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The worst air disasters in history and what caused them

Despite it remaining the safest way to travel and with modern safety technology and strict maintenance standards now in place, many people have an acute fear of flying, and a large part of that will undoubtedly be the presence of the most high-profile airplane disasters in their minds.

Skywheels is one such company who are helping to make air travel even safer by working with the aviation industry and providing exceptional standards of maintenance, repair and overhaul on wheels, brakes, safety and medical equipment in an effort to avoid disasters like these from ever happening again…

The Tenerife Airport Disaster (1977)

Although the legacy of this disaster was the standardisation of air traffic control phraseology in an effort to reduce misunderstandings between airlines, it was actually a bomb explosion at the Gran Canaria Airport that was the main cause of this tragedy.

As a result of the explosion at the larger airport, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were among many planes that were diverted to Los Rodeos Airport (now known as Tenerife North Airport) where a dense fog, which significantly reduced visibility, was compounded by a lack of ground radar.

When Gran Canaria was eventually reopened both the KLM and Pan Am flights were required to taxi on the same runway to get in a position to takeoff, however the combination of the fog and lack of ground radar meant the two planes couldn’t see each other, leading to the collision that caused the deaths of all 248 people aboard the KLM flight and 335 of the 396 aboard the Pan Am flight.

The Tenerife Airport disaster remains the deadliest in history.

Japan Airlines Flight 123 (1985)

The deadliest single aircraft disaster in history (resulting in a total of 520 fatalities), Japan Airlines Flight 123 suffered a mechanical failure just 12 minutes after taking off, eventually crashing into Mount Takamagahara just 100 kilometres from Tokyo where they departed.

The cause of the crash was actually attributed to damage that had been incurred – but not properly repaired – seven years earlier, when a tailstrike incident at Osaka International Airport affected the rear pressure bulkhead. The incorrect repair procedure reduced the part’s resistance to metal fatigue by 70%, and when the bulkhead eventually gave way, the explosive decompression ruptured the lines of all hydraulic systems and took out the vertical stabiliser, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable.


Charkhi Dadri Mid-Air Collision (1996)

Leading to the deaths of all 349 people aboard both the Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747-100B and Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin II-76 flights, this disaster is the deadliest mid-air collision in history.

Occurring over the village of Charkhi Dadri, the primary cause was thought to be that the Kazakhstani pilots had poor levels of English, relying entirely on their radio operator for communication with air traffic control. The Kazakhstan Airlines flight was in the process of climbing back up to 15,000 feet following an unplanned descent when its tail clipped the wing of the Saudi plane.

In the aftermath of the crash, India’s Civil Aviation Authority made it necessary for all flights in and out of the country to make use of Airborne Collision Avoidance Systems.

The incredible story of man conquering of the sky is punctuated with tragedies like these, however with constantly improving technology and the evolution of safety and maintenance procedures, major air travel disasters may soon become a thing of the past.

This post was written by John Rooney in partnership with Skywheels, specialists in repair and maintenance for the aviation industry.


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