9 Plane Crashes That Changed the Course of the Aerospace History

The changes made to the aerospace industry after these crashes help save countless lives today.
Christopher McFadden
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Flying is, statistically, one of the safest ways to travel. Yet, despite this, when things go wrong, they go very, very wrong.

But these tragic events, on occasion, have had a silver lining leading to widespread reforms in thinking and design for current and future aircraft. Here are some of the most notable plane crashes that changed the aerospace industry forever. 


What plane crashes changed the course of aerospace history?

So, without further ado, here are some of the most serious aircraft crashes that changed the aerospace industry forever. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. This particular crash led to the adoption of downdraft detection systems as standard

plane crashes delta 191
Source: TheFlightChannel/YouTube

In 1985, Delta Flight 191, a Lockheed L-1011, crashed spectacularly at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in Texas. On approach to the airport, Delta 19`1 entered a quick-firing thunderstorm that produced heavy winds.

When the pilots were unable to keep control of the aircraft, it slammed into the ground killing many of its passengers outright. The jet struck a car driving on Texas 114, killing its driver and then hit a light pile before careening across the North end of the airport. 

136 people were killed all told and 27 miraculously survived including a 12-year-old boy who was thrown clear of the wreckage. This horrendous event triggered a 7-year NASA/FAA investigation.

The results of which were to recommend that onboard forward-looking radar wind-shear detectors become a standard feature of airliners. Since then only one other similar incident has occurred. 

2. This crash pioneered massive improvements to engine safety in airliners

plane crashes united 232
Source: Phil Denver, Jr./Twitter

ON the 19th of July, 1989, United Flight 232 was en route from Denver to Chicago when tragedy struck. The DC-10 tail engine suffered a catastrophic failure, severing the plane's hydraulic lines -- making it practically uncontrollable for the pilots.

They struggled with the controls attempting to land the plane safely at the nearest airport. But their efforts were to be in vain.

The plane crash-landed and cartwheeled off the runway, bursting into flames in the process. Of the 296 passengers on board, 185 survived

The crash's investigation found fault with the DC-10's engine design and a failure to detect a crack in the engine's fan disk. The crash eventually led the FAA to order the modification of DC-10 hydraulic systems and to require redundant safety systems to be fitted to all future aircraft. 

3. Air Canada 797 crash was the reason for the adoption of lavatory smoke detectors

plane crashes air canada 797
Source: Air Disasters/Twitter

On the 2nd of June, 1983, Air Canada Flight 797 burst into flames on the runway at Cincinnati airport. Of the 46 or so people on board, 23 tragically lost their lives. 

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But this dramatic end to the plane and her passengers didn't seem that serious to start off with. En route between Dallas and Toronto, the first signs of any trouble at all were wisps of smoke coming from the rear lavatory.  

Thick black smoke soon began to fill the cabin, eventually affecting the pilot from seeing the instrument panel properly. Despite this, the pilot safely landed the plane at Cincinnati airport. 

But as the emergency doors were opened, the cabin erupted into flames. The subsequent FAA investigation later demanded that all aircraft lavatories have smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers fitted on all aircraft. 

Further fire insulation measures were also added to seat cushions, as well as, the introduction of floor lighting to help lead passengers through dense smoke. 

4. This devastating mid-air collision eventually led to the creation of the FAA

plane crashes grand canyon
Source: TheFlightChannel/YouTube

In 1956, two airliners, TWA Flight 2 and United Airlines Flight 718 collided in mid-air near the Grand Canyon. 100, or so, people would be killed outright.

Later to be known as the 1956 Grand Canyon Collision, this disaster changed the industry forever.

The incident spurred a massive upgrade program of air traffic control systems around the country and also led to the creation, in 1958, of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). These upgrades have severely improved mid-air safety and, to date, there have been no similar accidents in the USA.

5. United Airlines Flight 173 led to serious restructuring of cockpit teamwork

plane crashes united 173
Source: Air Disasters OTD/Twitter

On December the 28th, 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 crashed into a suburb onto its approach to Portland airport, Oregon. 10 people were killed and the crash led to some serious changes to the industry.

The problem appeared to have been a breakdown in communication within the aircraft's cockpit. Despite being warned that fuel levels were dangerously low, the pilot waited far too long to make his final approach.

The decision proved to have been a big mistake and the Captain was later described as "an arrogant S.O.B.". 

To prevent this kind of tragedy in the future, United Airlines revamped its cockpit training procedures and introduced the new concept of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). No longer was the Captain's opinion the last word on the matter.

6. US Air Flight 427 crash resulted in some major changes in the industry

plane crashes US Air 427
Crash investigation of US Air 427, Source: alchetron

As US Air Flight 427, a Boeing 737, began its final approach to Pittsburgh airport, it suddenly rolled to the left and plunged 5,000 feet (1,524 m) into the ground on the 8th of September 1994. All 132 souls on board were lost.

After an investigation, including checking its black box, it was found that the rudder had abruptly swung to the full-left position -- triggering the roll. This led to an ongoing game of tennis with US Air blaming Boeing, and Boeing blaming the aircrew. 

A full investigation by the NTSB found that the problem was mechanical and not that of the crew. A jammed valve in the rudder-control system caused the pilots to lose control of the plane leading to its demise.

This led the manufacturer to spend half a million dollars retrofitting all 2,800 737s in operation. To prevent conflicts between families and airliners in insurance claims in the future, Congress also passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assitance Act

7. These three crashes were the reason why round windows were installed in airliners

Between 1953 and 1954, three of de Havilland's brand-new Comet airliners mysteriously broke apart mid-air, killing everyone on board. This led the British government to ground all of the remaining planes until the cause could be found.

Investigators later found that the metal on the plane was subject to fatigue from the pressure in the cabin and weak points like the aircraft's iconic square windows. This led to the development of round windows familiar to anyone who has traveled on an airliner today. 

It also led to the development of vital engineering concepts like "structural fatigue".

8. The "worst" plane crash in history

plane crashes tenerife
Reconstruction of the collision, Source: Air Disasters/Twitter

One foggy day in 1977, two Boeing 747s, one owned by KLM, the other Pan Am, collided on the runway on an airport in Tenerife. All 248 people on the KLM were killed, while 61 of the 396 on Pan Am's plane were killed.

This death toll made it one of the worst aviation disasters of all time. Tragically, neither aircraft was actually supposed to be there at the time -- they had been re-routed due to a bomb scare at their original destination. 

A mix-up with air traffic control and the pilots led to KLM Flight 4805 slamming into the Pan Am Flight 1736 as it prepared to take off. The following investigation led to the creation of crew-resource management as well as the eventual adoption of English as the standard way to communicate around the world.

9. This crash led to the final retirement of Concorde

plane crashes concorde
Source: Aviation24/Twitter

And finally, when a Concorde crashed into a hotel in July of 2000, the world's only supersonic airliner was grounded forever. Long-believed to have been the safest airliner in the world, the crash triggered the decline of this venerable plane. 

The Air France Flight 4590 crash killed all 113 people on board. Tragically, the crash wasn't the fault of Concorde or Air France.

It was later found that a piece of metal had fallen off a Continental aircraft earlier in the day. This caused one of the Concorde's tires to burst, eventually leading to a ruptured fuel tank and its fall from grace. 

Despite this, Concorde would never recover and was grounded forever.