Five Fatal Aircraft Incidents That Made Aviation Safer

Although air travel was not always safe, the lessons learned have made travel a safer experience for all travelers involved.
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Every day, over 100,000 regularly scheduled flights depart from their airports and head for all points around the world. Many of these are commercial flights, carrying thousands of people every day to or from their homes around the world. Many of those passengers think nothing of the technology that goes into the miracle of flight, or the thousands of people around the world who were not quite as lucky.

Although traveling by aircraft is one of the safest methods of transportation today, this method of transportation wasn't always the most reliable of all. Since the beginning of the passenger aviation era, over 50,000 people have lost their lives in aviation accidents they could not control. However, from their sacrifices, modern aviation has grown to become one of the safest and most convenient modes of transportation available around the world. 

How have major aviation incidents affected the passenger experience over the last century? Here are five examples of how aircraft accidents resulting in fatalities have made aviation safer for modern-day travelers around the globe.

1956: Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

In the young history of American commercial aviation, the Grand Canyon mid-air collision was the worst commercial flight incident in history at that time. Because of the event's significance on American aviation history, the location of the crash was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2014 and is the only landmark dedicated to an incident that took place in the air.

What happened: On June 30, 1956, TWA Flight 2, a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, collided in-air with United Airlines Flight 718, a Douglas DC-7 Mainliner. After both aircraft departed from Los Angeles International Airport heading east, their paths crossed over the Grand Canyon in Arizona. With little contact with air traffic controllers and flying in uncontrolled airspace, the two aircraft did not know where the other was, nor did they know they were impeding on each other's airspace.

As a result, both aircraft ended up flying at the same speed and altitude, resulting in the mid-air collision. All 128 souls aboard both aircraft were killed as a result of the accident and resulting crash into the Grand Canyon. 

What changed: The incident brought to light a major problem with America's developing aviation infrastructure at the time: no common control for airways at the time. Airspace control was split between the U.S. armed forces, which always took priority, and all other aircraft, as controlled by the Civil Aeronautics Board. As a result, there were several near-miss incidents reported between commercial aircraft, or commercial aircraft experiencing near-miss incidents with military aircraft. 

Two years after the Grand Canyon disaster, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. The act gave birth to the Federal Aviation Agency (later the Federal Aviation Administration), which took control of all American airways under a single, unified control. With improvements in technology, mid-air collision and near-miss incidents were drastically reduced, resulting in a safer flying experience for all. 

1977: Tenerife Airport Disaster

The deadliest aircraft accident in aviation history took place not at a major airport or as an act of deliberate terrorism but instead involved a small airport in Spain's Canary Islands due to a miscommunication between two pilots.

On March 27, 1977, the Tenerife Airport Disaster claimed the lives of 583 people, when two Boeing 747 aircraft collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport (now known as Tenerife-North Airport)

What happened: Due to a bomb explosion at Gran Canaria Airport, several aircraft heading to the airport were diverted to multiple airfields in the area, including Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife. KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were two Boeing 747 aircraft diverted to the small airport as a result of the Gran Canaria Airport Closure.

Once the airport was reopened, both 747s required re-positioning in order to successfully depart the airport. The KLM flight was instructed to go to the end of the runway and turn 180 degrees to prepare for takeoff, while the Pan Am flight was instructed to clear the runway through a taxiway.

Heavy fog made it not only impossible for the two aircraft to maintain visual contact with each other, but also for the Pan Am 747 to identify the correct taxiway. A miscommunication between the pilots resulted in the KLM flight beginning their takeoff plans before the Pan Am 747 was clear, resulting in a massive collision that killed 583 people. On the Pan Am aircraft, 61 people survived the crash.  

What changed: As a result of the accident, several safety precautions were nearly immediately implemented to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again. The international aviation community agreed to use English as a common language for air traffic control interactions, with a set of standard phrases communicating all information between flights. After the Tenerife incident, the term "take off" is only used when a flight is confirmed cleared to depart the airport. In addition, new cockpit instructions were given to pilot teams, which put a greater emphasis on group decision making, instead of the pilot making all of the group decisions. 

1987: Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

Although the 1970's were witness to common aircraft hijackings around the world, rarely was one quite as tragic or deadly as the incident that brought down Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771. During a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco on December 7, 1987, a former employee targeted a flight with airline executives, killing the pilots and bringing the aircraft down on California's Central Coast. 

