Some of the more frequent reasons aviation accidents happen are due to human error and mechanical failure. The FAA is the governing body that regulates the actions of pilots, monitors flight operations, and manufacturing of aircraft. The guidelines set by the FAA are only the minimum of safety standards that are in imposed in the airline industry. Unfortunately, sometimes even these minimal standards are not adequately met.
Plane crashes are more likely to be a result of an accumulation of minor malfunctions and extenuating circumstances. Characteristics of a typical crash include:
- Poor weather (causing a little more stress than usual)
- Planes are behind schedule (causing pilots to be rushed)
- The pilot has been awake for over 12 hours (meaning the pilot is tired)
- In 44% of crashes the two pilots have never flown together before (communication difficulties)
Crashes are usually not a result of problems in knowledge or flying skills. The kinds of errors that do lead to crashes are almost invariably errors of teamwork and communication.
There are many different reasons a plane crash may occur:
Piloting Errors – Pilot errors are the number one cause of aviation accidents and account for the highest number of fatalities. Pilots have the responsibility to transport passengers safely from one place to another and follow all the FAA and NTSB regulations to better ensure passenger safety. If a pilot or flight crew makes errors, an aviation accident may occur. When most people make mistakes at their jobs, their employment can be terminated. When pilots are negligent or make errors while on the job, there is the potential for hundreds of lives to be terminated. Pilots receive extensive training designed to prepare them to handle a wide variety of situations, but there are times when fatal mistakes are made.
Pilot error accounts for 37 percent of all commercial airplane accidents from 1950 through 2004. There are a variety of errors pilots and flight crew can make that result in aviation accidents. These could include a lack of planning, maintenance problems, faulty maneuvers, and in some cases simple irresponsibility.
Electrical Malfunctions – Aging electrical systems on older airplanes can cause severe aviation accidents. Electrical malfunctions can be deadly because electrical systems control many of the instruments pilots rely on to fly steadily. When these instruments are unreadable, pilots must fly blindly and the lives of pilots and passengers are put at risk. Some of the wires used in electrical systems are not insulated adequately and as a result lack durability and fire resistance. Electrical fires on airplanes have deadly consequences. Additionally, electrical malfunctions may cause certain systems on the plane to act erratically, making control of the airplane challenging or completely impossible.
Engine Failure – Engine failure is a mechanical problem that can easily lead to aviation accidents. There are many reasons engine failure may occur, including an insufficient fuel supply and the breaking of engine parts. Pilots and crew are specially trained to manage engine failure as best they can by gliding the plane to a safe landing, but sometimes the aviation accidents resulting from this mechanical problem can be horrific. It is important to note that not all engine failures result in accidents. In certain situations, pilots can regain control of the aircraft without much difficulty. However, when engine failure occurs and an aviation accident results it is an indication of significant problems and risks.
Faulty Equipment – Faulty aircraft equipment and/or mechanical failures are also common causes of aviation accidents.
Violations of FAA Regulations – If any regulations and safety standards set by the FAA and NTSB are violated, an aviation accident may occur.
Design or Structural Problems – The manufacturer of an aircraft is responsible for an aviation accident if the structural design of the aircraft is flawed, resulting in plane crashes. No form of transportation is completely safe, and no machine is completely foolproof. Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Tragically, this sometimes applies to aviation accidents when mechanical failures occur. Mechanical failure is responsible for 13 percent of all commercial airplane accidents from 1950 through 2004. Aircraft are complicated instruments that require the use of extensive electronics and technology. Although usually safe, there are circumstances when a single malfunction or failure can lead to catastrophic accidents. Unfortunately, when these accidents occur on commercial airlines hundreds of lives are jeopardized.
Flight Service Negligence – If service station workers neglect or fail to properly fuel the aircraft before takeoff or conduct adequate maintenance or repair, their negligence may result in aviation accidents.
Negligence of Federal Air Traffic Controllers – The failure of air traffic controllers to properly monitor the airways is also one of the causes of aviation accidents.
