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The 20 Worst Plane Crashes in U.S. History

Conventional wisdom suggests it’s safer to travel by air than it is by car. While this may be true (after all, think how many accidents happen on the road every day), when an incident happens in the air, it tends to be catastrophic.

Even the worst car crash will usually result in a handful of deaths at most; the worst aircraft crash, on the other hand, can see fatalities run into their thousands. While most flights run smoothly, when a problem happens, you can almost guarantee you’ll be reading about it the next day.

Here, we take a look at the 20 worst plane crashes in US history (with no prizes for guessing which comes first).

20. Alaska Airlines Flight 261

  • Date: January 31, 2000
  • Fatalities: 85
  • Injuries: 0

On route to Seattle–Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 operating the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 route crashed into the Pacific Ocean after losing pitch control. The subsequent investigation found the incident had been caused by Alaska Airlines’ “insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly." All 83 passengers, 2 pilots and 3 cabin crew members were killed.

19. Northwest Airline Flight 293

  • Date: June 3, 1963
  • Fatalities: 101
  • Injuries: 0

In 1963, a Northwest Orient Airlines Douglas DC-7C crashed into the sea just off the coast of Alaska. During the recovery, around 1500 pounds of wreckage was discovered, but no bodies were ever found. As a result of the wreckage being buried under 8000 feet of water, the cause of the accident remains a mystery, with the accident review board noting "Because of lack of evidence, the Board is unable to determine the probable cause of the accident.” What is known is that the crash represented the deadliest incident for the airline until the events of 1987 (more on which coming up).

18. Eastern Air Lines Flight 401

  • Date: December 29, 1972
  • Fatalities: 101
  • Injuries: 75

During its flight from New York to Miami, an aircraft operating Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades after the cockpit became so distracted by a burnt-out landing gear indicator light, they neglected to notice the autopilot had disengaged, and that the plane was slowly losing altitude. In all, 75 survived the crash; the pilots, flight engineer, two of 10 flight attendants, and 96 of 163 passengers were less fortunate.

17. ValuJet Flight 592

  • Date: May 11, 1996
  • Fatalities: 110
  • Injuries: 0

During a scheduled flight from Miami International Airport to Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 1996, an onboard fire on the ValuJet Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-9 resulted in the plane crashing into the Everglades, killing all 110 passengers on board. After it was found the incident had been caused by improperly stored cargo, the airline (which already had a dire safety record) was grounded for several months.

16. Alaska Airlines Flight 1866

  • Date: September 4, 1971
  • Fatalities: 111
  • Injuries: 0

During a routine flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seattle, Washington, in 1971, an aircraft operating Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 crashed into a mountain in Haines Borough, near Juneau, Alaska. The incident, which resulted in the death of all 111 passengers and crew on board, still represents the deadliest incident in the airline’s history

. According to The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the probable cause of the accident was “a display of misleading navigational information concerning the flight's progress along the localizer course which resulted in a premature descent below obstacle clearance altitude. The origin or nature of the misleading navigational information could not be determined.

The Board further concludes that the crew did not use all available navigational aids to check the flight's progress along the localizer nor were these aids required to be used. The crew also did not perform the required audio identification of the pertinent navigational facilities.”

15. United Airlines Flight 232

  • Date: July 19, 1989
  • Fatalities: 112
  • Injuries: 172

During its journey from Denver to Philadelphia in 1989, an aircraft operating United Airlines Flight 232 lost many of its flight controls after a catastrophic failure of its tail-mounted engine. Of the 296 passengers and crew on board, 111 died. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the crew and the expertise of the cockpit, 185 people managed to survive one of the deadliest aircraft incidents of all time.

14. Eastern Air Lines Flight 66

  • Date: June 24, 1975
  • Fatalities: 113
  • Injuries: 11

On its approach to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, a thunderstorm resulted in the Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 crashing into Runway 22L. After the plane burst into flames, 107 passengers (including American Basketball Association player Wendell Ladner and Rt. Rev. Iveson B. Noland, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana) and six crew members were killed.

Despite severe weather being the primary cause of the incident, it’s severity was attributed to the failure of both air traffic controllers and the flight crew to abort the landing. “Contributing to the accident was the continued use of runway 22L when it should have become evident to both air traffic control personnel and the flight crew that a severe weather hazard existed along the approach path,” the NTSB concluded.

13. Grand Canyon mid-air collision

  • Date: June 30, 1956
  • Fatalities: 128
  • Injuries: 0

When a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 struck a Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation over the Grand Canyon National Park in 1956, it resulted in one of the worst aviation incidents the world has ever seen. Whilst tragic, it did have the benefit of instigating a reform of the outdated air traffic control policies that were in place at the time, resulting in tighter security and heighted safety for futures passengers.

12. US Air Flight 427

  • Date: September 8, 1994
  • Fatalities: 132
  • Injuries: 0

When a Boeing 737 on a scheduled US Air Flight 427 flight from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to West Palm Beach, Florida, crashed while approaching runway 28R of Pittsburgh International Airport, it instigated the lengthiest investigation ever conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board. It was eventually concluded the deaths of the 132 passengers onboard were a result of a series of failures and jams in the rudder system.

11. 1960 New York mid-air collision

  • Date: December 16, 1960
  • Fatalities: 134 (including 6 on the ground)
  • Injuries: N/A

In 1960, the 11th deadliest aircraft crash in US history occurred when a United Airlines Douglas DC-8, collided with a TWA Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation. All 128 on board were killed, along with a further 6 on the ground.

10. Delta Air Lines Flight 191

  • Date: August 2, 1985
  • Fatalities: 137 (including 1 on the ground)
  • Injuries: 28 (including 1 on the ground)

When a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar on Delta Air Lines Flight 191 experienced a microburst during its assent into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 1985, it resulted in one of the most serious (and deadly) incidents in the airline’s history. 136 passengers and one ground personnel were killed, while another 28 suffered life threatening injuries.

