Friday, January 08, 2010

Birds are more dangerous than terrorists

Just on a hunch, I did a little research. The following comes from AirSafe.com. It is a list of fatal or near fatal significant events involving major passenger airlines since 1996. The list is limited to flights that either landed in or took off from the United States. It excludes flights that involved smaller passenger planes (e.g., <100 seats).


11 May 1996; ValuJet Airlines DC9-32; Near Miami, FL: The aircraft was on a domestic flight from Miami to Atlanta. A fire had started in one of the cargo compartments at some point after the cargo had been loaded. Shortly after departure, the crew reported smoke in the cockpit, and soon lost control of the aircraft. The aircraft went into a steep dive, crashing into the Florida Everglades about 15 miles (24 km) from the airport. All 105 passengers and five crew members were killed.

6 July 1996; Delta MD-88; Pensacola, FL: During the takeoff, the left engine sustained an uncontained failure, and pieces of the engine penetrated the cabin, killing two passengers.

17 July 1996; TWA 747-100; Atlantic Ocean near Long Island, NY: The aircraft was on a flight from New York to Paris and had a catastrophic in flight breakup shortly after departure. All 18 crew and 212 passengers perished.

28 December 1997; United Airlines 747-100; over Pacific Ocean near Japan: The aircraft encountered severe turbulence during cruise about two hours after departing Japan. One of the 346 passengers was killed. None of the 23 crew members were killed but three sustained serious injuries.

2 September 1998; Swissair MD11; near Halifax, Canada: The aircraft was on a nonstop flight from New York's JFK airport to Geneva. The aircraft crashed at night in the Atlantic Ocean close to shore about 50 miles (80 km) southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia. All 15 crew members and 214 passengers were killed.

1 June 1999; American Airlines MD80; Little Rock, AR: The aircraft ran off the runway, broke up, and caught fire after a night landing. There were thunderstorms in the area at the time of the event. One of the six crew members and 10 of the 139 passengers were killed.

31 October 1999; EgyptAir 767-300ER; Atlantic Ocean near Nantucket Island, MA: Radar and radio contact with the aircraft was lost shortly after the aircraft departed JFK Airport in New York on a flight to Cairo. The aircraft crashed into the ocean about 60 miles (96 km) south of Nantucket Island. The NTSB determined that the aircraft departed from controlled flight and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean as a result of flight control inputs by the first officer. All 14 crew members and 203 passengers were killed.

31 January 2000; Alaska Airlines MD83; near Pt. Mugu, CA: The aircraft was on a flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to San Francisco when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles (32 km) northwest of the LAX airport. Reportedly, the aircraft was diverting to Los Angeles and started a rapid descent from about 17,000 feet. All 83 passengers and five crew members were killed.

11 September 2001; American Airlines 767 (Flight 11); World Trade Center, New York: The aircraft was on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles when it was hijacked and flown into one of the World Trade Center Towers. Another jet, a United Airlines 767, was hijacked and crashed into the other tower. Both towers later collapsed. All 11 crew members, 76 passengers, and five hijackers were killed, as were untold numbers of people on the ground.

11 September 2001; United Airlines 767 (Flight 175); World Trade Center, New York: The aircraft was on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles when it was hijacked and flown into one of the World Trade Center Towers. Another jet, an American Airlines 767, was hijacked and flown into the other tower. Both towers later collapsed. All nine crew members, 51 passengers, and five hijackers were killed, as were untold numbers of people on the ground.

11 September 2001; American Airlines 757 (Flight 77); The Pentagon, Arlington, VA: The aircraft was on a flight from Dulles to Los Angeles when it was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon, collapsing part of the structure. All six crewmembers, 53 passengers, and five hijackers were killed.

11 September 2001; United Airlines 757 (Flight 93); near Pittsburgh, PA: The aircraft was on a flight from Newark to San Francisco when it was hijacked. However, the aircraft crashed outside Pittsburgh. All seven crewmembers, 34 passengers, and four hijackers were killed.

12 November 2001; American Airlines A300; Queens, New York: The aircraft was on a flight from New York to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic when it crashed into a residential neighborhood just outside JFK airport. The aircraft experienced an in-flight breakup, with the vertical fin and one engine landing away from the main impact site. There were a number of homes damaged or destroyed by the crash, and five people on the ground were also killed. All nine crew members and 251 passengers on the aircraft were killed, including five infants.

