The “Crash Cluster”


July 26, 2014

First things first: Contrary to what has been reported ad nausaeum, the aircraft that crashed in Mali last week was not the property of Air Algerie, the national airline of Algeria. The MD-83 airplane was owned and flown by a Spanish contractor called Swiftair, on behalf of Air Algerie. This was a Spanish-registered aircraft staffed by Spanish crew, and not an “African airline,” as virtually every commentator and correspondent has erroneously described it.

Regardless, this was the third high-profile accident in less than ten days’ time, joining the MH17 catastrophe and the crash of an ATR turboprop in Taiwan. An awful week to be sure, with more than four hundred casualties. Plane crashes, like tropical storms and celebrity deaths, seem to happen in threes sometimes.

The temptation, understandably, is to link these recent incidents together and try to wring some scary significance out of them. The media is playing it like some aviation Armegeddon, making travelers everywhere nervous. What in the world is happening? What does such a terrible streak portend? What does it mean for the greater context of air safety?

Well, probably not much.

For starters, these were very different accidents in very different parts of the world, occurring under very different circumstances. And partly because air crashes have become so rare, we tend to fixate on them when they do happen, which messes with our perspective.

Go back to the year 1985, for example. In that twelve-month span, 27 — twenty seven! — serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. We had the JAL crash outside Tokyo with 520 fatalities; the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed 240 American servicemen; the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic with 329 dead, etc. Two of history’s ten deadliest disasters happened within two months of each other!

That’s a bad year.

Three crashes in a week? How about two in 24 hours. In the same place!

On March 5th, 1966, a Canadian Pacific (CP Air) DC-8 crashed on landing at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Arriving in heavy fog, the plane went low, struck a sea wall and burst into flames. Sixty-four of the 72 people on the jet were killed. The next afternoon a BOAC 707 carrying 124 people took off from the very same airport, bound for Hong Kong. Apparently to give passengers a good view, the 707’s captain chose to make an unusual visual climbout away from the published departure path and toward the summit of Mt. Fuji — directly into an area of extreme turbulence and 70-knot winds. Approaching the peak, the plane hit a severe gust — a so-called mountain wave — and broke apart in mid-air, throwing wreckage over a ten-mile swath. One of the most gruesomely ironic things I’ve ever seen is a newspaper photograph of the crashed CP Air DC-8. Behind the wreckage, the BOAC 707 is clearly visible, taxiing for takeoff on its own doomed flight.

Imagine that in 2014.

The 60s, 70s and 80s were an era rife with horrific crashes, bombings, airport attacks and so on. But over the years sine then aviation accidents have become a lot fewer and farther between. There are twice as many planes in the air as there were 25 years ago, yet the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980.

Worldwide, 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation — dating back at least to the dawn of the jet age. This year will be something of a correction, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest. There will be spikes, peaks and valleys. Three accidents in a week is unusual and serious. But the overall trend should not be affected.

Predictably the recent crash spate has a lot of people playing the “which airlines are safest?” game. I don’t like that game, and I consider most airline-to-airline safety comparisons to be an academic exercise not worth the traveler’s time. In practical terms, all commercial air carriers are safe. Perhaps some are slightly safer than others, statistically speaking, but that’s a hard thing to quantify in light of how rare crashes are to begin with. Is an airline with, say, one crash over a 20-year span really “safer” than one with two crashes in that same period?

And there are, and always have been, newer and smaller airlines that run highly professional, button-down operations up to the highest possible standards. At the same time, some of the world’s eldest and most highly respected carriers have been guilty of deadly malpractice. Averaged out, it’s essentially a level playing field, and asking which is the safest airline to fly is a bit like asking which is the best lottery to play. If you’re wondering which criteria to employ, whether you’re headed for Madison or Madagascar, stick with price, schedule and service.

