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History’s Worst Air Disasters

Introduction

Aviation is, all things considered, a remarkably safe industry. You wouldn’t expect flying thousands of feet in the air inside a tin can to be safer than, say, driving a car. But that’s the truth – you were more likely to die in the year 2017 in a car crash than you were in a plane crash. Infinitely so, in fact, because there were no passenger airplane crashes in 2017, the safest year on record for airlines.

But like with nuclear power, even though air travel is perfectly safe most of the time, accidents do happen. Sometimes these are down to user error, and sometimes it’s a problem with the plane that wasn’t found in time. And it’s an unfortunate truth that when those problems arise, it ends badly for everyone. These are some of the worst air disasters in aviation history. And as you might guess, there’s not going to be many jokes in this one.

Tenerife Airport Disaster

We’ll start off this list with a simple entry: the worst aviation accident in terms of fatalities. On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747s made unscheduled stops on the island of Tenerife, located in the Spanish Canary Islands. Specifically, they stopped at Los Rodeos Airport, which is not the main airport of the Canary Islands; that would be the Gran Canaria Airport, located on the island of, well, Gran Canaria. Both planes were originally bound for this airport, but it was closed at the time, because a separatist group had exploded a bomb in the airport terminal, injuring eight people.

The airport was put on complete lockdown, and all incoming flights were diverted to nearby Los Rodeos, which was by no means equipped to handle the extra air traffic coming its way. It was a regional airport, with only one large runway and barely any space for accommodating extra planes. And now, they were going to have to find a way to fit them all in, including five large airliners – two of which were the 747s of our story.

The first plane involved was KLM Flight 4805, and the second was Pan Am Flight 1736. They both landed at Los Rodeos without incident, but they, along with all the diverted planes, were taking up so much space that the planes had to be parked on the taxiway, the strip next to the runway used for, well, taxiing. Since the taxiway was occupied by extra planes, departing flights needed to taxi on the actual runway in order to take off. This is the first step in the disaster that follows.

The Gran Canaria airport was reopened when the bomb threat was confirmed to be under control, and the flights diverted to Los Rodeos were ready to make the short hop over. The Pan Am flight was ready to leave, but the KLM flight was blocking its way, in the process of refueling. Keep that detail in mind, it becomes important later.

The Pan Am flight had to wait for the KLM flight to finish refueling, at which point both planes were instructed to taxi down the runway; Pan Am would take off right after KLM. The KLM flight was told by air traffic control to travel down the entire length of the runway, and get into takeoff position, while the Pan Am flight was told to take one of the exits to clear the runway for KLM.

This is where things start to go wrong. Soon after they started moving, a fog rolled in, and the pilots could hardly see; Los Rodeos is situated high above sea level, and clouds that would normally be high up from the ground, are instead on the ground. As such, while the two planes were taxiing, visibility shrank to less than 100 meters, as clouds covered the runway. Neither plane could be seen by the control tower, and the airport did not have a ground radar to determine the planes’ locations.

The directions also became confused. The Pan Am flight was unsure what exit off the runway they were actually supposed to take; ATC said exit 3, but that was impractical because of the angles of the turns. Plus, with the reduced visibility and a lack of markings indicating what exit was what, the pilots were ultimately unsure of their position.

Meanwhile, on the KLM flight, the pilot was impatient to get going. As soon as the plane was in takeoff position, the captain started moving the plane forward to take off. The First Officer told him they didn’t have clearance yet, and the captain, without slowing down, simply told him to ask for it. The ATC gave them instructions that included the word, “takeoff”, but did not explicitly give them clearance to take off. This miscommunication was compounded by a simultaneous call from Pan Am, which interfered with the radio for all three sides. The flight engineer for KLM expressed concern that the Pan Am flight wasn’t off the runway yet, but the captain dismissed the concerns, and continued taking off.

The captain’s impatience, and his crew’s reluctance to challenge it, would prove catastrophic. The Pan Am flight was, in fact, still on the runway, and the KLM flight was barreling straight for it at takeoff speed. Both planes realized they were about to collide and desperately tried to avoid it; the Pan Am made a sharp left into the grass of the runway, and the KLM tried to take off prematurely. It was no use; the KLM struck the Pan Am going around 160 miles an hour. The center of the Pan Am was ripped apart, and the KLM could not stay airborne, crashing back to the runway with its full tank of fuel. It ignited, creating a fire that would last several hours.

In total, 583 people lost their lives – every person on the KLM flight, and most on the Pan Am flight, primarily due to the ignited jet fuel. There was a back and forth over dividing up the blame, but eventually KLM admitted its pilots had been primarily responsible; the separatist group that had forced the diversions in the first place denied any responsibility.