21 September 2005; JetBlue Airways A320-200; Los Angeles, CA: Shortly after takeoff on a domestic scheduled flight from Burbank, CA to New York, the crew became aware of a problem with the front landing gear. The wheels on the landing gear were locked in an incorrect position, leading the crew to divert to Los Angeles for an emergency landing. The landing, broadcast live by CNN and many other television networks, was visually spectacular but did not result in any serious damage to the aircraft. There were no injuries among the 140 passengers and six crew members.

8 December 2005; Southwest Airlines 737-700; Chicago, IL: The aircraft was on a scheduled flight from Baltimore to Chicago's Midway Airport. After landing, the crew was unable to stop the aircraft on the runway, going off the runway, through the airport's barrier fence and onto a nearby street. At some point during this event, the nose wheel collapsed. The aircraft struck at least two vehicles, with the impact causing fatal injuries to a six year old boy who was a passenger in one of the vehicles. None of the five crew members or 95 passengers were seriously injured. This was the first serious accident involving the 737-700.

20 December 2008; Continental Airlines 737-500; Denver, CO: The aircraft, which was on a scheduled flight to Houston's Intercontinental Airport, departed the runway during takeoff and skidded across a taxiway and a service road before coming to rest in a ravine several hundred yards from the runway. The aircraft sustained significant damage, including a post crash fire, separation of one engine and separated and collapsed landing gear. There were about 38 injuries among the 110 passengers and five crew members, including two passengers who were seriously injured.

15 January 2009; US Airways A320-200, Flight 1549; New York, NY: The aircraft was on a scheduled passenger flight from New York (LaGuardia) to Charlotte, NC The aircraft struck a flock of birds shortly after takeoff and experienced a loss of power to both engines. The crew was able to successfully ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River near midtown Manhattan. The aircraft reached an maximum altitude of about 3200 feet before it began to descend. After ditching, all five crew members and 150 passengers evacuated the aircraft. One passenger sustained serious injuries.

18 June 2009; Continental Airlines 777; Flight 61; en route from Brussels to Newark: The captain of Continental Airlines Flight 61, a 777 en route from Brussels to Newark, died while the aircraft was in flight over the Atlantic. The captain was replaced by a reserve first officer and the crew declared an emergency. The aircraft landed without further incident. There were 247 passengers on board, and there were no other injuries to passengers or crew.

25 December 2009; Northwest Airlines A330-300 (N820NW); Flight 253; near Detroit, MI: A passenger on a Northwest Airlines A330-300(N820NW) apparently attempted to detonate an explosive device while the aircraft was approaching Detroit. Flight 253 was an international flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and early reports are that a passenger, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian national, allegedly had the device strapped to one of his legs, and that the device was triggered during descent (about 20 minutes before landing) and started a small fire. The flight, operated by Northwest Airlines using an Airbus 330-300 aircraft with 278 passengers and 11 crew members on board, landed safely, and the suspect, the only person injured, was transported to a local hospital for treatment of serious burns.


One significant incident missing from this list is the shoe bomber, Richard Reid. That flight took place on 22 December, 2001 on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami (wikipedia) I'm not sure why AirSafe didn't consider this a significant event.

Now, let's add up the numbers:

  • Total # of flights: 20

  • Total # in which there was total or near total loss of life: 10 (4 involving terrorism)

  • Total # which involved terrorism: 6 (4 resulting in total loss of life)

  • % of flights in which total or near total loss of life occured: 50% (66% of those involving terrorism)

  • % of flights involving terrorism: 30% (66% resulting in total loss of life)

If I get on a major US flight and a significant event occurs during that flight, the odds are likely that the event will not be terrorist related.

When a non-terrorist event occurs it will get significant news coverage. The FAA and the NTSB will investigate. They will issue a report in 1-2 years detailing the causes of the event and what changes can and should be made to prevent the event from happening again.

But if the event involves terrorism, it will not only get the above treatment, it will also be investigated by the FBI, Homeland Security, the CIA and various other agencies. Politicians will make hay out of it and newscasters will hyperventilate while the viewing public goes into panic.

Yet, again, the odds are that any significant airline event I might be involved in will be non-terrorist related. Why then should I see the threat from a would be terrorist as greater than the threat from a flock of birds?

By the way, AirSafe mentions that there have actually been several other instances of planes having to land with locked landing gear and other potentially dangerous in flight problems. They only listed the ones that got significant media coverage. What that means is that the threat of a significant event being terrorist related is actually less than the 30% I calculated above.

1 Comments:

Blogger Nescio said...

You will find my take on hyping the threat of terrorism at http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2009/11/what-is-fair-and-balanced.html

9:14 AM  

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