Why Planes Crash: Crisis in the Sky

What happens when you don’t agree with a major decision your boss is making? Do you speak up or bite your tongue? Now imagine you’re the First Officer of a jet with hundreds of passengers sitting behind you and your Captain makes a questionable call. Then what the heck do you do? It’s a dilemma for regular people, but it can mean the difference between life and death for the First Officer of a commercial airliner. We looked at crashes caused by communication problems, and show how the phenomenon led to a monumental change in the aviation industry.

United 232

United 232 was a DC-10 traveling from Denver to Chicago on a spectacular summer day. The routine flight was going smoothly when suddenly one hour and 15 minutes in, the pilots felt a massive jolt. The autopilot disengaged. The hydraulics didn’t work. Nothing worked. The plane was completely unflyable. But the crew miraculously kept it airborne. It finally crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa. 111 died of 296 on board. Captain Al Haynes was lauded as a hero.

Captain Alfred C. Haynes around the time of the crash

I interviewed Captain Haynes at his home in Portland, Oregon. What amazed me was that he was still focused on the 111 who died. He felt he failed them. That made me feel terrible for Captain Haynes because honestly, what he accomplished that day was nothing short of a miracle. A lesser pilot wouldn’t have been able to save even one passenger.

United 173

The crash of United 173 is an example of sheer cluelessness. On approach to Portland International Airport the crew felt a thump. Instead of trying to land the plane, they spent the next hour in a holding pattern as they tried to diagnose the problem. Duh. They ran out of fuel and had to crash-land in a Portland neighborhood just six nautical miles from the airport. 10 people were killed, eight of them crew members. We interviewed a survivor who said she and other passengers literally walked off the plane and started wandering through this neighborhood. They had no idea what to do.

Korean Air 801

The young Captain was exhausted. He’d been running himself ragged flying other routes for weeks. He was at the helm of the Korean Air 801, an Airbus A300 from Seoul to Guam. As they approached the Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport he made a series of bad piloting decisions. No one in the cockpit agreed with him but they kept their mouths shut out of fear of offending him. The plane crashed into hilly terrain a few miles short of the airport. There were 228 fatalities and only 26 survivors. After much travail I tracked down survivor Barry Small in New Zealand. We hired a local crew to interview him. He told us how he managed to escape with a broken leg and other injuries…how he crawled away from the plane…and then heard explosions rock the cabin with people trapped inside. He remembers the screaming.

Crew Resource Management

The mother of all crashes caused by miscommunication (and very bad decision-making) was the Tenerife disaster. Two 747s – a Pan Am and a KLM – collided at the Los Rodeos Airport in the Canary Islands. 583 of the 644 aboard the jets were killed. It’s simply astounding that the deadliest plane crash in history took place on such a small island.

After so many planes crashed due to bad communication between Captains and their underlings, the aviation industry took notice. Something had to be done. A new training procedure known as Crew Resource Management was born. CRM has been a global standard since the 1990s and its implementation has made the aviation industry safer than ever before.

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