Why don't more planes crash?

I’ve been binge watching these “Mayday” episodes that detail planes that crashed. There’s usually more than one reason for a crash, so these are oversimplified but…

The bad one at O’Hare, AA191, was due to improper maintenance causing an engine to fall off. All perished.

In another crash, the pilots thought “empty air canisters” to be loaded as cargo were the big green tanks…but wait, no, it was the canisters that supply oxygen to each mask when the cabin depressurizes. And they weren’t “empty,” they were “expired,” meaning many were still full of the chemicals. And they burn HOT. If the pilots realized what they were, and that they hadn’t been properly capped before loading, they never would have allowed them as cargo.

One Air Canada flight didn’t make it to its destination. The fuel gauge wasn’t working and there was a miscommunication, lbs vs kg, about how much fuel was aboard. No one died, but wow.

Avianca flight 52 crashed due to fuel starvation. They kept using the term “priority” instead of “emergency,” so although flight controllers knew there was an issue, they didn’t know it was so dire.

Another one (Scandinavian?) was brought down by ice on the wings breaking off and hitting the engines, which were near the tail. They thought it was thoroughly deiced but there was clear ice on the wing at takeoff. By some miracle none of them died.

What happens when the plane’s collision avoidance tells you one thing and the air traffic controller tells you the opposite?

Gotta give a special shoutout to this one, where the mechanic used the wrong sized bolts to attach the pilot’s windscreen:

And he survived!!!

There are lots of pilot errors. There are many components of airplanes that can fail. The tower isn’t always perfect. The 737 Max demonstrates that manufacturers don’t always get it right. Bird strikes, microbursts, lots of things can bring them down.

But as we all know, accidents make headlines and safe trips don’t. You’re more likely to be in an accident on the way to the airport than you are to be involved in one once you get on the plane.

Why don’t more planes crash?

Mods, I realize there are factual components to the answer but I suspect there will be discussion about which are the most important ones. Feel free to move as you see fit.

This is key. Planes have lots of safety measures, so in order to get a crash, you need multiple things to go wrong. It’s not all that rare for one thing to go wrong on a plane, but the vast majority of the time, other things go right and prevent anything worse than a slightly delayed flight.

Not a pilot or in the aviation industry, but if it’s anything like the Navy and submarine operations/logistics (my field), then systems are designed with multiple redundancies, such that it would take multiple mechanical or electronic failures happening simultaneously to cause a deadly incident. Further, procedures are also designed with multiple redundancies (and with system backups to notify pilots that something went wrong well in advance of disaster) such that a single pilot error wouldn’t be enough to lead to disaster, and it would take either pilot sabotage (i.e. a pilot wants to crash) or multiple errors in a row along with disregarding instruments/warnings to lead to disaster. And on top of that, maintenance is highly organized and regulated with multiple checks such that a single incompetent or lazy technician couldn’t cause a disastrous condition, and it would take multiple failures/errors of technician and supervisor action to lead to disaster.

This is all for large corporation and government aviation – private small plane aviation probably relies a lot more on single operators and maintainers with less redundancy.

More planes don’t crash because a hell of a lot of planes did crash and the designers, mechanics, and pilots learned from each

If you look at a flight tracking site, it’s truly incredible how many planes are in the air at any given time. And despite the inherent hazards of flight, they all make it to their destinations almost all of the time.

I suspect one could write an entire book to answer your question in detail (and perhaps many have) but I think the simple answer is that every time there is a serious incident, whether or not there are fatalities and whether or not it’s a total hull loss, there is a very thorough investigation of cause(s) and recommendations are made and followed. I think the present state of air safety is the cumulative effect of decades of these incremental learnings and improvements, as well as some amazing improvements in technology in general.

It’s actually scary to think how many crashes there were in the early days of jet travel, when the technology was brand new and air travel was starting to become popular. For instance, the crash of Air France 007 in Paris in which 122 passengers were killed, including 106 members of the Atlanta Art Association who were returning home after an art tour of Europe, enjoying the new “jet age” on an early Boeing 707. The plane simply failed to leave the ground. Before that, the very first commercial jetliner, the British De Havilland Comet, suffered several in-flight total structural failures because the problem of metal fatigue was not yet well understood. Manufacturers like Boeing admitted that they learned a lot from the pioneering work of De Havilland, which suffered misfortunes from being the first in the jet age.

One other thing the aviation industry learned the hard way was that redundancy is meaningless if the redundant systems are located so close to each other that one bad event can take them all out together. That’s what happened in United 232 when the accident took out the “redundant” hydraulic lines that were in the same location.

Interesting answers.

A long time ago I read something (in Popular Mechanics?) about the process to become a pilot. The guy described it as driving your car while balancing your checkbook and dictating a letter or something like that—only in a plane you can’t just pull over if it all becomes too confusing. So I figure you have to be pretty sharp to be a pilot.