Tragically, the incident was found to have resulted from human error, with the NTSB concluding the crew's decision to fly through a thunderstorm, along with their failure to follow procedures in dealing with microbursts, was the root cause of the crash.

9. PSA Flight 182

  • Date: September 25, 1978
  • Fatalities: 144 (including 7 on the ground)
  • Injuries: 9 (ground)

In 1978, the world witnessed a tragedy of epic proportions when a Boeing 727-214 commercial airliner collided with a private Cessna 172 light aircraft over San Diego, California. All 132 passengers and crew members were killed, while a further seven people on the ground (including 2 children) were listed among the total fatalities. An investigation into the incident by the NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the collision was the failure of flight crew to abide by the correct air traffic control procedures.

8.Pan Am Flight 759

  • Date: July 9, 1982
  • Fatalities: 153 (including 8 on the ground)
  • Injuries: 4 (ground)

On July 9, 1982, a Boeing 727 on the Pan Am Flight 759 from Miami to San Diego crashed in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner. The crash, which is believed to have been caused by a microbust, resulted in the death of all 145 passengers and crew members on board, along with 8 people on the ground. A further 4 people were severely injured.

7. Northwest Airlines Flight 255

  • Date: August 16, 1987
  • Fatalities: 156 (including 2 on the ground)
  • Injuries: 6 (including 5 on the ground)

When a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 on Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport on August 16, 1987, it resulted in the worst catastrophe in the airline’s history. All six crew members and 148 of its passengers were killed, as were a further two people on the ground. The only passenger to escape with his life was a 4-year-old child.

Further to an investigation by the NTSB, it was concluded the tragedy was the result of pilot error: "The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the flight crew’s failure to use the taxi checklist to ensure that the flaps and slats were extended for takeoff.

Contributing to the accident was the absence of electrical power to the airplane takeoff warning system which thus did not warn the flight crew that the airplane was not configured properly for takeoff. The reason for the absence of electrical power could not be determined."

6. EgyptAir Flight 990

  • Date: October 31, 1999
  • Fatalities: 217
  • Injuries: 0

In 1999, a Boeing 767 operating the EgyptAir Flight 990 route crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. All 217 passengers and crew were killed. An investigation by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency (ECAA) concluded the crash had been caused by a failure of the aircraft's elevator control system.

The NTSB, meanwhile, found enough evidence to suggest deliberate, rather than accidental, error to request the matter be handed over to the FBI; the ECAA denied the request. As a result, the reason for the relief first officer's flight control inputs (which resulted in the aircraft's departure from normal cruise flight) is still unknown.

5. Korean Air Flight 801

  • Date: August 6, 1997
  • Fatalities: 228
  • Injuries: 25

During a passenger flight operated by Korean Air on TWA Flight 800, the aircraft crashed on its approach to Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport in the United States territory of Guam. Poor communication between the flight crew and errors on the Captain’s behalf were highlighted as the cause of death for 228 of the 254 people on board.

4. TWA Flight 800

  • Date: July 17, 1996
  • Fatalities: 230
  • Injuries: 0

When a Boeing 747-100 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, it resulted in the fourth-deadliest aviation incident in US history.

After speculation suggested the incident had been caused by terrorist activity, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York Police Department Joint Terrorism Task Force launched a criminal investigation into the matter; however, after no evidence of a criminal act was found, the investigation was put back in the hands of the NTSB. After a lengthy investigation, the body eventually concluded an explosion of flammable fuel vapors in the center fuel tank was to blame. All 230 passengers and crew members on board were killed.

3. American Airlines Flight 587

  • Date: November 12, 2001
  • Fatalities: 265 (including 5 on the ground)
  • Injuries: 1 (ground)

It’s fair to say 2001 was not the greatest year for traveling by plane. Just 2 months after the world-changing events of 9/11, American Airlines suffered another major aviation tragedy when an international passenger flight traveling from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Las Américas International Airport in Santo Domingo crashed after takeoff into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens.

Considering what had so recently occurred, thoughts immediately flew to terrorism. In the event, it was discovered the first officer's aggressive use of rudder controls in response to wake turbulence was to blame. All 260 people aboard the plane were killed.

2.American Airlines Flight 191

  • Date: May 25, 1979
  • Fatalities: 273 (including 2 on the ground)
  • Injuries: 6 (ground)

Until the events of 2001, the worst aviation incident in US history occurred when the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 operating American Airlines Flight 191 crashed into the ground during takeoff from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. The incident, which was later attributed to the airline’s improper maintenance procedures, resulted in the death of 273 people.

1. American Airlines Flight 11 American Airlines Flight 77, United Airlines Flight 175 and United Airlines Flight 93

  • Date: September 11, 2001
  • Fatalities: 2,996 (including 265 passengers)
  • Injuries: 6000+

The events of 9/11 may have happened 18 years ago, but for many, the memory of the awful day remains as fresh as ever. Following the hijacking of 4 domestic passenger planes, over 2996 people were killed when the aircraft's were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center in a coordinated attack. Thousands more were injured. Several months after the atrocity, Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, took responsibility for the attack. The rest, painfully, is still not history.

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Allen Lee

Written by Allen Lee

Allen Lee is a Toronto-based freelance writer who studied business in school but has since turned to other pursuits. He spends more time than is perhaps wise with his eyes fixed on a screen either reading history books, keeping up with international news, or playing the latest releases on the Steam platform, which serve as the subject matter for much of his writing output. Currently, Lee is practicing the smidgen of Chinese that he picked up while visiting the Chinese mainland in hopes of someday being able to read certain historical texts in their original language.

Read more posts by Allen Lee

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