The accident had a lasting impact; radio chatter was standardized across the world to avoid any possible chance of misunderstandings, and the hierarchical nature of cabin crews were changed to a team-based one. Now, cabin crew positions are more or less equal in status, so any uncertainty is addressed immediately, and there is no reluctance to challenge incomplete information. Tenerife has a second airport closer to the ground, and Los Rodeos was upgraded to ensure that such an accident could never happen again. So far, at least, that’s worked out.

Alaska Airlines Flight 261

The next disaster could be described as the worst nightmare of every bad flier. On January 31st, 2000, a McDonnel Douglas M-D83 aircraft took off from an airport in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, bound for San Francisco, California, in the early afternoon. A total of 83 passengers and 5 crew members were on board, including Captain Edward Thompson and First Officer William Tansky.

At first, everything was fine; the flight traveled into the Atlantic Ocean, keeping level at cruising altitude. But like most of these accidents, they started small. The pilots, who had much experience flying, discovered that there was something wrong with the horizontal stabilizer, i.e. the two small wings at the back of the plane. It seemed to be jammed, and that was causing the nose of the plane to pitch downward; the pilots needed to pull on their yokes with 10 lbs. of force just to keep level flight.

They contacted the maintenance office in Seattle to discuss the issue, but the engineers couldn’t think of what the problem might be. The problem, as it turned out, was the jackscrew assembly, the internal control system for the stabilizer, located in the tail. It had mostly worn away due to inadequate maintenance, and now that wearing had become a problem for controlling the aircraft. The pilots didn’t know this, however; they tried multiple times to free the stabilizer using other controls, until on one attempt they successfully unjammed the stabilizer.

That, as it turned out, was a mistake. The plane immediately entered an almost-vertical dive as the now-loosened stabilizer was forced into a nose-down position; in 80 seconds, the plane descended from 31,000 feet to 23,000 feet. The pilots managed to arrest the dive, but they were now stuck with a faulty plane which was only flying level because they were hanging onto the controls for dear life. It’s estimated that the two of them were fighting at least 130 lbs. of force at their controls.

The plane stayed like that for some time, and the pilots made arrangements to emergency land at Los Angeles. However, the flight recorder then picked up a few thumping sounds, followed by an extremely loud noise; that noise was the overstressed jackscrew assembly failing completely. The stabilizer was then forced even further down by aerodynamics, which pushed the plane into another dive. The pilots tried to pull up, but were unable to. In a last-ditch attempt to prevent a crash, the pilots rolled their plane upside-down, which did slow the dive; for a brief time, it seemed the flight was stable. But it was not enough. At 4:22 local time, Flight 261 hit the Pacific Ocean at high speed. The plane disintegrated, and all occupants were killed instantly.

An investigation followed that revealed the faulty jackscrew assembly as the culprit behind the crash, which got that way due to maintenance deficits. This disaster has two components; on the one hand, there is the terror that must have come from those on board with flying a plane upside down. On the other hand, there is the commendable bravery of the pilots, who underwent considerable stress to keep control, and tried everything they could to save the plane. It’s unfortunate that their efforts didn’t make the difference, but if there had been a way out of that situation, those two were the ones to find it. An uplifting note in a tragic accident.

Mount Erebus Disaster

DC-10 wreckage taken by G. Varcoe, courtesy of the Antartica NZ Pictorial Collection: HSR34

Next, we’re going to the bottom of the world, to the continent of Antarctica. In 1977, Air New Zealand started offering sightseeing flights over Antarctica, including low-flying sweeps of the landscapes and tour guides to point out landmarks. One of these flights was AZN Flight 901, utilizing a McDonnel Douglas DC-10, which took place on November 28th, 1979.

The pilots on board Flight 901 had never flown in Antarctica before, but were considered experienced enough for the job. The plane took off from Auckland around 8:00 AM and was scheduled to return later in the evening, after the tour. At first things were normal, and the plane proceeded on its approved flight path. This would’ve taken it over the McMurdo Sound, a body of water located near the McMurdo ice shelf.

As it approached the sound, the plane descended to a low altitude – 1500 feet, specifically, as that was the lowest approved altitude that allowed radar at nearby McMurdo Station to track the flight. However, the weather conditions were not good; visibility was reduced to the point of practical blindness. What’s more, the crew experienced something known as “sector whiteout”, where the white of the cloud cover blended with the white of the snow-covered ground, without distinction. This is, obviously, very dangerous, but the crew relied on their instruments and flight paths to conclude that they were nowhere near the ground, and flying over McMurdo Sound.

