The Worst Plane Crashes in History

Air travel is certainly one of humanity's crowning achievements. It opened up the world and allowed people to travel to far away lands in mere hours as opposed to the days or weeks it would take before the advent of planes. Yet there is an anxiety surrounding air travel, a fear of what would happen if something were to go wrong. This fear isn't ridiculous, as there have been countless aviation accidents that resulted in massive loss of life. The biggest plane crashes in the world were incredible tragedies, many of which could have been prevented with more precaution on the part of the pilot and crew. 

The worst plane crashes in history have wreaked havoc on the psyches of travelers around the world. There is a helplessness associated with air travel as a passenger given those aboard the plane have little control of what happens. The only thing you can do is brace yourself for the worst, so stories of people killed in plane crashes are a source of great anxiety for many. This is exasperated by the fact the media also has a morbid fascination with plane crashes, dedicating countless hours to the discussion of missing or crashed planes. Like many subjects, people tend to be fascinated by what they fear. Aviation disasters are no exception, but it is important to remember that plane crash deaths are relatively rare. Overall, air travel is very safe and commercial planes are incredibly reliable machines. While this list is focused on the deadliest plane crashes of all time, many of these crashes actually helped flight engineers learn how to make air travel safer than ever before. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • September 11, 2001
    Photo: Joshua Siniscal Photography / Foter / CC BY-ND 2.0

    September 11, 2001

    Date: September 11, 2001

    Cause: Terrorism

    Deaths: 2,977

    The events of 9-11 remain the single deadliest aviation incident in the history of flying, with nearly 3,000 people losing their lives in a single day. Osama bin Laden, then leader of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, planned the attack. Four commercial airliners were hijacked by 19 terrorists. The terrorists piloted the planes with the aim of causing mass destruction across the United States. Two planes intentionally struck and destroyed New York's Twin Towers, and a third crashed into the Pentagon building just outside of Washington, DC. The final plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the terrorists on board. 

  • 1977 Tenerife Airport Disaster

    Date: March 27, 1977

    Cause: Runway collision

    Deaths: 583

    The Tenerife Disaster is the worst non-terrorism related aviation accident in world history, killing nearly 600 people in total. Two commercial airliners collided on a runway at the Tenerife North Airport in Spain's Canary Islands, killing the majority of passengers on both flights. Radio interference brought on by a heavy fog made communication on the runway difficult, and KLM flight 4805 began to accelerate for takeoff while a Pan Am plane was still on the runway. Everyone aboard the KLM flight, which burst into flames upon collision, was killed, but 61 people survived on the Pan Am flight.  

  • 1985 Japan Airlines Flight 123 Crash
    Photo: Harcmac60 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    1985 Japan Airlines Flight 123 Crash

    Date: August 12, 1985

    Cause: Mechanical failure

    Deaths: 524

    The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 is the deadliest aviation accident to include a single vehicle, killing the vast majority of passengers onboard. The flight was traveling from Tokyo to Osaka when an explosion unexpectedly rocked the plane, destroying the vertical stabilizer and tearing off part of the plane's tail. The plane's crew managed to stay in the air for over half an hour after the explosion, but the flight eventually crashed into Mount Takamagahara. All but four women were killed on impact. 

  • 1996 Air Africa Crash

    Date: January 8, 1996

    Cause: Unclear, possibly negligence 

    Deaths: Between 225 and 348

    The bulk of the fatalities occurred on the ground in what is now known as the 1996 Air Africa Crash. The Africa Air Antonov 32, a cargo plane, crashed into a market in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The plane was attempting to takeoff and was filled beyond capacity. It ended up running beyond the runway and crashing into a market. Four of the six crew members survived and, despite there being nearly 350 victims, only 66 bodies were identified. This left the precise number of victims a mystery. 

    The flight had actually been taking off illegally, as Africa Air did not have the required clearance and papers needed to operate the flight. Investigations also concluded the pilots operating the flight were not qualified to operate a cargo plane and may have been intoxicated at the time of the takeoff. A subsequent lawsuit over the crash left Africa Air out of business. 

  • 1996 Charkhi Dadri Mid-Air Collision

    Date: November 12, 1996

    Cause: Air-traffic control error

    Deaths: 349

    The Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision is the one of the worst mid flight collisions in the history of Aviation, killing everyone aboard Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763 and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907. The planes were flying near the New Dehli airport when the collision happened. The collision was caused by miscommunication between air traffic controllers, as both flights were given the approval to use the same airway at the same time. The planes were traveling in opposite directions, with one ascending and the other descending, when they slammed into each other. The Saudi Arabian Airlines plane broke up in the air before hitting the ground while the Kazakhstan Airlines Flight crashed into a field. 

  • 1974 Turkish Airlines Flight 981 Crash

    Date: March 3, 1974

    Cause: Mechanical failure

    Deaths: 346

    On a route from Istanbul to Western Europe, Turkish Airlines Flight 981 suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure that resulted in the aircraft crashing into the forest in Ermenonville, France. An improperly sealed door to the cargo hold caused the plane to depressurize mid-flight and this resulted in several people being sucked out of the plane. The depressurization caused massive damage to the plane, including a destroyed engine and a partial floor collapse in the passenger cabin. No survivors were discovered at the crash site.