The Wright brothers helped engineered one of the most important technological advances in modern history. They proved that air travel is indeed possible and started an entire industry. Airplanes have become such an important part of modern life that it would be impossible to imagine a world without them.
Some of us can’t travel any other way. Terms such as ‘jet-lag’ and ‘frequent-flier’ roll of the tongue quite easily. We have become accustomed to travelling by air and delivering cargo in the same way. It is one of the safest modes of travel and airplane crashes are not as common as car accidents.
When airplanes do crash, we always assume that some mechanical problem is to blame. History has however proven that the simplest and most absurd items have been responsible for the downing of a large number of aircraft.
6) A microphone
On December 2nd 1936, a United Airlines aircraft DC 3 was victim to a rather unlikely event. The flight had been wonderful and the weather couldn’t have been clearer. In the San Francisco bay, everything was alright according to the tower. The plane was on correct approach when suddenly it dropped into the water.
All 21 people on board died. A later investigation was to rule out structural problems as the cause. The engine was in perfect condition, as was the propeller. Something else was responsible for the accident. They found out that the copilot’s microphone had dropped to the floor, and jammed the control column.
This had prevented the crew from pulling out of the glide that the plane was in and had led to the DC 3 crashing into the water, killing everyone on board.
5) Night-Vision Goggle Case
On October 2nd 2015 (LINK 1), a C-130J aircraft, a four-engine plane that had been in service since the Vietnam war, had just made the trip from Bagram, Afghanistan and was offloading its cargo in Jalalabad. To make more room to allow for the cargo to be offloaded, the pilot raised the wing elevators on the rear stabilizer.
He however did not want to keep manually holding down the elevator’s controls, so he grabbed a case for a pair of night-vision goggles and used it to prop up the controls. The problem occurred when neither the pilot nor copilot remembered to remove the case, and prepared for takeoff. The locked elevator caused the plane to immediately point upward and climb, just 28 seconds after takeoff.
The co-pilot used the wrong correction maneuver and instead caused the plane to crash into a guard tower. This resulted in the death of 14 people including four crew members, five civilian contractors and two Air Force personnel. The Taliban, not wanting to miss an opportunity, immediately claimed responsibility for the crash. An investigation led by Brig. Gen. Patrick Mordente however proved that the night-vision goggle case was the cause.
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This is the latest craze since front-facing cameras and social media. Even though the law strictly prohibits cellphone use by aircraft crew and personnel during flight, this did not stop pilot Amritpal Singh. He was flying a small Cessna 150K (LINK 2) on May 31st 2014 when tragedy struck shortly after midnight.
Amritpal was not yet certified to fly at night or to carry passengers, but he was determined. A small GoPro camera installed at the front of the windshield captured the events leading up to the crash. Amritpal was giving rides to passengers above Front Range Airport, 30 miles east of Denver, and the GoPro recorded him repeatedly taking selfies and texting while flying.
The National Transportation and Safety Board said that cellphone use distracted Amritpal and contributed to the subsequent loss of control in which he crashed into a wheat field and killed two people.
3) Duct Tape
On October 2nd 1996, a Boeing 757crashed into the Pacific Ocean killing all 70 people on board. The jetliner belonged to Aeroperu and had just taken off from the Peruvian capital Lima a few moments before the crash. During maintenance at the airport, the plane had been subjected to a thorough cleaning and polishing.
Workers had been working on the outside of the aircraft and had placed pieces of duct tape over the sensors which monitor air pressure and track altitude and airspeed. They then forgot to remove these pieces of duct tape and the plane took off. The pilots were unprepared for what was about to happen as they assumed that everything was ok.
Moments later, and unable to access key data about their altitude, airspeed and air pressure, they crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The Boeing Commercial Airplane Group spokesperson refused to comment on the incident.
2) A screw
In 1961, a British European Airways Comet IVB G-ARJM aircraft crashed on the 21st of December at Ankara in Turkey. It was snowing lightly and the flight from Istanbul to Ankara had been normal. The plane prepared to take off and taxied along the runway. Everything was going well, the captain had flown for a total of over 13,000 hours and the airport had seen numerous takeoffs.
Suddenly, the plane assumed an abnormally steep climbing angle. It then stalled with the left wing down and hit the ground exploding into a ball of flames. Six passengers sustained only minor injuries but 7 crew and 20 other passengers all died. The accident was not the result of any structural or electrical problems.
An investigation later pointed out the problem to be the captain’s director horizon, which tells him the altitude and how much more lift to apply. The instrument had been obscured by a loose screw which had not been firmly tightened during installation. The captain had read the instrument as only half-way up and decided to apply more lift which crashed the plane.
A Boeing 757-225 Birgenair Flight 301 (LINK 3) crashed in the Dominican Republic on 6th February 1996 killing 13 crew and 176 passengers. Investigations into the incident revealed that the air speed indicators had failed at first, then come back on as the plane climbed. One of the plane’s pitot tubes had been blocked.
A plane’s pitot tubes feeds air speed information to the auto-pilot mechanism. A blocked pitot tube meant that the auto-pilot was working with faulty information and it calculated that the plane was flying too fast and raised the nose to slow it down. The captain pulled back on the throttle, believing he was going too fast, and the controls started shaking as the engines started failing.
The plane swung round as the left engine quit first and crashed into the Caribbean Sea. The Federal Aviation Administration’s investigators concluded that the pitot tubes were believed to have been blocked by the mud dauber wasp. This wasp’s nest dries and hardens and the Pitot tube was a perfect home.
The wasps are well known in the Dominican Republic and the airplane had been sitting idle in the airport for 25 days which was enough time for the wasp to build its nest in the uncovered Pitot tubes.