A bit of a morbid subject, but what, so far in history, has truly been the aviation accident or incident that has claimed the largest number of souls. For this list, I’m not just taking into account those on the plane, but those lives lost as a result of the crash. Some are probably to be expected, while others you’d be very surprised to see.
#10. Iran Air Flight 655 (Death toll: 290)
At #10, the shoot-down of Iran Air Flight 655, Airbus A300 B2-203, by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes on July 3rd, 1988, was among the most controversial moments of the 1980’s.
During the height of the Iran-Iraq War, the effects of which had resulted in merchant shipping and oil vessels being targeted by Iranian fighters, the United States Navy had been deployed to the Persian Gulf to help ward off enemy attacks and defend civilian vessels. As such, the Vincennes was on high alert and had adopted a policy of shoot first, ask questions later. The airliner, operating a routine flight from Tehran to Dubai, was blasted out of the sky over Iranian territorial waters by SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles fired from the vessel, after the aircraft was accidentally identified as having a military squawk code associated with that of an Iranian Air Force F-14A Tomcat, though it was later revealed the Aegis Combat System aboard Vincennes had registered the aircraft was squawking a correct civilian code.
With the aircraft continuing to approach and unable to raise it on any frequencies, the crew shot two missiles at the aircraft, blowing it apart and killing all on board. The shootdown was condemned by both Iran and the United Nations, though the US Government staunchly defended the actions of the crew.
#9. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (Death toll: 298)
Another shootdown, this time on July 17th, 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Boeing 777-200ER 9M-MRD from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was destroyed in mid-air by a Buk surface-to-air missile as it flew over rural Ukraine.
At the time, a vicious civil war was, and still is, being waged between the Ukrainian Government and rebels backed by Russia. Though fears had been raised about the large amount of civilian air traffic passing over the warzone on the extremely busy east-west route between Europe and the Middle East, most airlines believed that regular commercial aviation flying at 40,000ft wouldn’t be effected by the conflict below. They were, in fact, unaware that the rebel forces had been supplied by Soviet-built anti-aircraft weaponry capable of firing missiles up to and beyond 40,000ft.
A disaster waiting to happen, the Malaysian Boeing 777 was blasted out of the sky with the loss of all passengers, its remains crashing down into the rural Ukrainian countryside. There was much speculation as to which side had shot down the aircraft, until footage emerged of Buk missile systems being spirited away by rebel trucks immediately following the crash, thus confirming their guilt. The bodies of the passengers and crew killed were eventually returned to their native countries for burial, but not before most had been looted by the local population.
#8. Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 163 (Death toll: 301)
Perhaps the most bizarre accident on this list, the destruction of Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 163, Lockheed L-1011-200 TriStar HZ-AHK from Riyadh to Jeddah on August 19th, 1980, has gone down in history as one of confusion, seeing as the passengers and crew were so close to survival.
Flight 163 departed Riyadh on an internal flight to Jeddah, but shortly after takeoff reported smoke in the rear hold. The aircraft turned around and made a successful emergency landing back at Riyadh, and it appeared everyone was to make it out alive. However, even though the aircraft had landed successfully and fire crews were on their way, the captain, for whatever reason, did not order the evacuation of the aircraft. No doors opened, no slides deployed, everyone aboard simply stayed on the aircraft and burnt to death or asphyxiated as it was consumed by fire. Eventually, 23 minutes after the aircraft had landed, the cabin was accessed by emergency services, with almost all of the victims found huddled at the front.
Both the cause of the fire and the reasons for not evacuating remain unclear to this day. Some speculate that because the cabin was still pressurised after landing, the pressure locks on the doors made it impossible for the crew to open them, but no official cause has been determined. The disaster turned out to be the worst accident for the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar.
#7. Air India Flight 182 (Death toll: 329)
Until September 11th, 2001, this was the worst act of terrorism aboard a commercial airliner. Early in the morning on June 23rd, 1985, Air India Flight 182, Boeing 747-237B VT-EFO “Emperor Kanishka” flying from Toronto to Delhi via Montreal and London Heathrow, was blown up over the Celtic Sea south of Ireland.
The bomb was found to have been placed in a suitcase, and was first put into the baggage system at Vancouver. Reports indicated that an insistent man demanded that his case be placed aboard the flight to Delhi via a flight to Toronto, though the owner of the case itself wouldn’t actually be flying with it. After bullying and threatening the attended at the desk, she eventually relented and allowed the bag aboard. It evaded further detection on the ground at Toronto, where shoddy luggage checks meant the explosive contents of the case were able to slip past detection. The case was then placed aboard Flight 182 and the rest, as they say, is history.
The perpetrators were found to be members of Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh militant group, who carried out the attack in retaliation against India for an operation enacted by the Indian Army, Operation Blue Star, to flush out several hundred Sikh militants who were within the premises of the Golden temple and the surrounding structures ordered by the Indian government, headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The attack also highlighted several flaws in the security of the aviation industry, resulting in reforms that meant that unattended cases wouldn’t be allowed aboard a flight, and more stringent security measures for hold-baggage were employed.
