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Plane crashes are undoubtedly the most devastating things that can happen in the aviation industry. How do they happen and why?
Plane crashes are almost never caused by a single issue, but rather a combination of a few problems. The most common reasons that planes crash include pilot error, mechanical failure, sabotage (or intentional crashes), errors with ATC or ground workers, and unknown reasons.
Whether it’s a small personal aircraft, a commercial/passenger jet, or a military aircraft, a plane crash is devastating. Most crashes, unfortunately, result in loss of life of crew and passengers, not to mention potentially millions of dollars worth of equipment and the plane itself. Knowing how and why planes crash is important so that pilots have a better idea of what to look for and pay attention to. In this article, you’ll learn about the 6 most common reasons that planes crash.
While I’ve certainly been lucky to never have to actually go through a plane crash that I was flying myself or riding in, I’ve spent countless hours looking into the reasons that planes do crash. This research, alongside my own knowledge and discussions with other pilots and aviation experts in the field, enables me to write this article with the confidence that you’ll be able to get the most accurate information anywhere on the web as to why planes crash.
Why Planes Crash
Let’s preface everything you’re about to read with some reassurance. Flying is actually incredibly safe. According to reports and data from 2018, it is estimated that there is less than one fatal plane crash for every 2.5 million flights worldwide. So as you can see, it’s very rare. You’re at far more risk of having an accident during your typical commute to work or school every day than you ever would be while flying.
But that of course doesn’t mean that planes never crash. Even though it’s so rare, one in every 2.5 million flights, or so, does in fact end up in disaster. With how safe flying is and how much really has to go wrong for a plane to actually end up crashing, it’s an intriguing topic to consider what really causes the crashes after all.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of all plane crashes cannot be attributed to one single issue. For example, if a part on the plane fails, there are almost always safeguards or redundancy in effect that prevent the plane from crashing. For a plane to crash, there will usually be a multitude of issues that build up to an eventual disaster.
So if you’re ready to learn everything about how and why planes crash, let’s dive right in.
When Are Planes Most Likely To Crash During Flight?
One of the reasons that plane crashes are so hard to prevent is because they’re so hard to predict. In most cases, the crash is unexpected and seemingly comes out of nowhere. And this is because a plane can crash during any phase of the flight. At any point of the flight from take-off to landing, a plane can have one of the many issues that you’ll read about below and end up crashing.
That said, the portion of the flight that is most likely to have a plane crash is during the final approach and landing. According to a report released by Boeing on all plane crashes from 2005 through 2014, almost 4 out of every 10(38%) plane crashes happen during approach and landing. The next most common part of the flight to have a crash is during the cruise (27%), followed by the descent (17%), take-off (13%), and lastly, during the climb (8%).
6 Reasons That Planes Crash
Now that you have a better idea of plane crashes in general and during which part of the flight planes are most likely to have an issue, let’s dive right in. Here are the six most common causes of plane crashes including how and why they happen.
Far and away the most common cause of plane crashes worldwide (over half of all crashes) can be mainly attributed to pilot error. While we all like to think of pilots in high regard — and deservedly so! — at the end of the day they’re humans too. And no matter how much we might not like to admit it, as humans we all make mistakes. Including pilots.
The issue is, of course, that when pilots make a mistake, the consequences can be devastating. Of course, many pilots would always like to blame the aircraft or some other external factor, but the fact is that airplanes are becoming more and more technologically sophisticated seemingly every day. And, sure, that means that there can be more room for the systems to make a mistake and cause a crash, but it also makes the planes much safer overall.
So when something happens, pilot error is usually more common than an error with the plane. This can include the pilot either making the wrong decision to do something that’s needed, or their inaction to do anything when in fact they should. These types of mistakes are often accompanied by fatigue among pilots and crew, which is the main reason that pilots are limited to 1,000 flight hours per year.
When pilots and crew are fatigued, their performance will usually start to drop off and they might not be as sharp and quick to react to anything going wrong. With planes becoming more sophisticated, they give pilots more indications than ever of potential errors and issues. But the onus is still on the pilots to take in all the information and decide what to do. Far more often than not, everything goes well.
But if a pilot does make a mistake, it can start a cascade of then trying to correct the mistake, making more mistakes, and so on and so forth. This is why pilot error can be so devastating and is the leading cause of plane crashes by far.
After reading that previous section, you might be thinking that it’s always the pilot’s fault and they need to do a better job. But that’s certainly not always the case, and pilots do an amazing job 99.999% of the time! Many times, a pilot can do everything right on their end and the plane can still end up going down. The second most common cause of plane crashes can be attributed to mechanical failure — i.e. something on the plane’s side of things failing.
Mechanical failure of an airplane covers a very wide spectrum of potential issues as you might imagine. Just think about how many points of failure there are on an airplane. You have the obvious ones like the engines, wings, landing gear, the skin of the aircraft, etc. But mechanical failure also includes all of those advanced technology-based systems that we’ve mentioned a couple of times.
With all the advancements in technology aboard airplanes year after year, that leads to more potential points of failure. This increase in failure points is always mitigated by the benefits of the advancements and the new systems, or course, or else they would never be installed. But everything always has the potential to fail, no matter how safe it is.
This issue really comes to a head when pilot error (often due to fatigue) makes a mechanical failure even worse. Something might fail on the plane, but oftentimes the pilot should be able to handle it. If they don’t act accordingly, the consequences could be dire.
