On Saturday morning, November 26, the owner of a tree farm near Crystal Lake, Illinois, heard an airplane making troubling sounds. Moments later, a Cirrus SR20 airplane broke through the clouds above his head and crashed nose-first into a soybean field. Aboard the airplane were Ramie Harris, a 21-year-old Wheaton College junior, her sister Shey, her father Ray who piloted the plane, and Chris Backus, a friend of one of the sisters. All four passengers died at the scene.
On Monday night, just 20 miles away, another small airplane crashed while transporting a medical patient from West Palm Beach, Florida, to a Chicago area airport. On board the Piper Navajo airplane, which belonged to Trans North Aviation Limited, were the pilot, a pilot-in-training, a flight paramedic, the patient, and his wife. Three of the airplane’s occupants died from their crash injuries at the scene or en route to the hospital, including the patient and his wife.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, flying remains one of the safest forms of transportation, especially when compared to automobiles. NTSB records indicate that air travel is 62 times safer than traveling by car or truck, and the odds of dying in an aviation crash of some kind are, for U.S. residents, far more remote than dying in a car crash. But numbers can distort the truth.
Statisticians who say that air travel is safer than highway travel make their claim by calculating number of deaths per miles traveled. However, if you look at the number of deaths compared to the number of journeys made, air travel becomes a lot more dangerous. In other words, if there were as many airplane and helicopter flights as automobile journeys, then people would be 12 times more likely to die in an airplane crash than on the road. Fatalities per 100 million passenger journeys are on average 4.5 for cars and trucks, 2.7 for trains, and 55.0 for airplanes.
Any number of things, from bad weather to mechanical failure, can go wrong in the air and lead to a crash. According to NTSB records, mechanical failure is the ultimate cause of 13 percent of all aviation disasters. Key aircraft components or even entire engines may fail on their own or through no fault of the pilot.
November has been a particularly tragic month in the aviation world. Earlier this month, an Australian woman died of injuries received in a helicopter sightseeing crash in New York City’s East River. She was the third woman to lose her life in that crash, which also claimed the lives of her daughter and her daughter’s lifetime partner, but spared her husband and the helicopter’s pilot.
On November 10, thousands of miles away on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, another sightseeing helicopter suddenly lost altitude and flew into a mountain ridge, killing a newlywed couple from Pennsylvania and a vacationing Canadian couple in addition to the pilot.
Three days later, a Cirrus SR22 airplane nosedived into Florida’s Loxahatchee wilderness, killing an experienced commercial airplane pilot and his cousin, who held a private pilot’s license. National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that the airplane’s emergency parachute had been deployed, but they do not yet know what caused the aircraft to fail.
The day before Thanksgiving, a twin-engine Rockwell Aero Commander 690A took off from Mesa, Arizona. Less than 5 minutes later, the airplane’s smoldering ruins were strewn about the Superstition Mountains, the result of the airplane’s collision with a mountain peak. That crash killed an experienced pilot, his three young children, and two other men, one a commercial pilot and the other an aviation mechanic.
Adverse weather conditions, such as lightning strikes, unpredictable down drafts, and excessive turbulence are blamed in about 5 percent of aviation crashes, while the causes of an additional 33 percent of aviation crashes remain undetermined.
Pilot error is the most frequently cited cause of airplane crashes by NTSB investigators. In fact, a pilot’s erroneous response to poor weather conditions and mechanical problems is the underlying cause of most crashes. Negligence, lack of training, and miscommunication are other causes, as well as, in the NTSB’s words “noncompliant behavior, intentional misconduct, or lack of commitment to essential tasks,” all of which constitute a lack of professionalism.
For more information, please visit our Aviation Accidents page.