Aviation News

March 2, 2015

The 3 Plane Crashes You’ve Never Heard Of: Aviation’s Sacrificial Lambs

Speeding down the runway at 153kts, a 747 from a United States-based airline rotates and begins what will unintentionally be a very short flight. Seconds after becoming airborne, the 673,000lb aircraft runs into trouble, stalls, and falls to the ground. The flight ends just a few hundred feet beyond the runway in a massive explosion and inferno that Hollywood barely could have imagined. Everyone on board dies.

Can you imagine the media response? Can you see the days of “Breaking News” headlines remaining on the screen in the 24/7 coverage on cable news networks, tons of experts making appearances, trying to gather clues, to figure out what may have caused this, and who may be to blame?

Or imagine a 747 departing Dubai International Airport, bound for Cologne, Germany. Not long after departure, a fire develops on board. Out over the Persian Gulf with no airport options, the aircraft turns back hoping to make it to land. Smoke envelops the entire aircraft, the Captain’s oxygen supply fails him and he abandons his seat, frantically searching for a supplemental oxygen bottle. The First Officer still breathes, but the smoke is so thick that he is unable to see any of the gauges in front of him. At least having the aircraft back over land, he desperately pleads with air traffic controllers for guidance, repeatedly asking what his current speed, altitude and location is. He does not give up until the fire has destroyed enough of the aircraft that it is no longer capable of responding to his basic inputs, and the aircraft falls from the sky, barely a half hour after running into trouble.

Can you hear in your mind the cable news anchors reading the transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder? Reading over and over the First Officer’s futile, frantic, calls for help, even though there was nothing anyone could do?

This aircraft is toast, and everyone survived.

This aircraft is toast, and everyone survived.

Let’s say there’s an airliner on approach to land at a busy East Coast airport. The pilots smell smoke, and once the fire is confirmed, there is not too much they can do… they are already trying to land! The aircraft touches down as air traffic controllers report seeing smoke trailing behind the aircraft. Coming to a stop without leaving the runway, everyone on board evacuates safely, with literally minutes to spare before the entire airframe has flames and smoke billowing from it.

Everyone survived. Can you envision the “Miracle in the City of Brotherly Love” headlines?

None of these crashes may sound very familiar to you, but each of those examples happened and they all took place with US-based airlines in the last decade. The only portions that didn’t happen were the media coverage, of which there was barely any.

This sounds far fetched in today’s plane-crazy news media world, doesn’t it? It’s because of an aviation adage that only few know: “No one’s gonna miss a couple of freight dawgs,” referencing that when cargo pilots’ lives are lost, few know about it, and fewer learn the lessons to be gained from their sacrifice.

The first accident was National Airlines Flight 102, a cargo flight in May of 2013. After experiencing a rearward shift in its cargo load on takeoff from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, the tail dipped and the nose rose, forcing the aircraft into a stall as it struggled for speed and altitude, killing all 7 on board before even leaving the airport perimeter. There was hardly a mention of it in the news at all, except for a handful of small-print headlines below the fold. That was, until this video emerged a few days later and everyone under the sun knew about it and gasped at the horror.

Or the second case, UPS Flight 6, in 2010. Another massive 747, except instead of the 600+ people that a 747 is capable of carrying, this one only had two. Two men that suffered, and didn’t give up in the most hopeless of situations. Have you heard of it? Probably not.

In the last example, UPS Flight 1307, a DC-8 landed in Philadelphia in 2006, where the 3 occupants barely escaped with their lives. The video of flames and billowing smoke looked scary on the news that morning, but was there any follow up coverage to explore the reasons for the crash? Nah.

Let’s replace those flights’ cargo with passengers. Worst case, these examples could have totaled almost 1,500 fatalities. Not to mention, there are also more ignored crashes — Korean 8509, Asiana 991, and more — from recent times. What might actually be different?

This lithium ion battery was recovered from the UPS 6 wreck. Such items are now forbidden to carry in bulk on passenger aircraft, but not cargo.

This lithium ion battery was recovered from the UPS 6 wreck. Such items are now forbidden to carry in bulk on passenger aircraft, but not cargo.

Maybe you would be more aware of the lithium ion batteries that caused the fires in both of those UPS crashes. Maybe there would have been more, stronger regulation sooner if there were more of an outcry from the public in response to hundreds of dead passengers.

Perhaps you would have known about the working and living conditions of the civilian loadmasters working without any of the legal rest requirements that pilots and flight attendants have. Being worked to the bone, sleeping in airline seats for days on end without showers, and then expected to safely prepare aircraft to transport our nation’s soldiers and equipment in and out of war zones.

It is quite possible that the crew of UPS flight 6 may have survived if they could simply see their instruments. The crash has led to technologies and products such as the Emergency Vision Assistance System, an inflatable hood that offers sight both inside and outside of the cockpit during fire. One wonders, if that UPS 747 had been filled with passengers instead of cargo, what the likelihood is that these devices would be required for flight operations on all airlines across the board? We asked Jon Parker, Vice President of VisionSafe, if he felt aircraft were now safer as a result of this technology. He says, “If you fly on a new G-650, JetBlue, UPS, FedEx, or even the FAA’s own aircraft, the answer would be yes, but fly on any other airline and you are not protected.”

The lessons we receive from aircraft accidents pave the way for a safer future. Awareness of accidents should not be reserved for high death tolls or gut-wrenching videos. Cargo airlines often operate the same aircraft types, and at the same airports, as those that you and your loved ones fly, and the lessons from both sides truly cross over. But, hey, they are just cargo pilots flying rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong, right?

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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