#6. Turkish Airlines Flight 981 (Death toll: 346)
A disaster that brought out the worst in the Douglas DC-10, one of the most popular wide-body aircraft of the time. On March 3rd, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981, McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 TC-JAV “Ankara” flying from Istanbul to London Heathrow via Paris-Orly, was torn apart mid-flight just after departure from Paris.
The flight was unusually busy on the evening of the disaster, this being due to a strike among staff for British European Airways, meaning London-bound passengers had to find last minute alternatives. Flight 981 therefore was operating at pretty much full capacity when the crash occurred.
The cause was found to be a problem endemic to the DC-10, the fitting of the Cargo Doors. As highlighted in a previous incident involving American Airlines Flight 96 in 1972, the DC-10’s unreliable latches on the cargo doors meant they were susceptible to breaking in mid-flight, resulting in explosive decompression. McDonnell Douglas chose to save money by leaving the problem unaddressed, with no aircraft recalled to fix the issue. This, combined with the fact that the latching pins on this particular aircraft had been filed down to help the door fit, meant the strength of the door latches were highly compromised and it was an accident waiting to happen.
The result of this horrific crash did result in modifications to the DC-10, but the reputation of the aircraft, and indeed the company, was in tatters.
#5. Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision (Death toll: 349)
The worst mid-air collision in aviation history. On November 12th, 1996, Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763, Boeing 747-168B HZ-AIH flying from Delhi to Dhahran, and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907, Ilyushin Il-76TD UN-76435 flying to Delhi from Shymkent, crashed into each other above rural India, killing all aboard both jets.
Flight 763 was departing Delhi while Flight 1907 was arriving, both being assigned to the same flightpath into and out of the airport. The 747 had 312 aboard while the Il-76 had 37. In the minutes before the catastrophe, the 747 was cleared to climb to 14,000ft, while the Ilyushin was assigned to 15,000ft. However, the Ilyushin captain continued his descent below 15,000ft, eventually bringing his aircraft into contact with the departing 747. The result was the Il-76’s tail slicing the 747 in half, both aircraft tumbling to the Indian countryside. Though there were a few initial but critically injured survivors pulled from the wreckage of both planes, all of them died of their injuries.
#4. Japan Airlines Flight 123 (Death toll: 520)
The worst single aircraft disaster in history, and one that could’ve been avoided if corners had once again not been cut. On August 12th, 1985, Japan Air Lines Flight 123, Boeing 747SR-146 JA8119 on an internal flight from Tokyo to Osaka, crashed on the slopes of Mount Takamagahara, killing all but 4 people aboard.
The cause of the crash was traced back to several years earlier, when the aircraft suffered a tailstrike on landing which wasn’t properly repaired. The resulting years of service put stress on the compromised structure of the tail section until eventually, while climbing out of Tokyo, the vertical stabiliser broke up into several pieces, severing the hydraulic lines that controlled the aircraft and rendering it impossible to fly. Although the efforts of the flight crew to keep the aircraft airborne by way of throttle manipulation were stellar, the aircraft eventually lost altitude and crashed onto the mountainside.
#3. Tenerife disaster (Death toll: 583)
The worst accident in aviation history, so why is it at #3? Well, this is because it only involved the people aboard the two planes that crashed, with no fatalities or injuries external to the aircraft.
The Tenerife Disaster occurred on March 27th, 1977, when KLM Flight 4805, Boeing 747-206B PH-BUF “Rijn” from Amsterdam, and Pan Am Flight 1736, Boeing 747–121 N736PA from New York, collided on the runway at Tenerife’s Los Rodeos Airport in thick fog.
The circumstances that resulted in the disaster involved the diversion of the 747’s to Tenerife from their original destination of Gran Canaria. A bombing at the airport on Gran Canaria by a militant group fighting for independence of the Canary Islands from Spain resulted in the airport being closed and the 747’s flown to the nearby island of Tenerife. At the time, Tenerife was not the fantastic holiday island we know today, being instead a rather rustic place with a single under-equipped airport that was prone to fog coming down off the nearby mountains. The 747’s, along with several other smaller jets, arrived and were positioned on the taxiway for several hours until Gran Canaria reopened.
Once clearance had been given to resume flights, the KLM 747 taxied first, going down the runway before turning around at the loop and lining up for takeoff, followed a few minutes later by the Pan Am 747. At this point, the visibility had dropped to less than a few hundred feet, which meant it was impossible for the two aircraft to see each other. Radio and radar systems were also not their best, which meant that the progress of the Pan Am flight couldn’t be monitored and relayed to the KLM aircraft.
Eventually, a breakdown in communication meant that the KLM began its takeoff roll, unaware that the Pan Am was still taxiing on the runway. By the time the two aircraft saw each other it was far too late, and while the KLM struggled to get airborne, even scraping its tail to do so, it wasn’t enough to avoid the collision. The KLM struck the Pan Am amidships, sheering off the Dutch aircraft’s wings and engines and blasting a giant hole in the Pan Am. The KLM would crash back onto the runway a few hundred feet later, killing all on board. On the Pan Am, while hundreds were dead, 61 managed to survive the impact, either being at the very front or rear of the aircraft.
