The Top 10 Reasons Why Planes Crash

As Christopher “Superman” Reeve once said, statistically, flying is the safest way to travel. He is someone who is an authority on the matter. But when planes do crash it is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) who are the primary investigators and reporters of the event. Not all plane crashes result in the loss of human life, so in the 10 categories you will see keep in mind that there are actual witnesses/survivors that provide very specific information regarding the cause.

1. Loss of Control Inflight

Also known as an LOC-I, it is an event that has placed the pilot in a situation where they can no longer control the airplane with traditional pilot skills. The flightpath of the plane needs to have been seriously deviated from. The technical term is that the airplane has been “upset: because of one or more of these 3 conditions:

  1. A pitch attitude greater than 25 degrees with the nose up, or 10 degrees with the nose down
  2. A banking angle that is greater than 45 degrees
  3. Flying at speed inappropriate for the conditions, whether they are too high or too low

2. Controlled Flight Into Terrain

A CFIT event occurs when an aircraft with no physical damage to the aircraft is under the
control of the flight crew, flies unintentionally into terrain, obstacles, or water in their flightpath with no prior awareness of the terrain’s presence by the crew. Though everyone knows that airplanes are flown by radar and instrumentation, when a plane crashes we often think the crew should have “seen” it. When you’re moving at speeds of 300+ miles an hour, even if the crew does see what’s coming there is virtually no time to react.

3. System Component Failure – Powerplant

The powerplant of an airplane is its engine, so this category is simply any engine failure that is related to the mechanical operation of the powerplant. Though we tend to think of jet engines, propeller powered engines are also powerplants.

4. Fuel Related

The amount of fuel required to keep an airplane flying at a manageable speed is something few passengers think about. But the calculation must take into consideration potential encounters with strong headwinds and x-factors that could cause the plane to run low or completely out of fuel before being able to land. This category also includes issues where the fuel ignites.

5. Unknown or Undetermined

We tend to think that the FAA can examine any existing wreckage and discover the cause of a crash. Apart from not being able to find the flight data recorder and the plane has completely disappeared, there are crash scenes that simply do not provide enough information to draw a definitive conclusion. All these types of events fall into this classification.

6. System Component Failure – Non-Powerplant

A commercial airplane is an extremely complex system of computer and electronic components. But most planes are not the large commercial aircraft, but the smaller, propeller-type planes. Still, the pilot is dependent on technologies such as radar to fly the plane, and when these systems, except the engine, fail the FAA will use this category to define the cause of the crash.

7. Unintended Flight In IMC

For this category we need to learn some flight jargon. IMC is an acronym for Instrument Meteorological Conditions. To understand IMC you need to know that there are two types of flight “rules”: flying by instrument (IFR) and flying by sight (VFR). So when a plane is flying through the clouds and cannot actually see anything in bad weather, any crash that occurs will fall into this category.

8. Midair Collisions

This category name speaks for itself, and though there are some great movies that and TV series that use midair collisions as a plot device, they rarely happen. A level down from a midair collision would be a near miss.

9. Low-Altitude Operations

They important word in this category is “operations.” An example of a low-altitude operations crash would be an airplane that is dumping chemicals on an out of control forest fire and crashes. A pilot is not going to conduct low-altitude operations on a commercial airliner.

10. Other

Everything that doesn’t fit the criteria of the above 9 groups is placed into this category. For example, if there is a mistake at an air traffic control tower, that is not the fault of the aircraft or the pilot, but some other reason.


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