Following is a list of airlines that have gone fatality-free for at least the past thirty years. All qualifying airlines have been in existence since at least 1980:

Air Berlin
Air Jamaica (now part of Caribbean Airlines)
Air Malta
Air Mauritius
Air Niugini (Papua New Guinea)
Air New Zealand
Air Portugal
Air Seychelles
Aer Lingus
All Nippon Airways
Austrian Airlines
Britannia Airways
Cathay Pacific
Cayman Airways
Cyprus Airways
Hawaiian Airlines
Meridiana (Italy)
Monarch Airlines (UK)
Oman Air
Royal Brunei Airlines
Royal Jordanian
Thomsonfly (formerly Britannia Airways)
Tyrolean Airways (Austria)

I chose 1980 to best account for the changeover period from older first-generation jets and propliners to modern fleets. Most of the companies listed have perfect records pre-dating that year. Several, including Air Jamaica, Oman Air, and Tunisair, have never recorded a fatality. Allowing for one fatal mishap since 1980 takes in, just for starters, Royal Air Maroc, TACA, and Yemenia, just to name a few. Even the much-maligned Air Afrique, a West African collective that went bust in 2001, listed but a single accident in over three-plus decades of flying. Ghana Airways, another African star until its demise in 2004, had an even cleaner record, marred by a single fatality in 1969.

Whether the fortunes of some of these carriers attest to exemplary levels of oversight and professionalism or merely to luck is somewhat open to argument. Royal Brunei Airlines, to pick one from the list above, is a tiny outfit with only a handful of aircraft. Compare to American Airlines, with hundreds of planes and thousands of daily departures. American has outcrashed Royal Brunei 5–0 since 1980, but plainly the comparison is lopsided. Nonetheless, any unblemished legacy lasting thirty years is impressive on its own accord, particularly when the setting is an underdeveloped nation with substandard facilities and infrastructure.

For more on the facts and fallacies of airline safety,
see chapter six of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.


Related stories:






Maybe some of you caught the off-Broadway play “CVR.” The play featured chilling reenactments of notorious aviation accidents using their cockpit voice recordings as scripts.

Meanwhile the Congolese painter Cheri Cherin is one of very few artists to commemorate a plane crash on canvas. His “Catastrophe de Ndolo,” seen below, depicts a 1996 incident in Zaire, as it was known at the time, in which an overloaded Antonov freighter careened off the runway at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport and slammed into a market killing an estimated 300 people — only two of whom were on the airplane (a precise fatality count was never determined).

Cheri Cherin's "Catastrophe de Ndolo" (1999)

Cheri Cherin’s “Catastrophe de Ndolo” (1999)

By no means do I wish to make light of any air disaster, but Cheri Cherin has nothing on a certain young artist whose pièce de résistance appears below. This work commemorates the horrific, completely fictional three-way collision between Swissair, American Airlines and TWA. I would date this to 1975 or so, when I was nine years-old.

Patrick Smith’s “Catastrophe Over Fenley Street.” (c.1975. Colored pencil on paper.)

Plane crash iconography, if we can call it that, is a strange and powerful thing — Hans Wendt’s 1978 photograph of a plummeting PSA Boeing 727 being the most unforgettable example. And while this might seem counter-intuitive, we airline geeks almost all share a morbid fascination with historic crashes. When I was a kid, I had a shirt-box stuffed with newspaper clippings of what you might call the classics. That box was long ago lost, but I had them all: Tenerife, PSA, Eastern 66, American 191, Pan Am at Kenner, Air Florida in the Potomac, and so on.

At one time I had an impressive collection of scale-model airplanes — Revell and Monogram kits. I had DC-10s, 747s, 707s, and several military planes too. There are still holes in the ceiling of my old bedroom where those planes once hung, but the models themselves long ago met their fate in staged disasters, crashed into Lego cities and set aflame with gasoline siphoned out of my father’s lawn mower. If I dig through the dirt in the parents’ backyard in Revere, I can sometimes find pancakes of melted plastic.


