I’m not sure why, but I love watching Air Crash Investigation on the National Geographic Channel. Maybe I’m fascinated with how passenger airliners can be both awesome and fragile at the same time. They’re huge, majestic, and chock-full of gizmos and gadgets and instrumentation; and yet, a small glitch or mistake can cause them to simply fall from the sky and leave absolutely no survivors.
Here are those that I’ve seen:
1. Aloha Airlines Flight 243 – “Hanging by a Thread” – Metal fatigue causes part of the roof to be ripped off. A stewardess is sucked out of the plane. A survivor reports having seen cracks on the fuselage when boarding the 737.
2. Flash Airlines Flight 604 – “Vertigo” – Night-time flight; the aircraft rolls into the sea a few minutes after take-off. Investigators attribute it to pilot error (spatial disorientation) but Egyptian authorities disagree, citing mechanical failure.
3. Helios Airways Flight 522 – “Ghost Plane” – This one is rather eerie. The pressure setting is configured incorrectly causing everyone on board to lose consciousness, including the flight crew. Cabin recordings show that the pilot and co-pilot were trying to diagnose the problem but were unable to think straight due to lack of oxygen. After radio contact was lost, fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the Boeing 737. In the last moments, the fighter pilot witnessed someone entering the flight cabin and trying to regain control of the aircraft. Minutes after that, the plane crashed into a mountain, killing all 121 on board. It was later surmised that the mystery person was a flight attendant who was wearing a portable oxygen mask.
4. Turkish Airlines Flight 981 – “Behind Closed Doors” – Faulty design leads to a cargo door blowing out in mid-flight. The resulting explosive decompression damages the DC-10’s hydraulic system, causing all control to be lost. This is a tragic case of negligence as the airplane manufacturer was in fact aware of the design flaw but did not make the necessary improvements.
5. Air Canada Flight 143 – “Gimli Glider” – This is my favourite (if ever is there such a thing as a favourite disaster; anyway, in this case, there were only a small number of minor injuries). Air Canada had only just converted from imperial to metric. Not only did both ground crew and flight crew miscalculate the amount of fuel required, the fuel gauges were out of order: the plane runs out of fuel mid-air. Fortunately the pilot is also a glider pilot and knows how to fly a plane without engine power. Approaching the runway too fast, he executes a forward slip, a manoeuvre used only on small planes, the first (and perhaps the only) time being performed on a 767. The CG reconstruction helps us fully appreciate this feat – the airplane is shown flying sideways, and only correcting just before touchdown. After this incident, the scenario was programmed into a flight simulator; nobody has ever managed to pass the test. Therefore passengers of Flight 143 were fortunate that the only pilot who could have saved them was actually flying the plane at the time.
Has a Malaysia Airlines plane ever crashed? Yes, in fact: flight MH653 on 4 December 1977. A Boeing 737 was hijacked under “mysterious circumstances” and plunged almost vertically into a swamp in Tanjung Kupang, Johor, instantly killing all 100 on board.