Airplanes revolutionized our modern-day world, making previously-unknown intercontinental travel possible. Thanks, Wright brothers. However, TV and movies capitalized on what is arguably humanity’s greatest fear: death, especially in mysterious ways. People rarely survive airplane crashes, making it an enticing subject matter for a show’s plot, or a great way to kill off a character — we’re looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy.
There are a few different reasons planes go down, and the most common one may surprise you.
But first, remember that plane crashes are rare
Airplane crashes are super rare — 200 times less likely than automobile crashes — but they do occur. The likelihood of dying in a plane crash (or even being in one) is so slim that researchers find it nearly pointless to qualify. The Economist found that the probability of your plane crashing is around one in 5.4 million. Some reports say the odds are closer to one in 11 million.
However, planes still go down on occasion. There are four main categories associated with failed airplane travel — just wait till you see what No. 1 is.
4. Intentional crashes
Intentional crashes, including terrorist attacks, are the rarest cause of aviation accidents. Only 8% of airlines have crashed due to intention since the 1950s according to PlaneCrashInfo.com.
Just because they’re rare, it doesn’t make intentional crashes any less terrifying. According to Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, these fears are rarely rational and don’t reflect fact. “When people talk about fear of flying, it’s almost a misnomer,” Seif said. “It’s actually a confluence of a lot of different phobias.” With terrorist attacks plaguing the news frequently, many people find it tough not to associate this fear with that of flying.
3. Mechanical failure
A Boeing study found that about 20% of commercial air accidents occur as a result of mechanical failure. This is a sharp contrast to the early days of flying; decades ago, mechanical failure was responsible for nearly 80% of airplane accidents.
Improved engineering is to thank for this reduction of mechanically-driven accidents. “The backup systems, the redundancy, and the computers pretty much are triple checking what pilots are doing,” said FAA Safety Team representative Kyle Bailey, “Each component that’s in there, every single component, is manufactured by an engineer to precise standards.”
Weather is the primary contributing factor in around 23% of all airplane accidents. Experts like Bailey find that thunderstorms are especially dangerous for planes. While aircrafts can withstand lightning, flying directly through a thunderstorm can lead to disastrous results.
Barack Obama’s former pilot reportedly said that thunderstorms can be just as dangerous for flying as hurricanes. However, while most airlines will cancel flights in the wake of a hurricane, it’s fairly common to fly during a thunderstorm or downpour. “Those storms are going on every single day, all around that area, and [pilots] learn to weave their way through them,” Bailey said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they do a fine job.”
1. Human error
The numbers may vary, but the experts agree: Human error is the biggest cause of plane accidents. PlaneCrashInfo.com analyzed over 1,000 fatal aviation accidents worldwide from 1950 to 2010. Pilot error was reportedly a factor in a little over half — 53% — of the accidents during that time period.The focus is often on the pilots.
If you add together all of the possible human factors like mistakes made by mechanics and air traffic controllers, the number rises. Boeing estimated that all human error could be a factor in around 80% of accidents. Human error can also influence and work in tandem with the other listed leading crash causes. If a pilot makes a bad weather-related decision, for example, it can have fatal consequences for everyone onboard.
You’re more likely to die by, say, being struck by lightning
No, seriously. According to SixWise.com, aviation accidents are one of the six most feared — but least likely — ways you’ll die. The list also includes shark attacks, which you’re more likely to die from than airplane accidents.
You’re also more likely to die by being struck by lightning than by an airplane crash. The odds of being struck by lightning are one in 700,000 in any given year, compared to the likelihood you’ll die by plane — one in 11 million.
Airplane safety tips
While statistically it’s never been safer to fly, there are still crucial airline safety tips that even frequent fliers neglect. The Federal Aviation Administration offered their flyer safety tips. These are the ways passengers can assist pilots and flight attendants in ensuring aviation safety.
Pay attention to the flight attendant safety briefing – you know, that thing you usually have your headphones in for – at the beginning of your flight. Buckle up when seated and pay attention to the seat-belt sign. Prevent in-flight injuries by following your airline’s carry-on restrictions and check your airline’s Portable Electronic Device policy.
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