AIUI a lot of commercial airline pilots are former military. Lessons are expensive and you need so many hours to qualify for various ratings… Anyway, the side benefit to this is that a lot of pilots know about flying under stress, so to speak.

But they aren’t all above suspicion. In one really interesting episode, the captain was a high ranking pilot who had flown for many years. His first officer was quite young and timid, so when the captain did something dangerous he didn’t question him. Sure enough they crashed. Later on, looking back at his total record it seemed Mr. Awesome had failed tests and bluffed his way through. He once totalled a $1.5M aircraft by raising the landing gear while it sat on the ground.

I wonder how many near disasters there are but the software refuses that input or the flight engineer says whoa, etc.

Other interesting moments from the series:

They had a hard time recreating one that crashed in Peru because people came out and looted the crash site. They offered $500 for the return of the black box…and someone brought it in. But the person had tinkered with it and the data was lost, anyway.

There was a Fedex flight in which an employee rode in the jump seat, then attacked the flight crew with hammers and a speargun, hoping to make his suicide look like an accident on the job so his widow and kids would get a payday.

One early crash was partly caused by the Grand Canyon.

This should never happen. One of the first things to happen when an aircraft is parked after landing it to install the landing gear pins. The last thing to do before leaving the parking spot is to remove the pins. Saw a new 727 dropped in it’s nose in the factory when a mechanic forgot to install the nose gear pin. Part of my job at Boeing was testing various systems that require moving the landing gear handle. Prior to moving the handle shop and QA verified landing gear pins were installed and aircraft hydraulics are off.

I think it was in the early 60’s when someone took the then-current crash rate and extrapolated based upon future passenger projections to find that, eventually, there would be an airliner crashing every day in a couple of decades. The planes and their support were vastly improved but it was only in the early 80’s that the last major problem area was addressed: the wetware. The introduction of CRM (crew resource management) really changed things. Unfortunately, that’s a particularly dry term for such an amazing & important concept.

I don’t have much to add, other than seeing all the back-ups and modern controls even small planes have these days. I’ve taken several flights on Cessna Caravans in Northern Alberta, and always watch what the pilots do. On take-off when climbing and circling there are usually alarms going off warning about altitude etc… some audible some just lights. The pilots just ignore them as they are early warnings and the first of probably 2 or 3 other alarms before something actually comes close to happening.

Also the autopilot systems seem pretty good. I watched one pilot who spent several minutes straight staring at his tablet and filling out forms and checking messages with both hands on his device and none on the controls. Talk about distracted driving; he was flying a plane with 5 passengers neither touching the controls nor looking out the window. It was unnerving watching the plane bounce around in the turbulence and seeing the controls move themselves around to compensate while the pilot did something else entirely.

We had a similar thread here (in GQ/FQ, I think) a few years ago. In addition to what’s already been mentioned, another factor is that weather forecasting and radar are a lot better now, as is the understanding of weather conditions which can lead to crashes – as a result, airliners don’t fly into weather events which could cause problems.

A big part of it is that there are massive regulatory bodies and a culture of safety that treats each crash as a process and engineering failure to be investigated thoroughly until the cause is identified and future engineering and process guidelines are formulated to prevent it in the future. And then those are implemented.

To a great extent, planes do not crash twice for an identified reason. There has to be a new different reason for each subsequent crash.

In contrast to many other venues where we treat things that go wrong as accidents that sometimes happen but maybe we could have fewer of if everyone was a little more careful.

I am a commercial pilot - formerly airline and now charter.

What you have highlighted here is something we now call Crew Resource Management (CRM). It’s a big part of how we do things nowadays.

Back in the day (let’s say before the mid 1980s or so) the captain was not to be questioned or second guessed. If you were a new first officer you sat down, you shut up and you didn’t touch anything unless specifically ordered to.

And planes crashed as a result. There are many examples where a crew member was doing something inadvisable, and somebody else either didn’t speak up or the captain didn’t listen. That’s all changed 180 degrees. Today, a brand new first officer could (and should) question the most senior captain if they think something is amiss, and they will be listened to.

This is really interesting to me because it was a huge change in culture. Some people - senior captains mostly - had to give up some of their power. But it was seen as necessary, and the results are crystal clear. We no longer have many problems of the type we used to have before CRM was instituted. It’s a huge success, and I’m dumbfounded why other fields haven’t adopted something similar.

When George Floyd was murdered I sat here shaking my head thinking, “None of those other cops thought to say, hey maybe you shouldn’t kneel on that guy?”

Police friends tell me they were probably junior and were afraid of speaking up. Sigh…

Well, not entirely sure about that but multi-tasking is a huge part of it. Also prioritizing your inputs, figuring out what things you need to pay attention to the most at any given point in time.