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48 Responses to “The “Crash Cluster””
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  1. Jeffrey L. says:

    So you liked model planes too? At one time there was an outfit named Guillows that put out kits of scale planes. They advertised them as 1/2 A qualified but not to me they weren’t. Mostly constructed of 1/16″ soft balsa formers and stringers. Would never stand up to motorized flight. But they were great display pieces, especially with no covering on the frame so you could see the whole framework, except plastic items like engine cowlings, canopies, etc. I had a B24, F4U Corsair, P38 Lightning and a PBY Catalina hanging from the ceiling These were good size…the P38 had a wingspan of about 30″. Sold ’em at a garage sale before we moved. I miss them!

  2. Elaine St. John says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I’m glad and comforted by your opinions and discourse, as an expert, about this most recent tragedy. I have two professional pilots in my immediate family, and of course, they are receiving tons of questions…”How could this happen – again?” Thank you so MUCH for your level-headed, objective approach to something many of us cannot understand…I feel so SORRY for the Indonesian families that want to know, so earnestly, “what happened?”. Happy New Year, a really shitty way to start the New Year (excuse the “French”) but so be it… E:)

  3. kevin flatley says:

    patrick – did your shirtbox have clippings from eastern flight 375? that one went down in winthrop bay (i assume right near your house) – my uncle rescued one of the cabin crew in his boat from cottage park yacht club

  4. John says:

    After everything is said and done, travel by commercial air is still the safest way. Our nations roads and highways are still the most unsafe places. A person is safer in a combat zone than driving on our highways.

  5. Daniel Ullman says:

    As to iconography, the photo of Pan Am Flight 103 at Lockerbie tops my list. I remember seeing that photo in a newspaper machine and thinking that I didn’t need to read the story.

  6. Rod says:

    Every individual is different. A couple of decades ago a Scandinavian Airlines stretch DC-9 lost both engines just after takeoff from Stockholm owing to ice ingestion. Talk about a compromised position —- low altitude, suddenly powerless and little time to think. The terrain is flat but plenty of trees and big rocks to glide into.

    They managed to put it into a field and, amazingly, everyone survived. The crew (front and back) received no end of praise. The first officer returned to flying but the captain just couldn’t. The whole business simply left him traumatized.

  7. JuliaZ says:

    Eva Hart was 7 years old when she survived the wreck of the Titanic (her father died). Here’s a quote from her that seems to relate just as well to modern air travel after crashes.

    “People I meet always seem surprised that I do not hesitate to travel by train, car, airplane, or ship, when necessary. It is almost as if they expect me to be permanently quivering in my shoes at the thought of a journey. If I acted like that I would have died of fright many years ago — life has to be lived irrespective of the possible dangers and tragedies lurking round the corner.”

  8. Stephanie says:

    What a great and clear perspective on plane crashes. People have such strong memories of how bad it used to be, and they don’t compare it to how things have improved so drastically. Tragedies are strong memories compared to nothing at all happening for so many years. I’m often trying to remind nervous passengers of how safe airline travel is in comparison to almost every other form of travel. It’s just that plane crashes are so catastrophic when they do happen, infrequent as they are now, and that’s what most folks focus on.
    Thanks for putting it all so plain and easy to see.

  9. JJ says:

    No question the last 2 decades’ statistics should be reassuring for nervous fliers like me. But the last few years have shown us crashes that we were told “don’t happen”. AF 447 went down due to pilot error in mid-flight. The Taiwan crash and the Air Algerie crash went down in thunderstorms– which climate change is bringing us year-round now. I might “enjoy” a calm daytime flight in good weather, but I can never relax and feel truly safe. If the weather’s bad, I can’t get my pulse rate below 120 even with (legal) Xanax. Where is Scotty to beam us to our destinations when we need him?