Descent and Landing – Descent and landing accidents account for 36 percent of all general aviation mishaps and the most common type of accident. There are five stages of the descent and landing process. These include descent, approach, landing, go-around or aborted landing, and taxi. When a problem occurs during any of the five steps, an accident could result. Although not all accidents result in death, there is an increased likelihood of injury and fatalities may occur. Naturally, such consequences of an otherwise typical descent and landing can be incredibly painful for pilots and passengers alike.
Aborted Landings – An aborted landing is a circumstance where the pilot of a plane must take control and abandon his or her landing plan for a safer alternative. This usually requires a second go-around followed by a successful landing, but sometimes complications can arise. Aborted landings are done out of necessity and to ensure the safety of all pilots and passengers involved. Frequently, aborted landings are a result of runway obstructions. Sometimes other planes may be sitting on the runway when a pilot is preparing to land, requiring the other planes to move out of the way and the landing plane to make a detour. Unfortunately, sometimes aborted landings can go horribly wrong and tragic aviation accidents can result.
Defective Landing Gear – Landing a plane safely is perhaps the most important part of a pilot’s job. Sometimes this task is complicated not through the fault of a pilot but as a result of defective landing gear on the plane itself. It is not difficult to imagine the complications and disasters defective landing gear could cause. Defective landing gear situations can lead to panic and horrible accidents. One famous case of such circumstances resulted in the 1972 plane crash of Easter Air Lines Flight 401, in which nearly 100 people were killed. Defective landing gear can lead to some of the most dangerous and horrendous aviation tragedies imaginable. Fortunately, passengers and pilots have legal rights and actions they can take in cases involving defective landing gear. Investigators in the past have found manufacturer defects in landing gear devices that have lead to extensive compensation to victims and their families.
Taxi and Take Off Accidents – One of the most important parts of a flight is the preflight and planning stages of the operation. This involves preflight inspections for safety, flight preparation, taxiing, and takeoff. When combined, taxi and takeoff accidents account for about 22 percent of all commercial jet airplane accidents and about 22 percent of all fatalities. Although taxi and takeoff accidents may not always be visually dramatic, they can still cause fatalities and injuries. Additionally, the amount of psychological trauma sustained by those involved with a taxi or takeoff accident is immeasurable.
Pre-Flight Accidents – Before taking off, it is the responsibility of the pilot or airline to perform a complete inspection of the plane to make absolutely certain it is safe to be airborne. This process involves the checking of gauges, displays, instruments, and all parts of the plane to ensure its safety. There have been cases in the past where operators have failed to perform adequate preflight inspections. The results can be absolutely catastrophic. Whether there are no injuries or hundreds of deaths, it is a tragedy any time a preventable aviation accident occurs.
Climbout Accidents – The period of flight during takeoff and climbout can be extremely dangerous for pilots and passengers alike. Much of the uncertainty during this time can be prevented with effective flight planning. However, when pilots or staff members fail to be vigilant in planning their ascent, climbout accidents may be more likely to occur. Wind conditions can dramatically influence flight plans during climbout. Without compensating for gusty winds, the plane may be pitched from side to side which can result in a crash. Similarly, if adequate airspeed is not maintained during climbout the plane may stall and a severe aviation accident may result.
Fixed Wing Accidents – When most people think of an airplane, the mental image they conjure up is that of a fixed-wing aircraft. The term fixed-wing can apply to monoplanes, biplanes, and triplanes. Fixed-wing airplanes are by far the most commonly used vehicles for commercial and recreational recreation.
Defective Rudder – The rudder on an aircraft is an essential component on the tail that is used by the pilot to control the yaw axis. In aviation, the yaw axis describes the rotation about the vehicle’s normal axis or center of mass. The rudder of an airplane is usually controlled by foot pedals, and when the pedals or rudder are defective the pilot becomes unable to fully control the plane. The Boeing 737 is the world’s most widely used commercial airliner with over 3,000 in service. The 737 also has been shown to have rudder malfunctions and defects when the plane is flown at low speeds. This condition has resulted in several terrible aviation accidents.
Defective Gauges/Instruments – The gauges and instruments in the cockpit of an aircraft allow the pilot to control the vehicle he or she is flying. These gauges and instruments provide power, fuel supply, temperature, altitude, speed, position and other information that allows the aircraft to operate safely. When a pilot encounters defective gauges or instruments he or she loses the ability to fully understand certain aspects of the vehicle they are flying. Being unaware of this vital information naturally results in aviation accidents for even the most experienced aviators. Most pilots are taught to trust their instruments instead of their own intuition. Defective gauges and instruments have lead to some horrific mishaps for pilots, passengers, and people on the ground.