One of the potential causes of plane failures that has largely been mitigated in the modern day is bad weather. In the early days of flight, weather was arguably the scariest thing for pilots to deal with. Whether that included lightning, thunderstorms, heavy rain, low visibility, winds, or turbulence, the planes of yesteryear would struggle to make it through poor weather conditions.
But these days, modern aircraft are able to handle weather much, much better. Since computer systems and things like autopilot have automated much of the flying process, things like rain and low visibility don’t really matter as much anymore. That’s not to say that weather never causes a plane crash or anything, but just that it’s far less common.
These days, weather mainly affects smaller aircraft, like a single-engine plane that you might be flying yourself or even own. These smaller planes are more susceptible to heavy winds and turbulence, and rain and visibility issues can cause problems for the pilot when they’re trying to fly.
Sabotage (Intentional Crashes)
Now we’ll take a quick look at the darker side of things. One of the biggest causes of airplane crashes across the world is sabotage or intentional crashes. As you might have guessed, this includes things such as bombs or explosives, terrorist attacks and/or hijacking (think 9/11), and even the rare and devastating times when a suicidal pilot decides to take their own life and the lives of the crew and passengers.
While these types of crashes are exceedingly rare all around, the most common types of sabotage that cause planes to go down are bombs and explosives. This is of course very rare in itself, but it’s much more common than a hijacking or a suicidal pilot. But all are equally scary.
This reason for plane crashes is why the security screenings that everyone goes through at the airport courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are so thorough. The TSA checks all crew and passengers for anything that can potentially be used as a weapon or explosive on the aircraft. This is also why the liquid limit is 3.4 fluid ounces, for example.
Sabotage is a scary thing that unfortunately does cause planes to go down on occasion.
ATC Errors or Ground Handling
While the most common issue that causes plane crashes is error by the pilot, keep in mind that they’re not the only humans involved in any given flight. Other than the pilot, the most important people with regards to a safe flight are air traffic controllers. Pilots rely on air traffic controllers to keep them clear of other planes, let the pilot know when and where to land, and coordinate all traffic on the runways/taxiways/at the terminals.
And just like you know how pilots can make a mistake, air traffic controllers can suffer from fatigue or distraction and make mistakes of their own. And if an air traffic controller makes a mistake in coordination with other aircraft, the potential consequences can be devastating, often even resulting in a crash involving more than one plane.
Issues can also arise from ground workers such as maintenance, loaders, and dispatchers. Like pilots and air traffic controllers, these people are human too and can make a mistake. If maintenance workers make a mistake, such as overlooking a potential fatigue crack, this could lead to a mechanical failure down the road. Even though it stemmed from a human error to begin with.
Or similar to how an air traffic controller can inadvertently cause an accident with multiple aircraft, so could ground workers. Between the operators of the super tugs (the vehicles that pull planes around the gates), the loaders of luggage into the luggage compartment, and the workers guiding the aircraft to and fro the gate, there are lots of opportunities for failure.
While a plane crash between multiple planes at the gates or terminals (if a super tug pulls a plane into another) typically wouldn’t be devastating it can still be incredibly dangerous and expensive. Even an aircraft traveling at just a couple of miles per hour has an incredible amount of power behind it due to how big and heavy they are. All of these issues can cause problems even if the pilot and the plane itself are in perfect working order.
The above are the five most common causes of plane crashes across the world, causing well over 90% of all crashes. The remaining category of causes includes just about anything else not included in the above categories, such as runway issues that cause a crash during landing or take-off, for example.
And lastly, there are of course plane crashes whose reason for the crash remains unknown. While investigations are incredibly thorough and will often lead to figuring out what caused the crash, they’re not foolproof. Some crashes are never able to be figured out, and the reason(s) for why the plane went down remain a mystery forever.
The addition of black boxes — the nigh-indestructible boxes that contain important flight recording software and data — has greatly helped reduce the amount of unsolved plane crashes. But even so, some crashes just cannot be figured out, which is the scary thing. As technology advances in the future, we’ll likely be able to figure out even more crashes while simultaneously having fewer of them to begin with.
What Is The Swiss Cheese Model
The “Swiss Cheese Model” is a popular name for the theory that a plane almost never crashes due to any one of the above reasons on its own. Almost all crashes are a combination of a few different issues that, when working in conjunction with one another, build up enough problems that a crash becomes inevitable.
Think of each potential issue or problem as a slice of Swiss cheese. If you have a bunch of slices of Swiss cheese lined up against each other, you probably wouldn't see through it as a whole. The holes would not be aligned and your vision would be blocked. The Swiss Cheese Model predicts that on occasion, the holes in the Swiss cheese will line up with each other — albeit incredibly rarely.
During these times that the holes of the Swiss cheese lineup, you’d be able to see holes throughout the entire section of cheese. This is similar to when a plane crash can occur — when enough issues line up with each other and lead to the failure of the plane. A plane crash is an incredibly rare occurrence and will take multiple problems lining up like the holes in Swiss cheese.
This is why it can be so hard to really nail down the cause of a plane crash, as it can almost never fully be attributed to just one issue or another. For example, a pilot might be tired and the weather could be bad. Those two on their own might be okay, but then let’s say the plane also has a mechanical failure.
Now you’ll have a tired pilot trying to account for and adjust for the mechanical failure while battling bad weather and also their own fatigue. Or maybe the pilot is so tired and concentrated on dealing with the weather, that they don’t even notice the alarms showing a mechanical failure. In either case, it’s a combination of at least 3 issues that lead to the eventual plane crash.
Thus, the Swiss Cheese Model.