of the World Trade Center at ground zero

Remains of the World Trade Center at "ground zero".

With this knowledge, several passengers decided they might as well try to overtake the terrorists by force. One cell phone line was open when a GTE operator heard passenger Todd Beamer say, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” The terrorists responded to the passenger stand by crashing the plane.

The United States initiated SCATANA (Plan for the Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids) for the first time. This is an emergency system where all American flights are grounded immediately, international flights are diverted to Canada and Mexico, and U.S. airspace is set to ATC Zero.

The U.S. also created the Department of Homeland Security to manage anti-terrorism within the country. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also mandated that cockpits be reinforced so that terrorists or hijackers could not get control of the plane.

They also ordered special undercover officers, dubbed sky marshals, to ride on various flights. The Aviation and Security Act gave more responsibility for airport security from airport operators to the federal government. New rules and procedures were implemented to beef up airport security, resulting in long lines and controversy over potentially invasive screening procedures.

Tenerife Airport- Tenerife/ Canary Islands, 1977

On March 27, 1977 two Boeing 747’s crashed into each other on the runway of Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport) on the Spanish island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. 583 people died making it the second largest and deadliest disaster in aviation history.

The two airplanes were:

  • KLM (Dutch) Flight 4805
  • Pan Am Flight 1736

Both were diverted to Tenerife from Grand Canaria Airport after a bomb exploded at that location. After Grand Canaria received the threat of a second bomb, authorities decided to close the airport and conduct a search.

Wreckage of KLM Flight 4805 after crashing in Tenerife

Wreckage of KLM Flight 4805 after crashing in Tenerife.

In the meantime airplanes were diverted to the much smaller Tenerife airport. So many airplanes were coming in that air traffic controllers were parking many of them on the single taxiway itself. Adding onto all of this confusion a dense fog moved in and visibility was reduced to almost zero.

Misunderstandings in Communication & Thick Fog – Recipe for an Air Disaster

When Canaria finally opened up, ATC told the KLM plane to taxi to the end of the runway and wait for approval to leave. The Pan Am captain was told to taxi to the 3rd turn-off and wait. However, the Pan Am pilots were unfamiliar with the airport and continued taxiing toward the KLM plane which was facing right at them but enclosed in the thick fog.

ATC told the KLM captain to wait. However, he took off the break and accelerated. Due to the fog, neither airplane could see the other, nor could the controller see the runway or either of the two airplanes! Also the airport did not have ground radar. The only way the controller could identify where their planes were was by voice reports over the radio. On top of all that, there were several misunderstandings in communication.

The KLM flight attempted takeoff but the Pan Am flight was still on the runway. The collision destroyed both airplanes and killed all 248 aboard the KLM flight and 335 out of the 396 people aboard the Pan Am flight. 61 people on the Pan Am flight survived (including the pilots and the flight engineer).

A CGI rendering of the two 747s that were destroyed in the Tenerife Disaster, just before the collision.

A CGI rendering of the two 747s that were destroyed in the Tenerife Disaster, just before the collision. Image sourced from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tenerife747s.png

The investigation into the accident was conducted by a team consisting of members from Spain, the Netherlands and the United States. They determined that the main cause was the KLM captain taking off without clearance from ATC. They found that due to miscommunication, the pilot thought he did have authorization. KLM took responsibility for the accident and the payment of compensation to the victims or their families.

Subsequent Changes in the Airline Industry

The tragedy impacted a lot of changes in the airline industry, mostly to do with communication. The industry started to use standardized phraseology so that ATC, pilots and ground crew all understand the same communication. For example, “take-off” is never uttered by any personnel except ATC when a plane is actually cleared for a take-off.

In addition, rather than positioning more experienced captains as omnipotent overseers that cannot be questioned, less experienced crew members were taught to challenge decisions when they felt something was wrong. Along with the change, Captains were trained to listen to all information available.

Charkhi Dadri- India, 1996

A 1996 midair collision at Charkhi Dadri, India occurred on November 12, 1996 when Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763 (a Boeing 747 168 B) which was en route from New Delhi to Dhahran collided with Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907. This occurred over the village of Charkhi Dadri in India. All 349 people on board each airplane were killed.

Flight 763 was leaving New Delhi at about 6:30 PM. Flight 1907 was descending to land at the same airport. These flights were being controlled by the ATC controller VK Dutta. Flight 1907 was cleared to move to 15,000 feet when they were 74 miles out while Flight 763 was traveling on the same airway. However, they were coming from the opposite direction and they were cleared to climb to 14,000 feet.

About 8 minutes later around 6:40 PM, Flight 1907 reported reaching its assigned altitude of 15,000 feet but it was actually lower at around 14,500 feet and still descending. At this time ATC Dutta advised them that the Saudi plane would be passing the Kazakhstan aircraft and to be on the lookout. Since the airplanes themselves did not have radar, they relied on Dutta to apprise them of their whereabouts in relation to other aircraft.

A Warning Too Late

When the controller called 1907 again he received no reply. He warned them of the other flights distance but it was too late—the two aircraft had collided. The tail of Flight 1907 sliced through the left wing of Flight 763. Flight 763 had lost the horizontal stabilizer in its left wing and it went into a spiral motion towards the ground resulting in failure of the super-structure.