Faulty Flight Maneuvers – Faulty flight maneuvers can be avoided when pilots are cautious and act professionally. Steep turns, slow flight, stalls and stall recovery, spins and spin recovery, and forced landings are all procedures that pilots should have mastered before earning their license.
Sadly, in rare situations some licensed pilots make mistakes that can cost the lives of themselves or innocent others. These faulty flight maneuvers can be in response to external factors, but in the end a pilot’s inability to make the right decisions can lead to a serious aviation accident. Accidents that can arise from faulty maneuvers in flight may include collisions between planes, spins, crashes, and botched takeoffs or landings.
Pilot Heart Attack/ Stroke – Pilots are under tremendous amounts of stress while flying. It is their duty to ensure the safety of themselves and all the passengers on board. US Navy studies have found that most pilots experience an increase in their heart rate when landing or taking off that can be explained by the high level of concentration required to perform these tasks safely.
Whatever the causes may be, if a pilot suffers from a heart attack or stroke while operating an aircraft he or she is increasingly likely to lose control of the vehicle and cause an aviation accident. With a pilot incapacitated, it is up to the flight crew and air traffic control to guide passengers to safety. If the combined efforts of these people are not successful, injury or death is likely to occur.
Pilot Intoxication – Federal law dictates that pilots cannot drink alcohol within eight hours of a flight. This is because the level of attention to safely pilot an aircraft is extremely high. Studies have suggested that the number of serious errors made by pilots dramatically increases at blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels as low as 0.025%. The effects of alcohol consumption can impact pilots who are not intoxicated at the time of flying.
A hangover effect can be extremely dangerous for individuals attempting to operate aircraft. Symptoms of a hangover include headache, dizziness, dry mouth, stuffy nose, fatigue, upset stomach, irritability, impaired judgment, drowsiness, and increased sensitivity to bright light. It is not safe for a pilot to fly with these symptoms. A pilot’s ability to remain alert and safe is severely impaired when he or she is intoxicated.
Pilot Epileptic Attack- People diagnosed with epilepsy are forbidden by law to fly aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration. This is due to the incapacitating effects an epileptic seizure could have on a pilot. Although there are different forms of epilepsy and a wide range of seizure severity, individuals suffering from epilepsy may not become licensed pilots.
Pilots may experience seizures caused by other conditions while in flight that can result in aviation accidents. When individuals are found to suffer from seizures, they are usually deemed unable to fly. If they continue to fly, they are putting themselves and others at risk.
Fuel Mismanagement – Fuel mismanagement often results in some of the most avoidable aviation accidents. There are two main forms of fuel mismanagement: fuel exhaustion and fuel starvation. Fuel exhaustion takes place when the aircraft is completely out of fuel, while fuel starvation occurs when fuel remains but the pilot does not switch tanks after one runs dry.
Pilots and flight crew have a responsibility to plan every aspect of their flight, including fuel usage. By underestimating the amount of fuel required for a journey, they are putting the lives of others at risk. General aviation fuel accidents occur at a rate of three per week. In addition to the two types of fuel mismanagement already described, other fuel problems that can result in aviation accidents include leaks, the use of wrong fuel, and fuel pump malfunctions.
Gas/ Fuel Leak – When a gas or fuel leak occurs, fuel mismanagement is likely to occur. When pilots plan their flights they load their aircraft with fuel accordingly. The onset of a leak can severely shorten the amount of time one may safely fly. Pilots must act quickly when they observe a leak taking place. In some instances, by acting quickly and appropriately pilots may be able to avert an aviation accident.
Gas and fuel leaks are often the result of a manufacturing problem, but the management of these defects is the responsibility of the pilot and flight crew. When pilots act accordingly, disasters can be avoided and fuel leaks can result in a minimal level of interference with prior flight plans.
