No. 1 Tenerife Airport Disaster (1977)
It was a bomb explosion at the nearby Gran Canaria Airport that forced KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 to divert to Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport) on March 27, 1977, for what would turn out to be a fateful day. A dense fog, lack of ground radar at the small airport and several miscommunications resulted in the two Boeing 747 passenger aircraft colliding on the runway in what remains to this day the deadliest accident in commercial aviation history. All 248 passengers and crew aboard the KLM flight perished, along with 335 of the 396 people aboard the Pan Am flight, resulting in a staggering death toll of 583.
Lasting Impact: Air traffic control phraseology was standardized to reduce the chance of misunderstandings, which were believed to have played a crucial role in the events leading up to the accident. The disaster also led to the concept of Crew Resource Management, and gave less experienced flight crew more leeway to challenge their captains if they believed something was not correct.
No. 2 Japan Airlines Flight 123 (1985)
Japan Airlines Flight 123 left Tokyo en route to Osaka on Aug. 12, 1985, when a catastrophic mechanical failure involving the plane’s rear pressure bulkhead sent the Boeing 747SR soaring into two ridges of Mount Takamagahara. All 15 crew and 505 of the 509 passengers died, resulting in the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history with a total of 520 deaths.
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Lasting Impact: Japan’s Aircraft Accidents Investigation Commission found that the aircraft involved had been damaged seven years earlier and repaired insufficiently. The crash led to the opening of the Safety Promotion Center on the grounds of Tokyo International Airport, which was created for training purposes to instill the importance of personable responsibility to ensure airline safety.
No. 3 Charkhi Dadri Mid-Air Collision (1996)
The world’s deadliest mid-air collision occurred on Nov. 12, 1996, over the village of Charkhi Dadri, west of New Delhi. Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763 had just departed New Delhi and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907 was arriving when they crashed, killing all 349 people on both flights.
Lasting Impact: The Kazakhstani pilots were found to lack English language skills and were relying entirely on their radio operator for communications with air traffic control. Indira Gandhi International Airport, meanwhile, used the same corridor for arrivals and departures, but did not have secondary surveillance radar to produce exact readings of aircraft altitudes. Both of these things changed in the aftermath, and the Civil Aviation Authorities in India made it mandatory that all aircraft flying into or out of the country be equipped with an Airborne Collision Avoidance System.
No. 4 Turkish Airlines Flight 981 (1974)
Turkish Airlines Flight 981 crashed just outside of Paris in March 1974 killing all 346 people onboard. Investigators found that the rear cargo hatch of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 blew off, causing decompression, severing cables and leaving the pilots with no control of the vessel.
Lasting Impact: Following the accident, the latches for the cargo hatch on McDonnell Douglas DC-10 planes were re-designed and the locking system significantly upgraded after it was found that a failure of the hatch could easily lead to the collapse of the floor and disruption of the controls. The fuselage’s sub-contractor, Convair, was aware of the design flaw and informed McDonnell Douglas of the potential problem, but it was ignored due to the cost and delay of delivering the aircraft. The case is now widely studied in the field of engineering ethics.
No. 5 Saudia Arabian Flight 163 (1980)
All 287 passengers and 14 crew on board Saudia Arabian Flight 163 died after the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar caught fire after takeoff from Riyadh International Airport (now Riyadh Air Base) in August 1980. The plane made an emergency landing back at the airport and burst into flames when ground personnel opened the R2 door, though autopsies revealed that passengers had died from smoke inhalation and not burns. The incident remains the deadliest aviation disaster that did not involve a crash on impact or mid-flight break up.
Lasting Impact: Investigators found two butane stoves in the burnt remains of the airliner with a used fire extinguisher near one of them. Though they were illegal, many Middle Eastern airlines at the time had allowed passengers to use butane stoves on board. Many airlines revised their training and emergency procedures following the incident, while Lockheed removed insulation above the cargo area and added glass laminate structural reinforcement to its planes.
No. 6 American Airlines Flight 191 (1979)
American Airlines Flight 191 crashed just moments after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare on May 25, 1979, when engine number one on the left wing of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 separated and flipped over the top of the wing, severing hydraulic fluid lines and damaging the plane. All 258 passengers and 13 crew on board were killed, and the crash remains the most devastating air disaster on U.S soil.
Lasting Impact: Investigators attributed the engine separation to faulty maintenance procedures at American Airlines. The subsequent grounding of all DC-10s by the Federal Aviation Administration revealed several other aircraft with damage caused by the same faulty maintenance procedure that doomed the American Airlines flight. The problem was ultimately fixed, though the DC-10 suffered from a poor reputation for many years to come.
No. 7 American Airlines Flight 587 (2001)
The second-deadliest aviation accident in the United States also involved American Airlines. Flight 587 out of New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens shortly after takeoff on Nov. 12, 2001, killing all 260 people on board and five more on the ground. The incident took place just two months after the events of 9/11, and many initially feared it was another terrorist attack on the city. However, the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the tragedy to the first officer’s overuse of rudder controls to counter wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines flight that took off five minutes prior.
Lasting Impact: American Airlines modified its pilot training program in the wake of the accident to reflect the mistakes noted in the NTSB report.
No. 8 China Airways Flight 140 (1994)
Pilot error was responsible for yet another accident: China Airlines Flight 140. The first officer on the flight from Taipei, Taiwan, inadvertently pressed the takeoff/go-around button prior to landing at Nagoya Airport in Japan, and the pilot and copilot were unable to remedy the situation after autopilot on the Airbus A300 kicked in. A total of 264 of the 271 crew and passengers died as a result.
Lasting Impact: The Civil Aeronautics Administration of Taiwan, or CAA, ordered China Airlines to modify the flight control computers following Airbus’ notice of the modification. CAA also ordered China Airlines to provide supplementary training and a re-evaluation of proficiency for all pilots using the A300.
No. 9 Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 (1991)
A group of Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca on Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 died on July 11, 1991, when their flight caught fire and crashed just short of King Abdulaziz International Airport. All 261 passengers and crew aboard the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 passed away as a result.
Lasting Impact: An investigation into the accident revealed that the lead mechanic had requested that two tires be inflated prior to takeoff, as they were below the minimum for flight dispatch. A manager ignored his request after no nitrogen gas was readily available. The tires failed early on in the takeoff, and the subsequent friction generated enough heat to start a fire that spread when the wheels retracted into the aircraft. The plane was not equipped with fire or heat sensors in the wheel assembly, and training on the DC-8 did not include any mention of rejecting takeoff for tire or wheel failures.
No. 10 Air New Zealand Flight 901 (1979)
From 1977 to 1979, Air New Zealand operated a so-called “flight to nowhere” that looped from Auckland Airport over Antarctica and returned via Christchurch. The sightseeing route ceased to exist after Air New Zealand Flight 901 collided with Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew onboard. The accident remains New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime disaster.
Lasting Impact: An initial investigation concluded that the accident was the result of pilot error, but public outcry led to a Royal Commission of Inquiry that uncovered “an orchestrated litany of lies” by Air New Zealand that led to major changes in all senior management at the airline. The commission discovered that the coordinates of the flight path had been altered the night before the disaster, though the crew was not informed of the change. Instead of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 soaring down McMurdo Sound, it was re-routed directly into Mount Erebus.
*** This list considers only commercial aviation crashes, not military aircraft or airliners shot down or blown up.