    • JuliaZ says:

      JJ, I feel for you, but I also wonder if you worry when driving your car? You should.. the people operating them have terrible training and are highly distracted. Many people don’t maintain their machines very well, and the passengers are disruptive too. Add in the often poorly-maintained roads, some drug and alcohol usage, and excessive speed, and if you follow the thought process all the way through, you’ll wish that there was a 737 to your office. 😉

      The only thing that ever gives me pause when flying — which I do relatively often, making 1-2 round trips a month — is taking off and landing in bad weather. Even so, I just think about it for a moment, feel glad that someone massively more trained and well-informed is piloting the plane, and then relax again.

      If you REALLY want to increase your personal safety, move much closer to your place of employment. If you move within bicycling or walking distance, the health odds tip massively in your favor, and you’re likely to save money too, even if housing costs more. We made this move 8 years ago and have not regretted it. Our family of 4 drives less than 600 miles a month now, and despite spending an extra $1000 on housing, the net savings is about $1000 and 140 car-hours per month.

  10. Jeff Latten says:

    Patrick, as usual, I have to agree with your assessment here, except one small point: calling what happened to MH17 a “crash” is just a bit misleading…the plane was apparently shot down by a missile, or at least that’s what is suspected until some other explanation is shown.

    • TJ says:

      Well, it certainly was a crash. Patrick also said there were three “accidents,” and for a moment I considered disputing this wording. But I believe that ultimately, it will be ruled that the shooting down of MH17 was an accident. The firing of the Buk missile certainly was a deliberate action, but the target was thought to be a military one.

      And in response, the way aviation authorities handle overflight of war zones will be changed. This is already happening.

  11. James Wattengel says:

    These crashes occurred a week apart on rainy Tuesday nights when I was living near LAX in Venice.

    Small boats were mobilized from Marina Del Rey to for rescue. Part of the Scandinavian DC-8 remained afloat and was towed and grounded near Point Dume. The DC-8 made a perfect landing in the ocean a few miles short of the runway while making an unusual west-to-east approach because of the weather.

    The 727 crashed because one of the crew (flight engineer?) inadvertently turned off all power to the cockpit, including all instruments. The plane was in a steep climb-out and had just begun a sharp turn. The became disoriented and the plane rolled over and crashed a few milled of of Playa de Rey.

    On January 13, 1969, a Scandinavian Airlines System Douglas DC-8-62, Flight 933, crashed into Santa Monica Bay, approximately 6 nautical miles (11 km) west of LAX at 7:21 pm, local time. The aircraft was operating as flight SK-933, nearing the completion of a flight from Seattle. Of nine crew members, three lost their lives to drowning, while 12 of the 36 passengers also drowned.

    On January 18, 1969, United Airlines Flight 266 a Boeing 727-200 bearing the registration number N7434U, crashed into Santa Monica Bay approximately 11.3 miles (18.2 km) west of LAX at 6:21 pm local time. The aircraft was destroyed, resulting in the loss of all 32 passengers and six crewmembers aboard.

  12. Neil says:

    This just bolsters your case, but it is actually quite like that “statistically speaking”, there is *not* a difference in safety between 1 or 2 crashes in 20 years, to use your example.

    I haven’t run the numbers (and probably don’t know how anyway), but there’s a good chance statistics would say that such a difference is due to chance, and does not represent a statistically significant difference.

  13. Jim Houghton says:

    And the good news is…these things tend to come in threes. Not fours.

  14. PhilipPE says:

    you can add Cyprus Airways to your fatality free list

  15. Senrab says:

    Actually, that was Aloha Airlines Flight 243:

  16. Simon IOM says:

    Hi, this is my first time writing a post and have been interested in aviation for many years and love ready Patrick’s honest, “no beating around the bush” approach to information in the world of aviation.
    Recently there have been press reports relating to the Swiftair MD 83 involved in one of the terrible accidents of late, that the age of the aircraft could, and I emphasise the word ” could”, have been potentially a factor to considor. The plane’s first flight I believe was in 1996 making around 18 years old.
    Yet an airline I often fly with in the UK have Boeing 737 300’s that are around 27 years old, obviously they will have there air worthiness certificates but is there a maximum age limit for the age for passenger planes flying worldwide?

