An Analysis of 37 Years of Airplane Crash Data
In the wake of the deadly crashes involving Boeing’s 737 Max 8, airline and general aviation safety are back in the world’s collective consciousness. While air travel is often touted as one of the safest forms of transportation, these incidents have underscored the fact that when accidents occur, the results are often catastrophic. In just two crashes, 346 passengers and crew were killed – 157 in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash and another 189 in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash.
While the 737 Max 8’s were grounded, hundreds of other planes and aircraft crash each year. In 2018 alone the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigated 1,581 aviation accidents and incidents that left 847 people dead and another 768 people injured.
This information left us to wonder, how often do planes crash? How many people have been killed in aviation and airline accidents? Which planes and which manufacturers are involved in the most crashes?
We analyzed 37 years of aviation crash and incident data from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to find answers to these and other questions.
It depends on the type of aircraft that you are flying in. When looking at overall fatal crash rate, the numbers show that flight one of the safest forms of travel. The National Safety Council puts the odds of dying as a passenger of an airplane as 1 in 188,106 – the second safest form of travel behind railway travel ( 1 in 243,765). Still, each crash is much more likely to be fatal than crashes in other forms of transportation. From 1982 – 2018, 20 percent of all aviation crashes and incidents involved at least one fatality. For comparison’s sake, less than one percent of U.S. car accidents are fatal.
However, crashes are most likely to occur in single engine planes – and typically in general aviation rather than on commercial airlines. In fact, 79 percent of all aircraft accidents and 72 percent of fatal crashes involved single engine planes.
After a 37 year high of 2,533 fatal aircraft crash injuries in 1996, the total deaths has bounced up and down seemingly at random. While it stands to reason that less crashes means less injuries and deaths, the nature of aviation accidents means that only a few major crashes can completely change the data from year to year.
Meanwhile, total aviation crashes have dropped from a high of 3,583 in 1982 down to 1,581 in 2018 – a decrease nearly 56 percent. However, as the total crashes have gone down, the percentage of those crashes that have been fatal has gone up, from 18.2 percent in 1982 to 22.5 percent in 2018.
|event year||count||fatal injuries||serious injuries||minor injuries|
It is hard to understate the roles that increase safety regulation and requirements on both operators and on pilots have played in the overall reduction in crashes and fatalities – especially those in the commercial airline industry. In fact, before a passenger was killed aboard a Southwest flight in 2018, the last fatal airline crash in the United States was in February 2009. That disaster, the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, killed all 49 people on board and another person on the ground in Clarence, NY. The resulting lawsuits and advocacy from the families of those who were killed made sweeping changes to the airline industry. Most notably, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 required significantly more training for pilots – 1,500 hours up from 250 before, flight and duty time regulations, and many other industry safety and transparency requirements. Many other laws, including the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) as well as international conventions, regulate everything from product and aircraft manufacturing and maintenance to pilot schools and business operations for commercial as well as general aviation.
Not all phases of flight are equal here. In fact, the person sitting white knuckled next to you with their eyes shut tight may be on to something. The NTSB data shows that takeoff and landing are, by far, the most likely parts of air travel for accidents to occur.
Here is the full list of crashes by phase of flight, from most to least crashes:
However, crashes that occur during the maneuvering and cruise phases are most likely to be deadly – 39 percent of crashes during the maneuvering phase and 30 percent of crashes during the cruise were fatal. Interestingly, despite being the most likely phase to be involved in a crash, accidents during landing were by far the least likely to be deadly. Just under two percent of landing phase crashes resulted in a fatality – compared to 15.7 percent of crashes durning takeoff.
These crashes where scattered across the country. However, the most crashes occurred in Anchorage, Alaska – by nearly double over the next closest area, Miami, Florida with 269 crashes.
The rest of the top 25 regions for U.S. aviation crashes are:
Which make or manufacturer planes crash the most? Which ones kill the most people?
More than half (54 percent) of all aviation accidents in the NTSB’s database involve either a Cessna (25,865 crashes), Piper (14,105 crashes)or Beech (5,098) aircraft. These three manufacturers have historically been the largest producers of aircraft for general aviation purposes – though both Beech and Cessna have since become subsidiaries of Textron Aviation.
Crash the Most
|MAKE & MODEL||TOTAL CRASHES|
Killed the Most People
|MAKE & MODEL||TOTAL CRASHES|
|Boeing 777 - 206||534|
|Mcdonnell Douglas DC-9-32||262|
When looking at the worst aviation disasters by total deaths, many were the result of terrorist attacks, bombings and military exercises. However, the 10 worst aircraft crashes in aviation history are:
Tenerife, Canary Island
March 27, 1977
Cause: Pilot Error
Aircraft Involved: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747-206B and Pan Am Boeing 747-121
August 12, 1985
Mount Takamagahara, Japan
Cause: In-flight Structural Failure
Aircraft Involved: JAL Boeing 747-146SR
November 12, 1996
Charkhi Dadri, Haryana, India
Cause: Pilot Error Resulting in Mid-Air Collision
Aircraft Involved: Saudi Arabian Arilines Boeing 747-168B and Kazakhstan Airlines Illyushin II-76TD
March 3, 1974
Northeast of Paris, France
Cause: Cargo Door Failure Due to Design Flaw
Aircraft Involved: Turkish Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10
August 19, 1980
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Cause: In-flight Fire
Aircraft Involved: Saudia Lockheed L-1011-200
May 25, 1979
Des Plaines, Illinois (A Suburb of Chicago)
Deaths: 273 (Two Ground Fatalities)
Cause: Improper Maintenance (Engine Detachment)
Aircraft Involved: American Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10
November 12, 2001
Queens, New York City, New York
Deaths: 265 (Five Ground Fatalities)
Cause: Pilot Error (Excessive Ruder Use Leading to Separation of the Vertical Stabilizer)
Aircraft Involved: American Airlines Airbus A300B4-605R
April 26, 1994
Cause: Pilot Error and Poor Training
Aircraft Involved: China Airlines Airbus A300B4-622R
July 11, 1991
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Cause: Improper Maintenance (Under Inflated Tire That Lead to a Fire After Takeoff)
Aircraft Involved: Nationair Douglas DC-8-61 (Operated on Behalf of Nigeria Airways)
November 28, 1979
Mount Erebus, Antarctica
Cause: Computer Coordinates Where Changed to Steer Aircraft Directly into Mount Erebus
Aircraft Involved: Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30
(Note: This list excludes planes that were shot down or destroyed in terrorist attacks – such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (2,996 total deaths), the Air India Flight 182 Bombing (329 deaths), Malysia Airlines Flight 17 (298 deaths) – or those involved in military exercises.)