What happened: After the purchase of Pacific Southwest Airlines by USAir, former employee David Burke was fired from the company on charges of petty theft, after stealing $69 in in-flight cocktail receipts. After attempting to get his job back to no avail, Burke purchased a ticket for a flight his manager was on, with the intention of killing him. 

Burke did not turn in his airline credentials, allowing him to bypass security with a loaded revolver. After the flight became airborne, Burke may have confronted his manager, before charging the cockpit and killing the pilots. The control column was then pushed forward, bringing the aircraft down in the Santa Lucia Mountains between Cayucous and Paso Robles, California. There were no survivors in the incident. 

What changed: As a result of the attack, both airlines and Congress changed regulations for former airport staff. First, all terminated airline employees were required to immediately relinquish their credentials, thus removing their access to secure areas of the airport. Second, a mandate was put into place requiring all airline employees to clear the same security screening regimen as passengers. Finally, because several executives of the Chevron Oil Company were aboard that flight, many companies changed their policies to require executives to fly on different flights, in the event of an accident. 

1996: ValuJet Flight 592

Flyers who were alive in 1996 may very vividly remember the incident that brought down ValuJet Flight 952, and ultimately brought a low-cost carrier to its own demise. On May 11, 1996, the 27-year-old McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 flying from Miami to Atlanta came down in the Florida Everglades shortly after takeoff, killing all 110 people aboard the flight. 

What happened: Before takeoff, a ValuJet maintenance contractor loaded five boxes of expired chemical oxygen generators onto the aircraft. Instead of plastic caps covering the firing pins, the pins and cords were covered with duct tape. During taxi, the aircraft experienced a jolt from the tarmac, shifting the oxygen cans and activating at least one. As a result, the can released oxygen and began to heat to an estimated temperature of over 500 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As a result, a fire broke out in the airtight cargo hold, fueled by the hot can, cardboard boxes, and oxygen coming off of the can. The fire quickly spread into the passenger cabin, while melting vital cable controls for the aircraft. Less than 15 minutes after the aircraft took off, it came down at full speed into the Florida Everglades, killing all aboard. 

What changed: As a result of the accident and investigation, the FAA began mandating immediate changes to American aircraft. First, all new and currently operating aircraft must include smoke detectors in cargo holds, reporting to the cockpit. In addition, cargo holds must have fire suppression systems installed to stop a cargo hold fire and ultimately help preserve the aircraft until it can return to an airport. Finally, the contractor loading the items into the cargo hold was held criminally accountable for their actions and was ultimately forced to close their doors for good.  

1996: TWA Flight 800

When TWA Flight 800 fell out of the sky on July 17, 1996, the tragedy literally became the unthinkable. A Boeing 747 with no incident record whatsoever fell out of the sky 12 minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Immediately, the TWA Worldport became a triage center for families and staff, as the world attempted to put the pieces together on what went wrong. 

What happened: Only 12 minutes after TWA Flight 800 departed from JFK, heading for Rome with a stop in Paris, the aircraft seemed to explode for no reason whatsoever in the night sky. A nearby flight reported to air traffic controllers seeing an explosion at around 16,000 feet in the air, followed by several other reports. Search and rescue operations were scrambled to the site, but to no avail: all 230 people aboard the aircraft were killed in the aftermath of the explosion. 

What changed: After a lengthy investigation that ruled out terrorism and airframe fatigue, investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board determined the aircraft exploded due to a design flaw. Under the right circumstances, an "overpressure event" in the aircraft's center fuel tank can cause a rapid failure, resulting in the in-flight explosion and breakup. Although the design flaw was previously fixed to address lighting strikes on aircraft, the flaw was not fixed on these particular Boeing aircraft. Thus, the NTSB recommended all new aircraft adhere to new fuel tank and wiring-related guidelines, including adding nitrogen-inerting systems. 

In addition, the accident gave Congress impetus to pass the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. Under the law, the NTSB is the primary agency that contacts and appropriates services to the families of those involved in an aircraft incident, not the airline. In addition, involved airlines and their representative parties are prohibited from contacting families for 30 days immediately after the incident.

Although air travel was not always the safest form of travel, the sacrifices of others turned travel into a safer and more accessible experience for all. Through these incidents, the next generation of flyers can fly around the world with fewer worries about arriving at their final destinations.