The Silent Anniversary: Fifteen Years Since Our Last Major Crash.

November 29, 2016

AS NOVEMBER comes to a close, we’ve passed a remarkable milestone. It has now been fifteen years since the last serious crash involving a major U.S. air carrier.

On November 12th, 2001, American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300 bound for Santo Domingo, went down in the Belle Harbor section of Queens moments after takeoff from JFK airport, killing 260 people (see below for details). Since that day, there has not been a large-scale, multiple-fatality disaster involving a U.S. major. Over ten billion passengers have traveled safety aboard American, United, Delta and Southwest. We also could add jetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, Spirit and Frontier to that list; and, when they still were around, US Airways, AirTran and Northwest.

To be clear, there have been a handful of tragedies involving regional carriers and freighters, from the UPS accidents in Dubai and Birmingham, to the Colgan Air and Comair crashes, in which dozens died. And, in 2005, a young boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago. Some will argue that it’s unfair to gerrymander statistics in this fashion, separating airlines into categories of convenience. However, it’s necessary. Regional carriers, for instance, can have substantially different cultural and operational environments than their legacy carrier affiliates. It’s the majors that set the standard, and it’s only fair that we measure from there. And, in decades past, one or two catastrophes a year involving a legacy carrier was considered normal, even expected. Where we stand today is almost unbelievable. Fifteen years is by far the longest such streak, ever.

How we got here is mainly the result of better training, better technology, and the collaborative efforts of airlines, pilot groups, and regulators. We’ve engineered away what used to be the most common causes of accidents. Yes, we’ve been lucky too, and lack of a headline tragedy does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. Our air traffic control system needs upgrades, our airports need investment. Terrorism and sabotage remain constant threats, and regulatory loopholes need closing.

All duly noted, but a congratulatory moment is well earned. Despite seething public contempt for airlines, and despite the fiscal devastation these companies have been through (at least five bankruptcies during the 2000s), the nation’s mainline carriers have nevertheless maintained an almost perfect safety record.

This isn’t a minor story. On the contrary, it’s one of the most significant and impressive anniversaries in American aviation history. Predictably, however, the media is silent. Plane crashes, not a lack of them, are usually the juicer news. At the five-year mark, the ten-year mark… nowhere along the way has this streak been acknowledged. Neither will it be acknowledged, I’m afraid, when the inevitable accident finally comes. So, let’s acknowledge it now.

 

Postscript: In a sad coincidence, that this article was posted on the same day that a plane crash in Colombia killed 71 people. Not every region of the world has been as fortunate as ours, and we are wise not to gloat. Condolences to the friends and family of those who died yesterday near Medellin.

 

Notable U.S. airline accidents since 2001

2003: Air Midwest (US Airways Express) flight 5481, a 19-seat turboprop, crashed in Charlotte killing 21 people.

2005: A Pinnacle Airlines (Northwest Airlink) regional jet went down near Jefferson City, Missouri during a repositioning flight, killing the two pilots.

2005: Corporate Airlines (American Connection) flight 5966 crashed near Kirksville, Missouri, killing 13.

2005: At Chicago’s Midway Airport, a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a snowy runway and collided with a car. Although none of the 103 occupants of the aircraft were seriously hurt, a six year-old boy in the car was killed.

2005: In Florida, 20 people died aboard a vintage seaplane flown by Chalk’s Ocean Airways. Metal fatigue caused one of the plane’s wings to separate.

2006: Forty-nine people perished when a Comair (Delta Connection) regional jet crashed after attempting takeoff from a too-short runway.

2009: Two pilots died when a FedEx MD-11 crashed on landing at Narita Airport outside Tokyo.

2009: A Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Dash-8 Q400 crashed outside Buffalo. Fifty people were killed, including the occupant of a house struck by the plane.

2010: Both crewmembers died when a UPS Boeing 747 caught fire and crashed after takeoff from Dubai. The fire is believed to have been ignited by a large shipment of lithium batteries.

2013: All seven crewmembers of a National Airlines 747 were killed when the improperly loaded jet crashed after takeoff from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

2013: A UPS flight crashed on approach to Birmingham, Alabama, killing the two pilots.

 

American Airlines flight 587

Seconds after takeoff from Kennedy airport on the morning of November 12th, 2001, the Airbus A300, encountered a burst of wake turbulence spun from a Japan Airlines 747 that had departed just ahead of it. The wake itself was nothing deadly, but the first officer of flight 587, Sten Molin, who was at the controls, overreacted, rapidly and repeatedly moving the widebody jet’s rudder from side to side, to maximum deflection. The rudder is a large hinged surface attached to the tail, used to help maintain lateral stability, and Molin was swinging it back and forth in way it simply wasn’t designed for. Planes can take a surprising amount of punishment, but airworthiness standards are not based on applications of such extreme force. In addition, the A300’s rudder controls were designed to be unusually sensitive, meaning that pilot inputs, even at low speeds, could be more severe than intended. In other words, the pilot didn’t realize the level of stress he was putting on the tail. The vigor of his inputs caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.