    • Eirik says:

      Not really, but of course it require good maintenance. There are planes built in the 1930`s still flying around. Not commercial though, so dont be alarmed!

      Not long ago, I read an article involving a 747 which was 39 years old and still in commercial traffic. Sadly, the article was about an engine fire right after take off, so Im not sure if the plane is still flying, although they made a safe return to the airport.

      Fun fact about the very same 747; the resale value at the time of the fire was USD 60.000. Less than the fuel cost for the flight it had to abort due to the fire.

      The average age of the fleet of the major US airlines is about 15 years old. This includes all kinds of different air crafts.
      Although a plane may be 15-20 years old the vital parts may be replaced and the plane is as good as new.
      Minus the cabin of course which seems to be the last thing they ever upgrade. It makes people wonder; if they cant afford to fix the worn seat cushion, how can they afford to replace the flaps?
      Luckily, seat cushion is not a safety issue, its just about priority and airlines are cutting costs wherever they can – except when it comes to safety.

    • Patrick says:

      There is no “age limit” strictly speaking. So long as a plane is maintained in accordance with standards set forth by the airline, manufacturer, and regulators, it can remain in service more or less indefinitely. Usually, at a certain point, this becomes cost-prohibitive, which is why most planes are eventually taken out of service.

      There’s a segment in my book about this. Chapter two I believe.

      • Joe Latshaw says:

        Many airliners do have pressurization cycle limits, though these can sometimes be raised. So it wouldn’t be years or even flight hours but number of takeoffs and landings.

  17. Denis Bekaert says:

    Interesting article but was the Hawaiian Airlines metal fatigue incident that sucked a flight attendant out at altitude really over 30 years ago? The aircraft did manage to land safely so perhaps you didn’t count that as a crash. Small comfort to the crew member and her family, though.

  18. Seth Knoepler says:

    As Patrick says, when something only happens very rarely trying to predict when, where, or involving whom it’s likely to happen in the future is a mug’s game. That said… I keep hearing that while the great majority of airlines deferred, as usual, to the advice and directions of the appropriate authorities on the safety of flying over Ukraine, there were some airlines or at least individual pilots who chose to avoid the area entirely instead of just making sure that their aircraft were flying above the official danger zone. Are these stories all apocryphal or is there some truth to them? If there are any airlines which are, in general, especially risk-averse I’d like to know who they are.

    • Rod says:

      There may be some that are particularly risk-averse, but ALL are expense-averse. Now, all of a sudden, the Missile Risk is an elephant that has started lumbering noisily around the living room.

      If you’re an American carrier (or British, or French, or Russian, or Chinese) this may give you major pause when you think what might be Out There.

      But protection costs are apparently very high.
      Interesting times ahead.

    • Eirik says:

      I dont think individual commercial pilots have the authority to make such a decision. If you mean that they diverted from the flight plan once they reached the area?

      Of course they will change the route to avoid bad weather etc, but I doubt pilots would just “make a left” on their own without getting approval.

      • Seth Knoepler says:

        If it’s true I’d assume that the captain filed a flight plan which would allow the plane avoid the area. But I have no idea whether captains have the authority to do that, with or without first obtaining authorization. I understand that commercial captains have the last word on whether the aircraft itself appears airworthy but that’s a different matter. It would be nice if Patrick or someone else who actually knows the answer to this question can take a moment to set us straight.

        • Eirik says:

          It could be possible that the pilots and the flight dispatcher (who plan the route) agreed to avoid certain areas.
          I thought you meant the pilots just diverted from the planned route, which also would be dangerous since they could get into the way of other air crafts on another flight level etc.

