The Strange Comfort of the Modern Plane Crash

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the...

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In the aftermath of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, you can find a perfect illustration of the three most important things you need to know about 21st-century plane crashes: they take over the news and popular conversation; they are, almost by definition, weird and mysterious; and the second thing is a direct result of the first thing.

Last century, plane crashes were comparatively common, and often for the stupidest reasons. In 1945, a plane crashed into the Empire State Building because it was foggy, and, flying blind, the pilot turned right instead of left. In 1958, two planes crashed mid-air over the desert southwest of Las Vegas because one was civilian and one was military, and they were covered by two different air traffic control systems.

In 1970, there were 318 “occurrences,” according to the independent Aviation Safety Network in the Netherlands. These ranged from hijackings to fires to “incidents,” which the ASN defines as, “An occurrence, other than an accident, associated with the operation of an aircraft which affects or could affect the safety of operation.” These occurrences resulted in 1,474 deaths. Two years later, things got even worse, with 2,367 deaths. Each year between 1958 and 1980 saw a death toll of more than 1,000.

But 1970 was special: it was also the year Airport came out, the movie that, along with its two sequels (three, if one counts the one with the space shuttle, but one doesn’t), became a sort of Jaws of the air, instilling in us all a fear of flying. This was the year that we all discovered simultaneously how inherently dramatic plane crashes were. Before, the stories about crashes were mostly about who died in them: Carole Lombard, Mike Todd, Buddy Holly. This movie, however, was about the crash itself, and increasingly after this date, so were the stories the news told us, and the ones we told each other. It was around this time we started learning phrases like “explosive decompression” and “black box,” and started to tremble at every turbulent bump. (For the record, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the body that represents and gathers data on most of the world’s airlines, there has never been a crash attributable to turbulence. Never.)

These disaster-film heebie-jeebies have only been compounded by general ignorance of basic fluid dynamics—the science that explains that air is not nothing, but, rather, operates in the same way as fluid and that planes are held up with a stability similar to boats. The result has been a profoundly irrational fear that has lasted to this day, boosted by four very high-profile crashes on the same day in 2001.

Let’s look at more recent numbers, though. That fatality figure has not risen above 1,000 since 2005, and in 2013, it was 265. According to the IATA, there were 0.41 “hull losses” (the term a sensitive industry has adopted for the big crashes) per million flights by Western-built jets in 2013 up to November 30. Per million. Put another way, if you were to take a plane ride today, and every day thereafter, it would take you about 6,500 years (or almost 2.5 million flights) to be in a crash.

Those numbers get even better when you start talking about airlines that belong to IATA, which, for all intents and purposes, is every airline you’ve ever heard of (they represent 240 airlines, from Adria in Slovenia to Yemen Airlines). Among those, the number was 0.32. In 2012, it was 0.00. Not a single catastrophic crash for any airline on which you might be likely to book a flight.

Now, this doesn’t cover propeller planes, or planes made by Russians, which means things get dicier in Africa. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course. Depending on how you juggle them—fatality per flight vs. fatality per kilometre, or hour of travel time vs. fatality per number of trips one takes—flying can be far safer, moderately safer, or a great deal less safe than travelling by train or car. However you break it down, though, your chances of dying in a plane crash are so vanishingly slim as to be negligible.

The number of crashes has been decreasing pretty consistently for years, mostly due to extreme efforts made by the aviation industry, led most recently by the IATA, which started a safety audit process for its members in 2003 that has had extraordinary results. But the process started before that, as airlines, whose profit margins hover around a fragile industry average of one or two percent, realized that every time a plane crashes, everyone in the flight biz loses money. Japan Airlines Flight 123, for instance, the most fatal single-plane crash in history, which killed 524 people in 1985, pushed the airline to the brink, causing a general decline in Japanese people flying during what was otherwise a national economic boom (and possibly even contributed to a slight mid-decade slump).

Because, after all, plane crashes make great news. Schadenfreude is alive and well across the developed world, and we hang on every detail as they emerge, every image of devastation and orphaned teddy bears as they reach us. Helped by a whole raft of plane-crash movies and books, and a history of lurid reporting that reached a kind of pinnacle with CNN’s coverage of Malaysia 370, we obsess over final-moment scenarios and the feelings of helplessness passengers may have felt as the aircraft, improbably aloft to begin with, tumbled from the sky.

So: great for CNN, very bad for airlines. Which means airlines, as an industry, pour enormous resources into first investigating the crashes, and then overhauling whatever practices or hardware need to be overhauled in order to ensure that whatever happened never happens again. For the most part, they’re successful. The upshot of which is, after decades of such extreme scrutiny, what’s left is mostly the unpreventable.

Take Air France 447. That one stumped everyone for more than a year. Then it came out, in a story wonderfully, chillingly told by Jeff Wise in Popular Mechanics, that it took a string of unlikelihoods—from a small malfunctioning pitot tube, to an inexperienced and rattled co-pilot, to a senior pilot on break, to an utterly inexplicable failure by the pilot and co-pilot to mention to the other that they were doing opposite things to keep the plane aloft that cancelled each other out because of the specific and usually quite safe way Airbus engineers its cockpit control systems—to bring that plane down. The Air North crash in 2011 that killed 12 people in Resolute Bay only happened because a pilot didn’t listen to his co-pilot’s concerns about their slightly off-kilter approach.

Both these crashes have something fundamental in common with MH370, at least as we currently understand it: it’s not about the plane—it’s about the people. People are imperfect and unpredictable, no matter how thoroughly or properly trained. Which leaves us with a stark truth that, in the end, is strangely comforting: if a pilot wants to commit suicide by plane crash, there’s not much of anything anyone can do to prevent it. But suicidal pilots are a rare breed, rarer than homicidal passers-by on the sidewalk, or matricidal kids in the burbs; ditto, pretty much, for the other human foibles that might lead to disaster. Any automatic system put in place to prevent this, or to over-ride a pilot who chooses not to listen to his co-pilot, would almost certainly end up causing more problems than it solves. Perfectly efficient systems are as impossible as perpetual motion machines.

The more you know about modern plane crashes, the more they seem like lottery wins in reverse, the less reasonable it becomes to worry about them even a little bit, and the more surely we can expect the sorts of months- and years-long mysteries surrounding crashes to continue as their causes become ever more rarefied—and we, Zeus willing, become ever more safe in the air.

Correction: an earlier version of this story referred, incorrectly, to a 1956 crash involving a commercial plane and a military plane over the Grand Canyon. The story has been updated to reference, instead, a 1958 crash between commercial and military flights over the Nevada desert.