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Experts highlight five most common causes of plane disasters

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The Malaysian Jetliner MH370 before it crashed on March 8, 2014

The Malaysian Jetliner MH370 before it crashed on March 8, 2014

As air accident investigators attempt to unravel what really happened to the EgyptAir flight MS804, experts believe there are a number of possible causes.

With the benefit of hindsight on plane crashes in the past, they identified that pilot error account for one in every two crashes. Other causes are mechanical failure, bad weather, sabotage, which include terrorism and other forms of human errors.

Director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester, Simon Ashley Bennett, said while a terror attack is being claimed as the most likely cause of the EgyptAir flight, sabotage is only responsible for one in ten airline crashes.

In an article for The Conversation, Bennett outlines the five main causes for airline disasters.
Pilot error

As aircraft have become more reliable, the proportion of crashes caused by pilot error has increased and now stands at around 50 per cent.

Aircraft are complex machines that require a lot of management.

Because pilots actively engage with the aircraft at every stage of a flight, there are numerous opportunities for this to go wrong, from failing to programme the vital flight-management computer (FMC) correctly to miscalculating the required fuel uplift.

While such errors are regrettable, it is important to remember that the pilot is the last line of defence when things go catastrophically wrong.

In January 2009, an Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese over New York City. With no power, the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, had to weigh up a number of options and act quickly. Using his extensive flying experience and knowledge of the plane’s handling qualities he elected to ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River.

The 150 passengers were not saved by computers or any other automated system. They were saved by the two pilots – the very components that techno-enthusiasts claim can be replaced by computers and ground controllers.
Mechanical failure

Equipment failures still account for around 20 per cent of aircraft losses, despite improvements in design and manufacturing quality. While engines are significantly more reliable today than they were half a century ago, they still occasionally suffer catastrophic failures.

In 1989, a disintegrating fan blade caused the number one (left-hand) engine of a Belfast-bound British Midland Boeing 737-400 to lose power.

Hard-to-read instrumentation contributed to the pilots’ misreading of which engine was losing power. Confused, the pilots shut off the number two (right-hand) engine.

With no power, the aircraft crashed short of East Midlands Airport’s Runway 27, killing 47 and injuring many, including the captain and first officer.

More recently, a Qantas A380 carrying 459 passengers and crew suffered an uncontained engine failure over Batam Island, Indonesia. Thanks to the skill of the pilots, the stricken aircraft landed safely.

Sometimes, new technologies introduce new types of failure. In the 1950s, for example, the introduction of high-flying, pressurised jet aircraft introduced an entirely new hazard – metal fatigue brought on by the hull’s pressurisation cycle.

Several high-profile disasters caused by this problem led to the withdrawal of the de Havilland Comet aircraft model, pending design changes.


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