Because even minor crashes/accidents are investigated and analyzed and that information goes towards making changes to make aviation safer. There are been changes to the airplanes (different materials, different construction techniques, maintenance schedules, etc.), to systems (triple redundancy is the basic standard), and to pilot training (which is why it now takes much longer to get to solo or to earning a license than it did a century ago).

Even in the small airplanes I flew double-redundancy was pretty common, it wasn’t until you got down to ultralights that you really had just single systems as the default.

Even there, people don’t always settle for the default. After I “graduated” from flight school and had my license I was gifted with a handheld transceiver that also had some pre-GPS navigation ability. On two occasions I loaned it to pilots who didn’t entirely trust the two radios installed on the airplanes they were flying. Even in these days of GPS’s paper maps are still pretty common (they don’t require batteries, among other things). I could go on but don’t feel like writing an entire book right now.

It used to be true most commercial pilots in the US were former military, but that had a lot to do with WWII training a LOT of pilots. As that generation retired the balance tipped more and more toward civilian-trained pilots. Now, the majority come through civilian channels. As an interesting sidenote, a lot of pilots for foreign carriers actually train in the US for a number of reasons, not the least being that flight lessons in the US are cheaper than just about anywhere else in the world. My local airport has had a contract with China for years now to train pilots from initial flight through commercial and multi-class ratings who will go on to fly for Chinese air carriers, as an example.

Trust me - even we civilian pilots learn about flying under stress. I could tell you a few stories… actually, I have. There’s a bunch of my threads around here about various Things That Went Wrong While I Was Flying (or trying to…)

Not all military pilots are combat pilots, a lot of them have dull, “boring” jobs carrying mostly cargo from point A to point B (although that can, at times, be more interesting than anticipated…)

You might be interested in the the Aviation Safety Reporting System or ASRS database. I’ve never searched for information on it so I’m not sure how much is accessible to the general public but it’s used to gather information on that very question.

Why don’t more planes crash is really the wrong question. As everybody has said, the entire aviation world co-operates to make sure planes are safe and pilots are trained.

The right question is: why don’t more autos crash? Every time I’m in the car and see other people drive I wonder why the sides of the roads aren’t littered with crashed autos. Dozens. Hundreds. Planes are safe. Cars are not.

Also one of the biggest reasons Air France 447 went down. The two first officers didn’t communicate and didn’t realize that one was pushing forward on the control stick while the other was pulling back.

I believe part of that (and I don’t know if this was in the official finding) was the design of the Airbus.

Those side stick controllers are not physically connected to each other. And they both have a button to override the other. The pilots were each making inputs and also repeatedly trying to cancel each other out. Might not have happened on a Boeing, where inputs from both sides are felt and seen physically.

Remember when Reagan did this? IIRC many at the time thought we’d have lots of crashes.

Interesting, seems likely.

My bro (USAF, retired c. 1992) worked weather, but knew a lot of pilots. Many went that way after leaving the service. My niece flies but she went through civilian training.

Those episodes were so interesting when everything’s pretty normal…until it isn’t. Later on, they can figure out whether the ATC screwed up or if it’s a design flaw or if the mechanics missed something—or even if a crew member made a mistake.
But first they have to get it down on the ground safely.

I saw that episode…they bellyflopped into the Atlantic.

Then there was the Smolensk Air Disaster, where English wasn’t the language used. Among the crew only the captain spoke Russian.

Complicating the situation was the increased workload on the captain. Normally, one pilot flies the airplane while another crew member handles radio communications. On Flight 101, the responsibility for communication usually rests with the navigator. At Smolensk however the situation was different. As the airport is not usually open for international flights and is not ICAO certified, the air traffic controllers were not required to be fluent in English, the ICAO standard language for air traffic control (ATC) communication. As such, all communication between Smolensk’s ATC and Flight 101 was carried out in Russian.

It sounds very similar to some of the tenets of “Agile” in business and technology development. Most companies fail with Agile because they just think it’s all about daily “standup” meetings and planning things in 2 week “sprints”. A big part of it is removing the traditional, almost military-style hierarchical structures most businesses are used to. A typical agile team (or “scrum” or “pod”) is supposed to be a self-organizing collection of the skill sets required for the project. Anyone on the team should feel empowered to provide their input and push back against any decisions.

As to the “why not”, I imagine it’s similar to aviation. A lot of tradition where senior leadership (i.e. The Captain) is presumed to be all-knowing and infallible while junior people are expected to shut up and learn how things work around here.

Still, like the OP I’m also surprised more planes don’t crash. Like when I’m sitting on the tarmac for an hour because the air conditioner and the jet way are both broken. They can’t even get those relatively simple devices to work properly and I’m supposed to feel safe in this thing flying six miles up in the sky at 500 knots for hours?

Like out of how many thousands of flights out of LGA over the decades, Sully was the only one to ever have his plane knocked out of the sky by a flock of birds?

He’s both the luckiest and unluckiest SOB to ever fly a plane?