In any case, this spectacular but devastating crash remains today the worst aviation incident involving only aircraft, but in terms of damage caused and lives lost, it pales in comparison to our next two entries.
#2. September 11th Attacks (Death toll: 2,996)
Of course, no list of aviation tragedies is complete without this, the worst act of terrorism in modern history. September 11th, 2001, was a day that brought out both the worst and best in humanity, a day that will forever live in infamy.
The attacks began with the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11, an internal flight from Boston to Los Angeles operated by Boeing 767-223ER N334AA, just after 08:15 by Islamic terrorists over rural Upstate New York. This was followed by the hijacking of United Airlines 175, another internal flight from Boston to Los Angeles flown by Boeing 767–222 N612UA, American Airlines Flight 77, a flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles operated by Boeing 757-223 N644AA, and finally United Airlines Flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco and operated by Boeing 757–222 N591UA.
What started out however as a simple hijacking quickly escalated into one of the worst days in modern history, starting with the impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 08:46. The aircraft punched a hole between the 93rd and 98th floors of the 110 storey skyscraper, destroying all stairwells and elevators, and trapping hundreds of people on the floors above. This was followed 17 minutes later by United Airlines Flight 175, which flew into the South Tower at 09:03, smashing into the 78th to 84th floors. The final seconds and subsequent destruction of the aircraft has since become the harrowing image of that fateful day, and a symbol of how evil humanity can be. As the Twin Towers burned, American Airlines Flight 77 swept in over the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., and crashed into the outer wall of the Pentagon, the head of the United States’ military command. Made aware of the attacks on New York and Washington, passengers aboard the final hijacked flight, United Airlines Flight 93, launched a daring attempt to regain control of the aircraft. The terrorists chose instead to crash the plane headlong into the ground rather than allow the passengers to regain control of the aircraft, crashing down in the Pennsylvania countryside outside Pittsburgh.
Following the impacts of the aircraft, the Twin Towers, once seen as indestructible monoliths of American economic might, crumbled to dust before the eyes of the world, the severity of the damage caused having weakened them beyond rescuing. The collapse of the World Trade Center killed thousands of people, either trapped on the floors above the impact zones, or the emergency services who were inside the buildings attempting to save as many as they could. The eventual death tolls for this horrific attack were 2,606 civilians and emergency personnel at the World Trade Center, 125 at the Pentagon, 87 aboard Flight 11, 60 aboard Flight 175, 59 aboard Flight 77 and 39 aboard Flight 93, a total of 2,996 lives pointlessly ended.
#1. Assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira (Death toll: appox. 800,000 – 1,000,000)
Now this may seem very obscure, but this plane crash, while not directly killing 800,000 people, is often considered the catalyst that started perhaps one of the most atrocious acts in human history, the Rwandan Genocide.
Prior to this event, relations between the two majority tribal people of Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu, had been fractious for thousands of years. In Rwanda, the Hutu held a majority and the Tutsi were seen as second-class citizens. In early 1993 and 1994, pressure was building, and many members of the Hutu government were eager to launch a nationwide massacre to kill every Tutsi they could find, all they needed was an excuse.
The excuse came on April 6th, 1994, when Dassault Falcon 50 9XR-NN was shot down by unknown perpetrators while attempting to land at Kigali International Airport, Rwanda. Aboard the Falcon however was Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, both of whom were killed, along with 10 others, when the aircraft crashed down in flames into the grounds of Habyarimana’s own Presidential Palace. Speculation as to whether the attack was carried out by members of the Tutsi or Hutu factions is unclear, but what is clear is that by the end of that night, the Genocide had begun. Factions of Hutu fighters who had been placed on standby for the upcoming massacre leapt into action, and basically murdered every Tutsi they could find, either with gunfire, machetes, rocks, spears, clubs, fire, grenades, their own fists, anything that could be used as a weapon. But the killing didn’t just involve the Tutsi, as plenty of Hutu were also killed in the massacres, be they suspected Tutsi sympathisers, people with no valid ID on them, or just because they happened to look Tutsi, it was indiscriminate. The Genocide also included mass-rape of female Tutsi, who, if not killed, either became infected with HIV (which spiked the already troubling epidemic in Africa) or gave birth to ‘War Babies’ as a result of forced impregnation.
For 100-days approximately 800,000 to 1,000,000 people were slaughtered across Rwanda, five times the rate at which the Nazi’s murdered Jewish prisoners in the Holocaust, with the genocide coming to an end when the Tutsi-backed and heavily armed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, took control of the country in July 1994, though it is known that killings continued in some regions as late as September.
As the cause of calamity, this is why I name this plane crash as the worst one in history. It may have only killed 12 people in the initial shootdown, but the effects it had on the Rwandan nation, and indeed humanity in general, go down as one of the most atrocious acts of violence in the whole of history.