Airplane Crashes, Airline Safety, & Risk

On this date in 1942, TWA Flight 3 crashed with twenty-two souls aboard. The aircraft was a DC-3, flying from New York to Burbank. Roughly fifteen minutes after takeoff from Las Vegas, one of several stops on the cross-country trip, the plane slammed into a cliff. The nineteen passengers and three crew were killed.

DC-3 formation (USDA)

The investigation posited that the pilots mistakenly used the compass heading they more often used flying between Boulder and Burbank. In addition, the pilots seemed to have not used radio navigation to aid their decisions, and most of the lighting was off because of World War II security measures. The compass heading took the plane in the direction of Potosi Mountain, and the aircraft’s altitude was not above one of the mountain cliff tops. The cliff’s top was roughly eighty feet above where the plane crashed.

On board was actress Carole Lombard, who had made her mark in screwball comedies and who was returning home to see her husband, Clark Gable (who would later own a DC-3), as well as her mother and her press agent. The group boarded in Indianapolis, and TWA actually requested that they give up their seats to military personnel. Lombard declined, the airline accommodated her, and others, including a renowned violinist, were left in Albuquerque and survived the night.

DC-3 (Towpilot, Creative Commons)

The DC-3 was a sleek, propeller-driven, art-deco masterpiece introduced into passenger service in 1936. American Airlines pushed its production and wanted an aircraft with sleeper berths as in Pullman train cars of the day. With fewer refueling stops than earlier planes, it could make the cross-country trip in less than eighteen hours. The military had a version as well, the C-47. Some are still flying cargo routes.

So the DC-3 has proved to be a rugged aircraft. But on January 16, 1942, one of them crashed. Accidents happen, and, in that case, the root cause was pilot error.

Pilots make mistakes, and those mistakes can be deadly for others. Less than two weeks ago, a pilot was arrested when a security agent smelled alcohol on the man’s breath. In that case, the system worked and prevented an impaired pilot from flying a commercial aircraft full of passengers.

DC-3 (RuthAS, Creative Commons)

It’s easy to think that an airplane crash is the result of a single cause, one mistake. That’s rarely, if ever, the case. In the TWA Flight 3 crash, the pilots flew the wrong course, a course that would have worked fine out of Boulder but led them into the side of a mountain out of Las Vegas. But had they seen far enough ahead, surely they could have climbed the eighty feet necessary to clear the cliff. Other factors contributed.

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, makes this point well, especially in relation to accidents attributed to pilot error: “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. […] A tricky situation needs to be resolved through a complex series of steps—and somehow the pilots fail to coordinate and miss one of them.” Part of airline safety is training for teamwork and communication.

Another part of airline safety is preventing little things from going wrong—delaying a flight to do some maintenance, for instance. As Gladwell points out, “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” Whether it’s an aircraft, a space shuttle, or a nuclear power plant, little things go wrong, and no one of them is terribly problematic, but when they start to stack up, catastrophe occurs. So airlines tend to fix the little things as soon as they can.

Carole Lombard

Even when things do go awry, that’s not necessarily a death sentence. Certainly, it doesn’t work the way it’s portrayed in the recent film Flight, but aircraft are incredibly well designed and give well-trained pilots leeway when something unexpected occurs, especially if the aircraft isn’t already very close to the ground. Four years ago yesterday, on January 15, 2009, Captain Chelsey Sullinberger’s U.S. Airways Flight 1549 flew through a flock of geese shortly after takeoff and lost power in both of the Airbus 320 engines. He ditched the plane in the Hudson River, and everyone on board survived.

Twenty years earlier, in the summer, the pilots of United Airlines 232 made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Part of an engine fan had broken off in flight and struck the hydraulic system, knocking out the pilots’ ability to steer and control the aircraft’s speed. The pilots used all their strength to make looping circles toward the Sioux City airport. Many passengers died that day, but even more survived.

What’s really amazing, though, about air safety is that the number of flights in the United States is probably almost 90,000 per day. If only one percent of them had accidents—if there were a 99% success rate, considered an A+ in other contexts—900 planes would crash every day in the United States alone. That doesn’t happen. Worldwide in 2011, among flights with more than six people aboard, there were 117 accidents in which the aircraft was damaged enough that it couldn’t be fixed and used again, and fewer than 1,000 people perished in those accidents.

Clark Gable & Carole Lombard

Even if incidents—smaller events that don’t cause much damage or injury—are counted, the safety record of American carriers is awe-inspiring. Southwest runs at about 0.0000203 incidents per year, and American takes the bottom spot, not much further behind, at 0.0000701 incidents per flight (see ABC article for MORE info). That means that for every 10,000 flights, Southwest has a couple of small things go wrong. Think about the tasks you’ve performed many times—say, cooking a meal or typing. Can you claim you make a noticeable error or something beyond your control goes wrong only twice every 10,000 times you do that task?

So, next time you’re sitting at the gate, just belted into your middle seat, vying for an arm rest and trying to situate your feet comfortably next your messenger bag under the seat in front of you, don’t get too frustrated when the pilot announces that the plane will stay at the gate to reattach something to the windshield or replace a brake valve. Realize that, when the pilot says it’ll take fifteen minutes, it’ll take longer because he has to get the signed paperwork. Documentation is part of the larger safety process.

We’re not making light of airplane crashes here, but we’re grappling with an understanding of risk (which we’ve done before with radioactivity HERE and HERE and with cancer HERE). Statistically, air travel results in almost no deaths or injuries for every million miles traveled. Driving, on the other hand, results in more than one hundred deaths for every million miles traveled. USA Today reported that the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 98, whereas the lifetime risk of death in a plane crash is 1 in 7,178. And the risk of dying from cancer is far greater than either of these—1 in 4 for men, and 1 in 5 for women. Perhaps, these numbers tell us to take care of ourselves and not worry too much about how we get ourselves from one place to another.


2 thoughts on “Airplane Crashes, Airline Safety, & Risk

  1. Unfortunately, I’m much more worried about driving than I am flying – since I drive every day and fly once a year, I wish it were the other way around!

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