They slammed into the ground going around 1135 km/h. The fuselage of Flight 1907 remained intact until it too smashed into the ground. Four critically injured passengers were soon found but their injuries were too severe and they all soon died afterward. When it was all over, all of the 37 passengers on Flight 1907 died as well as the 312 people on Flight 763.

An American Air Force pilot, Captain Timothy J. Place, was making an approach in a Lockheed Starlifter when he witnessed the crash. He described seeing “the cloud suddenly flashing to bright red.” The Kazakh aircraft went down near Birohar while the Saudi plane crashed in what is known as the Bhiwanni district near Dhanni.

The crash was investigated by a special Indian commission. Statements were taken from the air traffic controllers and the 2 airlines. The flight data recorders were decoded by both Kazakh Airlines and Saudia under supervision of air crash investigators from Russia and England respectively. They found that the fault lay with the Kazakh captain who had descended well below his approved flight level of 15,000 feet.

The investigators made several recommendations:

  • Complete separation of inbound arrivals and outbound departures.
  • Secondary radar in ATC to determine aircraft altitude data.
  • Collision avoidance equipment on commercial flights.

From that time the Indian Civil Aviation Authority made it a mandate that all airplanes coming in or out of India must have the collision avoidance equipment. It was the first time in the world that a country made this technology mandatory.

Turkish Airlines Flight 981- Paris, 1974

On Mar 3, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981 left Orly France bound for London. Just after flying over the town of Meaux, one of the pilots said, “The fuselage has burst.” The airplane then vanished from radar. It crashed into the Ermenonville Forest near Fontaine-Chaalis, Oise.

Turkish Flight 981 after crashing in Paris

Turkish Flight 981 after crashing in Paris.

The plane was broken up into millions of pieces--the most extensive disintegration of an airplane ever seen at a crash site. There were 346 people on board and only 40 of the bodies were able to be identified by sight—nine were never identified at all.

The wreckage of the plane was so severe that the there was some speculation that a bomb was to blame. This theory gained momentum as two terrorist groups claimed responsibility soon after the crash.

Failure of the Rear Cargo Hatch Latching System Started It All

The sequence of events leading to the crash started when a rear cargo hold hatch failed. This caused the cargo area to decompress. The passenger area above the cargo hold was still compressed, putting extreme pressure on the floor of the cabin.

This could not hold for long and eventually a section of the passenger compartment blew through the floor and was sucked out the rear. Six passengers’ bodies were later found along with sections of the floor in a field 15 kilometers from the crash site near Saint-Pathus, still buckled in their seats.

When the floor gave way and the passenger section flew out the back, it severed the control cables that run to the stabilizer and the elevators. The pilots lost complete control of the aircraft—the number two engine was also lost.

The plane turned nose-down and began to pick up speed. The increased speed created lift and the nose began to rise. The Captain yelled “Speed!” and tried to level off. These efforts proved futile and the plane crashed at a speed of 420 knots (approx 497 miles per hour).

The NTSB mandated adding vents in the rear cabin floor to make sure the cargo and cabin were equal in pressure in case of a problem where one or the other may become destabilized. They also directed that there were to be mandatory upgrades to the locking mechanism as well as the latching actuator electrical system. Later, McDonnell Douglas argued that the vents would be too expensive and the FAA agreed—they were never added.

Air India Flight 182- Atlantic Ocean, 1985

On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 was en route from Montreal to London to Delhi in India. In Irish airspace, at an altitude of 31,000 feet, it blew up. Total dead- 329 people: 280 Canadians, 27 British, and 22 Indians. Believed to be the work of the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa, it was an act of terrorism and the largest mass murder in Canadian History.

Air India 747 before crash.

Air India 747 before crash.

The only person arrested in connection to the bombing was Inderjit Singh Reyat, who pled guilty to manslaughter in 2003. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Observers point out a litany of legal and investigative errors by the government of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

An Act of Air Terrorism by Members of the Sikh Militant Group, Babbar Khalsa

Various reports surfaced over the years that Air India flights coming out of Montreal would be bombed. Some of the reports were rumors and others were wild ramblings of the lunatic fringe. Much of the tension in the Sikh community stemmed from the Partition of India in 1947. Not only was there a line separating the two countries, the state of Punjab was separated as well. The Khalistan movement began as an effort to create a Sikh homeland in the Punjab region.

Sikh settlement, including members of the Babbar Khalsa, grew rapidly in Canada during the 1970’s, especially in metropolitan areas like Vancouver. Reyat lived in Duncan, British Columbia, just north of the capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island. With influence from members of the Babbar Khalsa, Reyat began to take steps to build a bomb, the purpose of which he later claimed he did not know.

According to informants, in 1984, the Babbar Khalsa made their first plans to bomb Flight 182 and then abandoned the effort. In 1985, Reyat began his bomb making activities in British Columbia, buying dynamite and blasting caps ostensibly to “clear tree stumps.” He also studied how to create the timers and triggers that could activate a bomb. At the same time, he was not shy about voicing his overall desire for revenge against India for transgressions against Sikhs, including Operation Blue Star, the 1984 raid on the most sacred of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple.