Wrong Fuel Usage – It is extremely important for the correct fuel to be used in aircraft engines. Reciprocating engines require avgas, while turbine engines must run on jet fuel. Engine damage and other malfunctions are common consequences of using the wrong fuel. In some cases damage may occur slowly over time but in other circumstances overheating or combustion may take place.
In many cases, incorrect fuel usage is a result of misleading signs or inattentive personnel performing the refueling. In these instances, wrong fuel usage is completely preventable. The risks of this form of fuel mismanagement affect owners, pilots and passengers alike. The owners suffer because their airplanes are damaged, pilots must deal with the stress of responding to the engine problems caused by wrong fuel usage, and the safety of passengers is compromised.
Fuel Pump Malfunction – Aircraft fuel is what feeds engines and allows a vehicle to become and remain airborne. When the supply of fuel is interrupted, the fate of the aircraft is jeopardized. The fuel pump of an aircraft allows fuel to be distributed from tanks to the engines. When fuel pump malfunctions occur the results can be deadly.
Fuel pump malfunctions can result in an inoperative fuel pump and subsequent fuel starvation. Fuel remains on the plane, but it is inaccessible because there is no way for it to reach the engines. When this takes place an aircraft must rely on its gliding ability to land safely. The lives of everyone on board are the responsibility of the pilot and flight crew. Clearly, fuel pump malfunctions can create painfully stressful and lethal aviation accidents.
Inclement Weather – Over an eleven year period there were over five thousand light aircraft accidents in the United States relating to inclement weather. Of these, over 1,700 resulted in fatalities.
Although poor weather conditions are beyond the control of pilots, airlines, and flight crew, these people have a responsibility for the safety of their passengers. When the decision is made to go ahead with a flight despite weather advisories, the lives of others are put at risk.
Lightning – It is estimated that on average each commercial airplane in the United States is struck by lightning at least once per year. Although it is extremely rare for aviation accidents to directly result from lightning contact, complications and other distractions may occur that could divert a pilot’s attention from his or her flight plan.
Commercial airliners are most likely to be hit by lightning, but great precautions are taken in the design of the aircraft to ensure its safety. Light aircraft are less likely to be struck by lightning but are more likely to be damaged as a result of extreme turbulence caused by the lightning storm. Aircraft with the biggest risk to be struck by lightning are experimental, because these vehicles do not follow strict FAA regulations and may be constructed of materials that are not adequately protected against lightning.
Wind and Wind Shear – During an eleven year period, 48 percent of light aircraft weather accidents were caused by winds blowing aircraft off the side or end of a runway on takeoff. Although light aircraft are most affected by winds, larger aircrafts can be unexpectedly moved around as well. When this occurs a sense of panic may fill the cabin as passengers question their own safety and the competence of their pilots.
Turbulence is a stream of irregular winds that can influence the steadiness of an airplane flight. Although it is usually impossible to predict, turbulence and other wind conditions can be avoided or managed effectively by experienced pilots. It is a pilot’s responsibility to respond appropriately to wind conditions or any other form of inclement weather.
Snow – As anyone might suspect, flying in the snow can be a dangerous adventure. Pilots should not fly in whiteout conditions such as blizzards. At these times visibility is often so poor that instruments must be relied upon almost exclusively to determine one’s position and surroundings.
There are certain precautions that must be taken during winter and snow flying. Extreme temperatures can cause some mechanical operations to jam and cause ice to form on aircraft. The presence of ice and snow on an aircraft can cause many unwanted problems and complications. It is the responsibility of the pilot and flight crew to practice their training and ensure a safe flight in snowy conditions.
Rain – Rain and thunderstorms can be extremely hazardous to aviation. Turbulence, cumulus clouds, high winds, ice, hail, lightning, loss of visibility, electrostatic discharge, tornadoes, altimetry errors, and wet runways often accompany rain and must be managed by pilots and flight crews. In most situations, pilots are instructed to avoid severe thunderstorms and rain due to the risks they may pose for passengers and crew.
In 1999, American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed while attempting to land in a thunderstorm in Little Rock, Arkansas. The large amount of rainfall had made the runway slick, causing the plane to lose control and break apart. There were eleven fatalities in this plane crash and American Airlines admitted liability for the accident. A settlement greater than 14 million dollars was reached for victims of the crash.