    • Lee says:

      There was a Yahoo! article right after the crash that said all U.S. carriers were flying around the Ukraine despite the fact that airspace over the Ukraine was unrestricted and ATC supervised.

      • qmc says:

        What US carriers have routes that would take them over/near the Ukraine anyways?

        • Eirik says:

          I think both United and Delta may get close, or direct overpass depending on route, on their way to Dubai. Not sure about AA.

  19. Ma Zhenguo says:

    I flew twice this week and I actually felt safer than usual – from a statistical point of view, three crashes in a week meant that another crash in the same week was very, very, very unlikely. More than usual, at any rate.

    • Speed says:

      As long as the crashes were unrelated (different causes) you were no more or less safe flying after three crashes.

      Presumably you would have felt safer than normal after one crash and safer still after two crashes. But then came another …

      To turn your idea on its head … would you feel less safe flying after ten years of no airline crashes? “We’re due for a crash.”

      • Ma Zhenguo says:

        Well, I guess so, in a sense. But, of course, this is no more than a thought exercise: flying is safe at any time, no matter when the last crash was, and we all agree on that.
        Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that crashes are very rare, spooky coincidences do occur, like the two-crashes-at-the-same-airport-within-24-hours story in Patrick’s article. And think of the Australian woman who (reportedly) lost relatives in BOTH Malaysia Airlines crashes (how unlikely is that?). And what was the likelyhood of two crashes in two weeks for a reputable company as MA? I even read a story about a Dutch man who was supposed to be on BOTH (again) MA doomed flights, but then changed his plans. If this is true, well, here’s another statistically unlikely event: surviving two crashes in two weeks.

    • Gottettaz says:

      Speaking of probability and statistics, there is the story (told by the logician Raymond Smullyan) of a statistician who told a friend that he never took airplanes: “I have computed the probability that there will be a bomb on the plane,” he explained, “and although this probability is low, it is still too high for my comfort.” Two weeks later, the friend met the statistician on a plane. “How come you changed your theory?” he asked. “Oh, I didn’t change my theory; it’s just that I subsequently computed the probability that there would simultaneously be two bombs on a plane. This probability is low enough for my comfort. So now I simply carry my own bomb.”

  20. Rod says:

    And never forget that, if you measure safety by passenger-miles flown, the Concorde went — in the blink of an eye — from being the world’s safest passenger aircraft to being its most dangerous.

  21. Speed says:

    Airline crashes are randomly distributed in time but not uniformly distributed in time. Important is that they are very very rare.

  22. Tod Davis says:

    In my mind it is more realistic to judge an airlines safety record over the past decade as opposed to their entire history, e.g. my mum refuses to fly United Airlines because of their safety record even though their last major was 9/11 which you shouldn’t really count.

    • TJ says:

      Well, unless you count Continental incidents pre-merger AND include code-share partners (Colgan 3407 operating as Continental Connection).

      But, really, I avoid United for the 3 reasons Patrick gave.

      • Seth Knoepler says:

        I thought that Patrick’s view is that crashes are so rare – especially when the numbers are compared to the mind-boggling number of planes that carriers like American and United put in the air – that you can’t really help yourself by selecting or de-selecting certain carriers.

  23. Eirik says:

    Great read, as usual!

    I just had to look up that BOAC 707 picture you mentioned.

    Scroll to the bottom.

    That is so bizarre. I can only imagine what the passengers inside the BOAC 707 were thinking as they passed the wreckage. Little did they know that they only had 15 minutes left.

    So, what do you think is the main reason(s) for peoples fear of flying? The mystery behind it? The usual “how can that thing fly” logic? I don’t think we can blame it all on the media, because after all, they don’t talk about it that much. Except for this spring maybe, but people were afraid of flying before MH370 disappeared too.

    Side note; I just read that Malaysia Airlines is likely to change its name as part of a radical overhaul. I’m no marketing expert, but to me that sounds too easy. Maybe 5-10 years down the road people have “forgotten” about Malaysia Airlines.