By June of 1985, the plan was back on. Flight 182 departed for London out of Montreal. On board was a piece of luggage that originated from Vancouver and was transferred to the plane (that became Flight 182) in Toronto. The Sikh passenger that was supposed to be on board with their luggage had never shown up. This suitcase was stored in the forward cargo hold when it exploded while the plane was at 31,000 feet. The explosion forced rapid decompression and the subsequent breakup of the frame and fuselage in mid-air. The parts fell in deep water off the south-west coast of Ireland, about 120 miles offshore.

The wreckage was located by the ship Laurentian Forest—they found airplane parts and bodies in the water—131 bodies were recovered and 198 were lost. The flight recorder and cockpit voice recorders were eventually located by the British ship Guardine Locator, which had high tech sonar that could reach the sea floor. Once located, they were retrieved by the French cable-laying ship Lèon Thènevin.

Worldwide investigations of the bombing lasted as long as six years. Most pointed blame at Sikh terrorist groups like Babbar Khalsa with members in North America, England and India. The groups were angry at Operation Blue Star and were agitating for the greater goal of an independent Sikh state. Reyat was found guilty of two counts of manslaughter related to a similar bombing of another Air India flight that killed two Japanese airport workers—he received 10 years in prison. Later he received 5 years in prison for one count of manslaughter for the bombing of Flight 182. Prosecutors could not find enough legal evidence to convict him (and other conspirators) “beyond a reasonable doubt” for Flight 182.

In 2006 a full public inquiry was begun to “answer key questions” in the tragedy. In 2010, the long-awaited report of the inquiry recommended sweeping changes to Canada’s air security system (CBC.ca 6/17/10). They pointed to a “cascading series of errors” by government ministries, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service).

The report also claimed that to this day, 25 years or more after the tragedy, there are still huge holes in Canadian national security. According to the Toronto Sun, Supreme Court Justice John Major said Canada should beef up the powers of the national security advisor to co-ordinate between agencies like the RCMP and the CSIS. Unfortunately, the government would not commit to make any of the recommended changes.

Wide range of Causes

As these five biggest air disasters show, aviation accidents can be caused by a wide range of factors – the most common being mechanical failure, human error and terrorism attacks. There are relevant agencies that provide the necessary standards and regulations to be followed in manufacturing and maintenance of aircrafts, and in flight operations.

  • Failure to adhere to agency, federal and state laws that govern aircraft and aviation activities, as well as other factors, can cause an aviation disaster:
  • Structural or design issues with the aircraft and faulty equipment
  • Piloting error
  • Air traffic controller error
  • Poor maintenance of aircrafts
  • Atmospheric and weather conditions
  • Violation of standard flight operator regulations

Improvements in Airline Safety

Boeing 720 controlled crash and explosion.

Boeing 720 controlled crash and explosion.

Airline safety procedures and equipment have improved over the years. Partially due to the air disaster listed here, and many others, here are some of the changes the industry has implemented:

  • Landing gear that can be lowered manually without hydraulics.
  • Evacuation slides- help speed passengers from a downed aircraft.
  • Improved turbine engines with failsafe features.
  • Computerized auto-recovery and warning systems.

While the air disasters detailed here are harrowing, remember that air travel is actually the safest form of transportation other than busses. A 2007 Popular Mechanics study determined that if you sit in the back of the plane, you have a 40% better chance of survival in a crash. The airline industry says there is no area on the seating chart that is safer than another. Make your own decision on that one but this may help—the flight recorder “black box” is located in the tail!

Additional Resources

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Ian Stephens

Ian Stephens

Ian Stephens is a flight simulation industry expert with over 20 years of experience and also has a keen interest in aviation and technology. Ian spends a lot of his time experimenting with various simulator packages but has a love for Microsoft Flight Simulator X because of the huge selection of add-ons available. However, Ian also has copies of Prepar3D and X-Plane installed.

Ian has been writing for Fly Away Simulation for over 9 years. Should you wish, you can contact Ian via email at ian.stephens@flyawaysimulation.com.


Leave a Response

The content of the comments below are entirely the opinions of the individual posting the comment and do not always reflect the views of Fly Away Simulation. We moderate all comments manually before they are approved.

Janet MillerFri, 22 Jul 2011 15:51:14 GMT

This is a very interesting article.

I remember September 11th like it was yesterday; it's amazing how fast time goes by.

All I can say is that I hope we resolve our issues with groups in the middle east and the world becomes a better place.

Gunther N. AnsariThu, 19 Jul 2012 06:57:02 GMT

Well investigated and carefully put together, enabling logical and improved safety & anti-terrorist action!

Of course if the detractors and mentally challenged potential perpetrators were to be "Sniffed out", perhaps we'd have a safer world to live in, and lesser parent-less children to rehabilitate & care for.

May we all be spared from the acts of terrorism and the errors of omission, by the Grace of our Lord, Amen!

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