Why do Planes Crash?

Why Do Planes Crash?

What phase of flight is the most dangerous?

Why Do Planes Crash?

Aircraft never crash because of one single issue. It’s almost always a combination of factors that lead to an accident. Whilst flying is extremely safe, the typical reasons as to why planes crash include pilot error, technical failures, bad weather, terrorism, and pilot fatigue.

There is never one single cause attributed to pilot an aircraft crash. For example, if the aircraft suffers a serious technical problem (but one that shouldn’t result in the loss of an aircraft) and its subsequently mishandled by the pilots resulting in a crash, does that count as pilot error or mechanical breakdown? The mechanical breakdown on it’s own shouldn’t have meant the plane crashed, but could have been handled correctly by the pilots. Therefore, both are causal factors.

As a result, the statistics made available for the causes of aircraft crashes are not always clear. It is however widely accepted that the following statistics are a reasonable representation of the primary reason for plane crashes:

  • 55% Pilot Error
  • 17% Aircraft Mechanical Error
  • 13% Weather
  • 8% Sabotage
  • 7% Other (ATC, Ground Handling, Unknown)

Examples of Pilot Error include “Loss of Control in Flight” and “CFIT” (Controlled Flight Into Terrain).

Swiss Cheese Model

Aircraft accidents never occur due to one specific reason, there are always a multitude of factors which combine and result in an aircraft incident or accident.

An example might be pilot fatigue, coupled with bad weather and a technical problem. If any one of these single factors were not present, the crash wouldn’t have happened. In the industry, this is called the “Swiss Cheese Model” based on academic theory by James Reason.

If you imagine lots of different slices of Swiss Cheese, from different blocks of cheese, all lined up next to each other, the chances are that you won’t be able to see all the way through one of the holes to the end, as the holes will all be in different places.

Each slice of cheese represents an individual factor such as fatigue, poor weather or poor standard of training. On the rare occasion that all the holes line up together, an accident can occur.


What is the most dangerous phase of flight?

Statistically, the most dangerous phase of flight, or the part of a flight where an accident is most likely to occur is landing. Boeing released the following statistics for the worldwide Commercial Jet Fleet between 2005 – 2014.

Percentages of fatal accidents based on phase of flight:

13% Take-off
8% Climb
27% Cruise
17% Decent Initial Approach
38% Final Approach / Landing

If you found this page interesting, check out our article on what could cause a total engine failure on a passenger jet.