The 8 Worst Disasters In Aviation History Before The Malaysia Airlines Flight Went Missing

Aaron Kaufman

Search crews from nine countries continue to tirelessly scour vast expanses of the South China Sea in hopes of discovering evidence of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH350, which vanished from flight radar screens early Saturday.

Officials have yet to determine how the giant Boeing-777, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, went missing 40 minutes after takeoff while traveling between Malaysia and Vietnam, despite optimal flight conditions and no indications of distress onboard.

“Unfortunately, we have not found anything that appears to be an object from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,” said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief.

“There are many theories that have been said in the media; many experts around the world have contributed their expertise and knowledge about what could happen, what happened….We are puzzled as well,” added Rahman.

While flight MH370 is the latest tragedy in aviation’s modern history, it is far from the first time a large passenger jet has gone missing. Here, we provide a rundown of eight ill-fated flights that disappeared, crashed or otherwise vexed aviation experts.

1. Air France Flight 447

The missing Malaysia flight is reminiscent of the frantic search for the Air France Flight 447 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 while traveling from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France, an incident that remains the deadliest accident in the history of Air France.

International search parties frantically combed the Atlantic for five days before Brazilian authorities finally located the wreckage of the Airbus A330, which was carrying 228 passengers and crew, all of whom died.

Despite locating the plane less than a week after it went missing three hours after takeoff, it took investigators more than two years to retrieve the airliner’s black boxes from the ocean floor and identify the causes behind the crash.

The three Air France pilots struggled to control the aircraft while traveling through a thunderstorm after electrical problems caused the plane’s autopilot function to stop working.

A report by BEA, the French government’s official accident investigators, determined that a combination of technical failures and mistakes by the inadequately trained pilots contributed to the disaster.

“[The pilots] seemed to have trouble looking past the automation they were accustomed to and not really able to continue with the old raw information that pilots used to depend on,” said Jean-Paul Troadec, director of BEA, in an interview with ABC News.

“Clearly the report shows that there was a lot of difficult communication on the flight deck, a lot of incomplete thoughts, a lot of confusion.”

According to the report, a speed sensor on the plane became clogged with ice during the storm, causing the autopilot system to malfunction and forcing the pilots to manually control the aircraft.

Failing to properly account for and take note of their reduced speed, the plane entered into a stall and the pilots failed to apply a recovery maneuver, causing the plane to plummet rapidly into the ocean.

2. EgyptAir Flight 990

The investigation into the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, the third-deadliest aviation incident to take place over the Atlantic Ocean resulting in the deaths of all 217 people on board, was mired in controversy as international investigators clashed over the cause of the catastrophe.

The Boeing 767, which crashed into the ocean about 60 miles from Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, was on the second leg of its trip after departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The flight originated from Los Angeles International Airport in California.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), co-pilot Gamil el-Batouty deliberately crashed the plane as an act of revenge for having been reprimanded for sexual misconduct. The NTSB was asked to investigate the crash by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) because it lacked the resources of the larger US regulatory body.

El-Batouty was informed by EgyptAir’s Boeing 767 pilot group chief Hatem Rushdy that he would no longer be allowed to fly transatlantic flights after Flight 990 arrived in Cairo due to allegations that the pilot had exposed himself to teenage girls, propositioned hotel maids and stalked female hotel guests.

The NTSB determined that el-Batouty intentionally downed the plane in order to kill Rushdy, who was on the flight. The blackbox recordings showed that Rushdy left his first-class seat during while in the air and entered the cockpit.

Soon after he left, el-Batouty, who had been scheduled to fly the second section of the flight, ordered the piloting first officer away from the controls, took command of the plane and said “I rely on God” before switching off autopilot and sending the plane into a dive.

The NTSB requested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation take over and investigate the incident as a criminal act, but Egyptian authorities refused their requests. Despite mounting evidence to suggest that the crash was deliberate, the Egyptian government reversed its decision and allowed the ECAA to launch its own investigation.