Quickly out of control, the plane plunged into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a skinny section of Rockaway only a few blocks wide, with ocean on both sides. All 260 passengers and crew were killed, as were five people on the ground. It remains the second most deadly aviation accident ever on U.S. soil, behind only that of American flight 191 at Chicago, in 1979.

Flight 587 was well known among New York City’s Dominican community. In 1996, merengue star Kinito Mendez paid a sadly foreboding tribute with his song El Avion. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” he sang, immortalizing the popular daily nonstop.

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13 Responses to “The Silent Anniversary: Fifteen Years Since Our Last Major Crash.”
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  1. Mr. Widgeon says:

    Minor correction.
    The Chalk’s Ocean Airways Mallard crash was on Dec. 19. 2005, not in 2006.
    Otherwise a good piece and I too hope it doesn’t jinx anyone.

  2. Eirik says:

    You need to take into consideration how many cars “taking off” every day compared to how many planes taking off.

    Add crappy roads, terrible drivers, DUI`s and all the other things that makes cars more dangerous and you get those numbers.

  3. Speed says:

    Multicomm wrote, “…the risk factors increase when you have regional carriers doing much more demanding and rigorous flying of the US system … often flying 5-6 legs a day!…”

    Statistics from 2014: Total departures for US regionals and major were close to the same, with the majors slightly ahead 53% to 47%. If a single regional crew is flying 5-6 legs per day, and the majors are not, that’s a clear reason to count majors in a different and safer category.

    Link for the departure stats:
    http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.raa.org/resource/resmgr/AR2015/totalDeparturesandSeatsUSAir.jpg

  4. Multicomm says:

    Wonder if this was written by a pilot of a major carrier? The following quote is deheartening. I work for a regional and the culture and levels of professionalism as well as focus on safety and CRM/TEM is top notch! Maybe it didn’t used to be this way prior to the 1500 hour rule but it is embarrassing that we still try to classify a regional carrier as a separate reporting statistic and claim the majors set the standards. Different operational environments is very true but if anything that should give even more a reason to include them in such a statistic as the risk factors increase when you have regional carriers doing much more demanding and rigorous flying of the US system … often flying 5-6 legs a day!.

    “Regional carriers, for instance, can have substantially different cultural and operational environments than their legacy carrier affiliates. It’s the majors that set the standard, and it’s only fair that we measure from there.”

    • Patrick says:

      That’s not an unreasonable argument, and I wrestled with the wording in that paragraph. I’m still not fully comfortable with it.

      I don’t mean to offend the talented and hardworking regional pilots out there, I really don’t, but there is a distinction between the regionals and the majors that warrants a split in the way we view these safety stats. I’m just not entirely sure what it is, or how to define it. Consider, too, that the total number of departures is split just about evenly between the majors and the regionals. Yet the regionals, at least over the past several years, are carrying a much higher share of the accidents. That has to mean something.

      I flew regionals for eight years, if that gives my feelings any cred.

  5. Andrea says:

    Wow, I hate to admit that I hadn’t even realized it. We do take air safety for granted, maybe that’s why people have all the extra energy to focus on throwing tantrums over free bags of peanuts. The length of time is impressive on its own but also taking into account that the number of flights taking off each day has greatly increased over the last 15 years.

    In regards to flight 587, relatives of mine live next door to a woman who lost her entire family on that flight. She was supposed to be on the flight but they had recently had a baby and they agreed that the child was still too young to travel. So she stayed home with the baby while her husband, mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law perished on the flight.

  6. Linus says:

    The veracity of his back-and-forth movements caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.

    veracity –> velocity?

  7. Alejandro says:

    Seems like an odd thing to post -tasteless, at the minimum – the very day a plane carrying Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed in Colombia killing most on board…

    • Patrick says:

      The crash in Colombia was terrible, obviously, and you’re right, maybe I should have waited a day before posting this. On the other hand, this is an article about U.S. carriers, and the U.S. safety record, and it only made sense having it up in time for the final day of the anniversary month.

      I have added a postscript to the story.

  8. Rogier Wolff says:

    Veracity –> ferocity?

  9. Speed says:

    And between 2002 and 2015 (inclusive) there were 527,033 motor vehicle deaths in the US.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year

    The World Health Organization reports that there are about 1.25 million road traffic deaths per year worldwide.

    http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2015/en/

  10. Dan Ullman says:

    One of the interesting things about Flight 587. About two months after the accident, by which time terrorism was ruled out, CBS interviewed a notable New York Muslim leader who said his first reaction was something like “not again”. The FBI and the NTSB likely said the same thing. He was impressed by how fast they ruled out terrorism and the FBI left.

    I have heard that one of the major advances in safety was cockpit resource management. Back in the days of a Pubic-Access cable channel, a local retired United pilot hilariously described the problem by using the take-off scene from Airplane (“rodger Rodger”, “Huh?”). He was a fellow who thought this was all bullshit until he almost crossed the path of a landing L-1011.

  11. Eirik says:

    Hope you dont jinx it.