Other Causes of Airplane Accidents
Beyond the obvious hazards that can contribute to an aviation accident, other causes exist. It is important for these possibilities to be taken into consideration so that the lives of passengers and other innocent people are not jeopardized by the short-sightedness of crew.
Other causes of aviation accidents include bird hazards, mid-air collisions, air traffic control errors, structural defects, lack of maintenance, air show accidents, and search and rescue operations. These factors often receive less attention than decent and landing accidents, taxi and takeoff accidents, mechanical failures, pilot errors, fuel mismanagement, and inclement weather. However, the other causes of aviation accidents can have equally deadly results.
Bird Hazards – Although many people may not realize it, birds are a common threat to airline safety. A number of fatal accidents have been caused by bird strike, one of which killed 62 passengers in 1960. Bird strike is such a serious problem that the FAA estimates it costs United States aviation $480 million each year.
Bird strike (also called BASH-bird aircraft strike hazard) occurs when there is a collision between a bird and an aircraft. The speed of impact is such that even light objects like birds can cause destructive damage to a fast-moving vehicle. In most cases, birds impact the engine and can cause thus cause a plane to completely lose its ability to fly.
Because bird hazards have been such a significant problem throughout the history of aviation, pilots are trained to avoid bird collisions and most airports have taken measures to make their runway areas inhospitable to winged animals. However, some people may act negligent in addressing bird strike.
Mid-Air Collisions – A mid-air collision is every pilot and passenger’s worst nightmare and one of the most dramatic types of aviation accident. Mid-air collisions are almost always due to human error, and are entirely preventable. Pilots receive training to avoid potentially dangerous situations, but when this preparation is overlooked fatal consequences may occur.
During a three-year study of midair collisions involving civilian aircraft, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) found that most mid-air collisions occur during daylight hours under good visibility. Additionally, the study indicated that no pilot regardless of experience is immune to mid-air collisions, and most collisions occurred during pleasure flights with no flight plan filed. This study only further emphasizes that mid-air collisions are a result of pilot shortsightedness and can be avoided.
Air Traffic Control Errors – Not all air traffic control errors result in aviation accidents. Many errors are only described as “close calls”, where a mistake was made but no accident took place. However, nobody wants to put their life at risk with “close calls” when they are traveling hundreds of miles per hour at thousands of feet above ground.
Recent reports of air traffic controllers acting dangerously only bring more attention to the potential consequences of their actions. In 2005 it was reported that by August 200 mistakes had been made by New York air traffic controllers, compared to 24 for all of 2004. Air traffic controllers have responsibilities just as pilots do. Mistakes and lapses in vigilance can result in aviation accidents and losses of life.
Structural Defects – Structural defects can lead to dramatic and unpredictable aviation accidents. Defects can range from faulty or aging wires to corrosion and fuselage loss. In 1988, a Boeing 737 flown by Aloha Airlines experienced a ruptured fuselage, tearing part of the cabin apart and blowing a flight attendant off the plane and to her death. The accident was caused by problems with the adhesive bonding process, a problem Boeing was already aware of.
Structural problems in aircraft are usually related to corrosion, surface cracks, fatigue cracks, and skin disbonds. Aging aircraft may experience structural defects from general use and lack of maintenance. When these problems go undetected, the lives of passengers and flight crew are endangered.
Lack of Maintenance on an Airplane – Without maintenance, any aircraft will eventually become a serious hazard. Commercial, military, and private aviation organizations employ aircraft maintenance technicians to constantly work on aircraft to keep them safe and in working order. In the vast majority of cases, the work done is timely and of high quality, contributing the overall safety of flight as a mode of transportation.
However, mistakes can occur and a lack of proper maintenance can lead to structural problems and fuel mismanagement. Aircraft maintenance technicians must be able to address existing and potential problems faced by the aircraft they work on. When these problems are not rectified, aviation accidents are likely to occur.
Federal, state, and agency laws govern the activities of most aircrafts, however, strict adherence to these rules and regulations may not always be the case. Not following the mandated guidelines is a prime recipe for aviation disaster. Even in cases where negligence is not the primary cause of an aviation emergency, natural causes such as weather must have been better monitored by personnel.