Except, they weren’t. Unbeknownst to the crew, their flight path had been changed that same morning, and they were headed straight for Mount Erebus, the second-tallest mountain in Antarctica. To clear this mountain, the plane would have to be flying at 15,000 feet, ten times higher than what the plane was flying at. And worst of all, they couldn’t even see it.

Considering all this, what happened next was shocking, but not unexpected. The plane crashed into the side of Mount Erebus, disintegrating on impact and killing all on board. A search and rescue effort was mounted soon afterwards, with teams from New Zealand and the US Navy taking charge of the effort. Finding the plane was no problem, and the team set about identifying remains and retrieving important parts like cameras and the black box. It was grisly work; many bodies had been burned by ignited jet fuel or broken apart from the impact, and with time, skua birds started landing on the mountainside to pick at the corpses.

With time, around four-fifths of the remains at the crash site were identified and returned to their families. Those that weren’t were given proper burials. Initially, the official report placed the blame on the pilots for flying at a dangerously low altitude when they were unsure of their position, but public skepticism forced a new inquiry that revealed the diverted flight plan, and the fact that the pilots had not been alerted to it. In addition, the pilots had been cleared to descend to that low altitude by McMurdo Station, which was somewhat routine for Antarctic flights to allow the passengers to take better pictures of the landscape.

The revelations of the McMahon Inquiry, as it was known, prompted Air New Zealand to end their Antarctic sightseeing flights. Some legal wrangling followed; Mahon asserted that some executives had committed perjury, but that assertion was not backed up by evidence, a court ruled. The aircraft in question, the DC-10, earned the dubious distinction of being the only passenger aircraft to have crashed on all seven continents. Today, much of the wrecked plane remains on the side of Mount Erebus, and when the snow recedes in warmer months, it can be seen from the air, in what must be a sobering sight for anyone flying over it.

The Palomares Incident

For our last entry on this list, we’ll be moving away from passenger aircraft by going back to a time before passenger airlines were still in their infancy. It’s the turn of the year 1966, in the middle of the Cold War; it’s three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. But on the other side of the Eurasian continent, off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, an American B-52 bomber meets up with a refueling aircraft.

All at once, all hell broke loose. The bomber collided with the tanker in mid-air, and there was an explosion that broke the planes apart. The crew of the tanker all perished; four of the seven men aboard the bomber managed to eject, while their plane fell to earth in pieces. That would’ve been bad enough, were it not for one last little detail: that B-52 had been carrying four Mark 28 thermonuclear bombs.

The B28FI nuclear bomb, recovered from 2,850 feet (870 m) of water, on the deck of the USS Petrel.

Let’s rewind a bit, for some context. During the Cold War, the United States would occasionally have its nuclear bombers fly around various points where they could reach the Soviet Union, just in case nuclear war broke out. These flight paths involved herculean distances, often circuiting the entire North American continent or crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Long distances require refueling, and that’s why this B-52 with four nuclear weapons was meeting with a refueling plane off the coast of Spain.

The crew members who’d managed to eject were recovered and taken to a local hospital. The US Air Force, upon learning what that plane had been carrying, immediately started tearing the place apart looking for the bombs; within one day, three of them were found on land, near the village of Palomares. But the fourth one had fallen into the ocean, and so the Navy had to be called in to help find it. The bomb wasn’t found for another eighty days, when it was fished out of the waters of the Mediterranean.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Two of the bombs that landed near Palomares were badly damaged, leaking radiation into the surrounding area. This, understandably, ticked off a lot of Spaniards, who protested in Palomares and in front of the American embassy in Madrid. The Spanish government and the American government both agreed that the incident proved some changes were needed, and America cancelled its “Chrome Dome” flights, as they were called. It also took up responsibility for cleaning up the mess.

Today, the Palomares incident is a mostly forgotten footnote of the Cold War, overshadowed by other headline grabbers, and the only memorial for the accident is a street in Palomares named, “17 January 1966”. A rather obscure memorial for a rather obscure event.

Work In Progress

As we said at the start of this video, airplanes are statistically one of the safest ways to fly. But like everything else, they are vulnerable to oversights and human error, and unfortunately on the rare occasion that those errors pop up, the failure tends to be catastrophic. Thankfully, aviation is also one of the most well-regulated industries, and as such crashes have been occurring far less frequently over the years. And, since the end of the Cold War, there have been no accidents which nearly blew up a city with nuclear bombs. Which is good.

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