Why Planes Crash and How Technology is Keeping Us Safe

As we’ve recently witnessed, airplanes do crash. Captain Price reveals the three most common causes of airplane catastrophes and the technology that’s keeping us safe.

The recent tragedy of Airbus A330-200 is a stark reminder that, despite phenomenal technological advances, we’re never completely shielded from accidents.

Any operation involving the interface between men and machines will always have a measure of unpredictability.

Firstly, I will analyze the most significant modern accident trends. Secondly, I will discuss the advances in the modern cockpit and the hardware / software developed to address problems of aircraft safety.


1. Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT)

Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) is a fancy way of saying that the aircraft was mechanically sound but that something went wrong in the management of the flight, which resulted in an unintended ground impact.

Example Catastrophe

In the early morning hours of the 6th of August, 1997, Korean Air Flight #801, a Boeing 747, crashed into Nimitz Hill on approach into the international airport on the island of Guam.

228 of the 254 persons onboard died.  Whilst the aircraft was mechanically sound, the management and leadership practices of the captain and crew were not.  The major breakdowns in crew management and discipline therefore constituted the source of the problem.

Technological Solution

The growing concern for the improvement of CFIT led to the development of the Electronic Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). This amazing program constantly analyzes a number of flight parameters such as altitude, closure rate with the ground below/objects ahead, aircraft location in relation to known terrain, glide path, airspeed, etc.

Most importantly, EGPWS provides a significant and timely warning to pilots when closure with terrain is unsafe.  It has saved many a flight and has become a huge addition to the safety tool bag in every modern cockpit.

Plane Crash – Korean Air 801

2. Mid-air Collisions

One of the greatest fears among the traveling public is that of a mid-air collision.  Despite sophisticated radar control networks, this type of accident can doubtlessly occur.

Technological Solution

A system known as Threat Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) has been extremely instrumental in addressing this problem.

TCAS sends out electronic signals indicating position, altitude, and rate of climb or descent which are received and monitored by the TCAS units on other aircraft.

These preset parameters form a “safety bubble” around each aircraft so that if the projected flight path of another aircraft shows that it will penetrate this safety bubble, TCAS alerts the pilots of both aircraft.

As a result, if evasive maneuvers are required, both aircraft are given specific visual and verbal directions to “climb” or “descend”, thereby insuring a coordinated avoidance maneuver. TCAS is a life-saver, especially in congested airport traffic areas.

Mid-Air Collision DHL 757 and Tu-154

3. Runway Incursions

One of the most hazardous points in any flight occurs while taxiing to or from the active runway. In fact, runway incursions represent the first causal factor in commercial airline accidents. Often, darkness, obstructions to visibility such as fog or rain, and unfamiliarity contribute to pilot confusion.

Example Catastrophe

Consider just one of the more recent instances of a runway incursion that led to disaster.  Comair Flight #191 departed Lexington, Kentucky in the early morning hours of the 27th of August, 2006.

It was cleared to taxi to runway 22 but mistakenly taxied onto and took off from runway 26, which was much shorter.  The aircraft never reached flying speed, and crashed off the end of the runway killing all 47 passengers and two of the three crew-members.

Although this example involved only one aircraft, the typical runway incursion places both a taxiing aircraft and another either landing or taking off at grave risk of collision.

Technological Solution

In response to this risk, every modern passenger aircraft has a technology-rich, “glass” cockpit.  Many tasks formerly done by pilots can now be accomplished by on-board electronic aids such as the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), an encyclopedia containing a number of manuals, charts, airport approaches formerly maintained in paper form.

One of the great tools incorporated into the EFB is a moving-map computer display, showing each aircraft’s exact position and movement on the surface of the airport.

Freed from the need to reference paper charts when taxiing, pilots are more aware of their exact location on the airport.  Tower and ground control clearance instructions are incorporated to allow the pilot to be constantly attentive to clearance instructions.

The Human Factor

Whilst technology always creates new issues, it offers unique and powerful solutions to some of our most persistent and pressing safety concerns.  It will be many long years, however, before any of us feel comfortable flying without a pilot!   Fly Safely!

Surprised by what causes airplane disasters? What do you make of the technology employed to keep us safe?? Post up your comments below, we want to hear from you!

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Photo: Rob Young

Capt Alan W. Price

8 thoughts on “Why Planes Crash and How Technology is Keeping Us Safe”

  1. Very topical. Interesting the point about runway accidents as this is probably the point in a flight when I am most relaxed!

  2. “Any operation involving the interface between men and machines will always have a measure of unpredictability”

    Not completely sure that you need machines for the measure of unpredictability… Machines do what they’re told (programed) to do and I would hazard a guess that the majority of airline crashes have human error at the root (even if the initial problem was mechanical).

  3. Indeed, as Alan has pointed out in previous posts, it is the interface between man and machine that causes the problem, rather than the machines themselves…

  4. Captain, you’ve done a great post. But one thing I wanted to know is that TCAS is Traffic Collision avoidance system or the one which you wrote above?
    I’m making a YouTube channel featuring aviation videos. Hope you like it. Initial trailers are released.
    Thank You!

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