Air travel, as the cliché goes, is one of the safest forms of travel. But as anyone who has watched the news knows, accidents still happen, often with catastrophic results.
Simon Ashley Bennett, the Director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit (CSSU), University of Leicester in the UK, recently set down the five most common causes of airplane crashes.
It turns out that 50 percent of all crashes are caused by pilot error. Even with modern automatic pilot devices, an aircraft, whether it is a single-engine plane or a jumbo jet airliner, needs constant attention. The potential for even the most experienced pilot to make a mistake is always present, though a skilled pilot can also recover from a mistake or some other error and save his plane and passengers.
20 percent of air crashes are caused by equipment failure. Engines are far better designed and reliable than they were in decades past, but they do occasionally suffer catastrophic failure. Sometimes new, inadequately tested technology can cause problems when it becomes operational for the first time.
10 percent of air crashes are the result of weather. Despite new technology that mitigates against bad weather, such as satellite navigation, planes still come to grief from time to time as the result of storms or a fog or snow-bound runway.
Another 10 percent of crashes are caused by sabotage, usually undertaken by terrorists. Despite stepped-up security undertaken in the wake of 9/11, terrorist groups still work to smuggle bombs on board aircraft. Some, like the so-called shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, were fortunately caught and restrained by passengers and flight crew. The most famous successful terrorist bombing of an airliner was the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of PanAm Flight 103 by agents of Libyan Intelligence.
The balance of airplane crashes are caused by errors made by people other than pilots. These include maintenance workers, ground crews, and air traffic controllers.
Every air crash has its own set of unique causes and can only be determined by an investigation, carried out in the United States by the NTSB and the FAA.