Updated 25 March 2015

Why planes crash

Half of all plane crashes are the result of human error, or incorrect decisions on the part of pilots, says the US Federal Aviation Administration. This is sometimes because of health problems.


The world was struck yesterday by the news that Germanwings flight 4U9525 had crashed into the French Alps, it was later confirmed that all 150 people aboard the plane had perished in the crash. The impact, and the anguish, of the catastrophe has been heightened by the fact that there is no immediately discernible reason why the plane crashed, especially during its cruise phase which is the safest part of the flight.

The plane's black box, including the cockpit voice recorder, has been recovered and will hopefully offer some answers as to what happened, and why no distress call was made.

What causes planes to crash?

Fifty percent of all plane crashes are the result of improper human performance, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Pilot health problems can sometimes underlie serious errors of judgement.

System procedures, flight deck layout and design of displays and controls can cause flight crew stress. Maps and charts, communications, operating manuals, checklists, systems procedure, and decision-making can also contribute to a stressful environment. “Stressors trigger a breakdown in human performance that results in critical human error,” the FAA says.

Read more: How to cure a fear of flying

“In South Africa, an over-confident attitude among pilots with regard to weather, low flying, and inadequate or a complete lack of pre-flight inspections is a major killer. Aircraft overloading and disregard of standard safe operating procedures are contributing factors to most accidents,” says the South African Civil Aviation Authority.

Although pilot errors are often implicated in commercial plane crashes, “airworthiness authorities, airplane manufacturers and airplane operators are responsible for the safety of an airplane and its structure”, according to Airline maintenance crews and air traffic controllers are also directly involved.

Whereas adverse weather conditions, such as wind, thunderstorms or hail can affect airliners, there is every indication that there were no unusual weather conditions in the area the plane disappeared.

Traits that make pilots prone to accidents
Last year the FAA oversaw research surveying 4000 pilots. It was found that pilots who were prone to accidents displayed the following traits:

  • They were disdainful toward rules.
  • There was “a high correlation between accidents in their flying records and safety violations in their driving records”.
  • They “frequently fell into the personality category of‘thrill and adventure seeking’”.
  • They were “impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined in information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions taken”.
  • They had a “disregard for or underutilisation of outside sources of information, including co-pilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors, and air traffic controllers”.

Health issues

Health problems in pilots can also be linked to plane crashes.
Here is list of plane crashes caused by pilot health issues, according to plane crash

  • In 1959, in Virginia, a plane crashed as a result of the mental breakdownof the captain during the flight. Twenty-six of the twenty-seven people on board died.
  • In 1962, in California, a crash occurred due to the captain being incapacitated by a heart attack. All 87 people on board were killed.
  • In 1967, in South Africa, the head pilot suffered a heart attack and his first officer struggled to regain control of the aircraft. All 25 people on board were killed.
  • In 1982, a plane crashed in Japan. The captain had put the inboard engines into reverse. He was known to have mental problems. Thirty-seven people were killed in the crash.
  • In 1982, in China, a passenger’s cigarette set fire to the cabin, which caused an oxygen tank to explode. Twenty-five of the 50 passengers on board were killed. All 11 crew members survived.

Read more:

Plane crash concerns as air traffic doubles 

10 worst passengers, did they get kicked off? 

Your body on a long flight


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