The ECAA determined that the crash was caused by a mechanical failure in the plane’s elevator control system’s power control units. The NTSB maintained that no mechanical failure could have caused the airplane movements that sent the plane into the Atlantic.

3. Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

Better known as the Andes flight disaster, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes mountain range in Argentina near the border of Chile on Oct. 13, 1972.

On board were 45 passengers, including members of the Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, who were on their way to Santiago, Chile, for a match.

After being cleared to descend too soon by flight controllers, the plane slammed into a remote mountain, killing 17 and leaving 27 survivors stranded on the frozen slopes.

Search parties from three countries tried to locate the missing plane, but found it difficult to locate amid the snowy terrain.

Left with little food and even less hope after hearing reports over the radio that the search for the plane had been abandoned, survivors were forced to cannibalize dead passengers whose bodies had been preserved by the snow in order to stay alive. The 16 people who managed to survive the episode were found 72 days after the crash.

4. Korean Airlines Flight 007

Departing from Anchorage, Alaska in route to Seoul, Korea, Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor after the passenger plane entered Soviet airspace, killing all 269 aboard.

Though initially denying any involvement, the Soviet Union admitted that it shot down the plane on Sept. 1, 1983, after it entered prohibited Soviet airspace around the same time the US military was conducting a reconnaissance mission.

On board was a sitting member of the US Congress, Lawrence McDonald of Georgia. The incident marked one of more anxious moments of the Cold War, with suggestions that the Soviet military intentionally attacked the aircraft in order to provoke a full-scale war.

5. American Airlines Flight 191

In the deadliest aviation accident to ever occur on US soil, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed on May 25, 1979 shortly after taking off from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, killing 271 onboard the flight and two on the ground.

The crash occurred after an engine on the left wing separated from the plane, causing the aircraft to bank sharply to the left before slamming into an open field near the end of the runway.

While inadequate maintenance procedures were identified as the cause of the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all DC-10 aircrafts following the incident, which had gained a poor reputation after a number of notable high-profile accidents.

While DC-10 passenger flights continued for a brief time after the Flight 191 crash, the plane is now primarily used to transport cargo.

6. Iran Illyushin II-76 Crash

In February 2003, an Illyushian II-76, carrying members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard for an unknown mission, disappeared from radar screens around the same time that nearby villagers reported hearing a loud explosion.

Strong winds and heavy fog were reported in the region around the time that the plane carrying 275 passengers and crew went missing. Officials determined that the crash was due to pilot error during descent in poor weather conditions, despite a terrorist organization called the Abu-Bakr Brigades who claimed responsibility.

7. Japan Airlines Flight 123

The deadliest single-aircraft accident in history occurred on Aug. 12, 1985 when a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 suffered mechanical failures 12 minutes into a flight from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan.

The crash into Mount Takamagahara, roughly 62 miles from Tokyo, resulted in 520 deaths and four survivors.

While in flight, the aircraft experienced an explosive decompression that depressurized the plane’s cabin and tore the vertical stabilizer from the plane. With the loss of all hydraulic control, pilots were unable to control the aircraft as it clipped the mountains and careened through a rocky ridge.

Disturbingly, the pilots were able to keep the plane aloft for a full 32 minutes before it crashed into the Mikuni Mountain Range, allowing some passengers enough time to write farewell letters to family members.

8. Air India Flight 182

A total of 329 people lost their lives on June 23, 1985 during the bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 over the Atlantic Ocean just south of Ireland.

The bombing, orchestrated by Sikh terrorists in Canada using explosives detonated by a timer, occurred within an hour of another attack at the Narita Airport where a second Air India plane exploded after flights were grounded once news of the Flight 182 disaster broke.

The incident remains the largest mass murder in Canadian history and resulted in a 20-year, $130 million investigation and prosecution effort.

Though a number of members of the militant group Babbar Khalsa were arrested and tried following the attack, Inderjit Singh Reyat of Canada was the only individual convicted for his role in the bombing. Reyat pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2003 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for building the bombs that were used aboard Flight 182 and at Narita.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Aaron Kaufman