The Nine Most Common Airplane Accidents

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last week it would be closing nearly 150 air traffic control towers around the country due to budget cuts required by the sequester. While the cuts already have resulted in thousands of delays, some, including senators and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, are more concerned about their impact on the safety of people flying in the country. Others suggest the cuts will cause delays, but the safety of flyers is not at risk.

According to Perry Flint, Assistant Director, Corporate Communications for the International Air Transportation Administration (IATA), the rate of serious airplane accidents has dropped in the past several years and was actually at an all-time low last year. There have been 135 accidents among major U.S. carriers, resulting in injury or plane damage since 2010. None of these were fatal crashes. Based on an independent review of the statistics, provided by flight data and news site, The Aviation Herald, 24/7 Wall St. identified the nine most common airplane accidents.

Click here to see the nine most common airplane accidents

Many of the factors often cited as the cause of accidents are beyond the control of the pilots, airlines and aircraft manufacturers. Since 2010, random, unpredictable bird strikes caused seven accidents, while three were caused by individuals on the ground shining lasers at pilots flying thousands of miles in the air — an act that can constitute a crime. Also, more than half of all accidents were caused by turbulence — a fact-of-life for both flight crews and regular fliers.

Accidents caused by mechanical problems are relatively rare. From 2010 to 2013, landing gear malfunctions caused just eight accidents, sudden decompression caused just five accidents and four accidents were caused by engine problems.

Some mechanical problems rarely lead to accidents, in part because pilots are prepared to handle these problems. According to Bob Herbst, a former pilot and current editor of, pilots train throughout their careers to handle engine failure and related incidents because they are fairly common. Despite their training, these incidents can be dangerous. If an engine is on fire, Herbst says, the pilot must “get [the plane] on the ground as soon as possible.”

Few accidents can be considered to be exclusively caused by pilot error. Among the few that are, Herbst listed tail strikes, which occur when the tail of the airplane hits the runway during takeoff or landing. However, there have been just three tail strikes since 2010. Still, Herbst added that “every single day in the country, there are two pilots in the front of an airplane that saved a planeload of peoples’ lives because they did something their training and experiences helped them accomplish to get that aircraft on the ground.”

To determine the most common airplane accidents, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed information on the crashes and accidents reported by The Aviation Herald. All nine accidents had to occur at least three times since the start of 2010. The publication defines an accident as any incident causing serious injuries, deaths or significant damage to a plane. Incidents that did not cause serious injury or damage were not considered. A crash is defined as any accident that has the potential to kill everyone on the plane — there have been no such-defined crashes on major U.S. airlines since 2010. All figures here are limited to accidents since January 1, 2010, for major U.S. airlines, which are those listed by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ On-Time Performance tables. Figures here include international flights on those airlines.

These are the nine most common airplane accidents.

9. Tail Strikes
> No. of accidents: 3
> Pct. of all accidents: 2.2%
> Most recent occurrence: April 5, 2013

There have been three instances of a plane’s tail striking the runway either during takeoff or landing within the past three years. In one instance, a United Airlines flight that just took off from Sydney en route to San Francisco scraped its tail on the runway. The plane dumped fuel into the Tasman Sea and approached 8,000 feet before it finally turned around. Fortunately, none of the accidents resulted in injuries to any passengers or crew members; however, the planes all suffered significant damage. Herbst said that tail strikes usually are not serious and always the result of pilot error.

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8. Lasers
> No. of accidents: 3
> Pct. of all accidents: 2.2%
> Most recent occurrence: November 16, 2012

While laser pointers have been known to be used by students as pranks during class, they can also be quite dangerous. Between 2010 and 2013, they caused injuries on three different commercial flights. In two of the flights, a pilot sustained eye injuries, while a member of the flight crew sustained an eye injury in the other. The FAA noted recently that laser pointers have become a growing problem due to their widespread availability, stronger power and green laser pointers that are more visible. People who are caught shining laser pointers at planes should o’t expect to get just a slap on the wrist. In March, a U.S. District Court judge sentenced 19-year old Adam Gardenhire to 30 months in prison for shining a green laser pointer at a corporate plane and a police helicopter arriving at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, back in 2012. The pilot of the corporate jet sustained eye injuries.

7. Engine Problems
> No. of accidents: 4
> Pct. of all accidents: 3.0%
> Most recent occurrence: September 14, 2011

Engine failures are extremely common, according to Herbst, and pilots are regularly trained throughout their career to deal with engine problems. Many large planes are able to operate with the power of one functioning engine. “An engine fire, on the other hand, is a very serious thing,” Herbst added. “That requires the pilot to get on the ground as soon as possible.” Since 2010, only two commercial planes operated by U.S.-based airlines have experienced an accident involving an engine fire. In one case, a Delta B752 taking off from Atlanta was required to shut down its left side engine and return to the airport just 10 minutes into its flight after the engine caught on fire. Passengers were required to evacuate using the plane’s evacuation slides. In the evacuation, three passengers were injured.

6. Taxiing Accidents
> No. of accidents: 4
> Pct. of all accidents: 3.0%
> Most recent occurrence: December 27, 2012

Sometimes problems develop on the plane even before take off. There have been four instances of injury and plane damage as the plane was taxiing to the runway since 2010. In May 2011, a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Chicago ran over the foot of a maintenance worker with its nose wheel when backing out of the gate. The worker fractured his heel bone. In December 2012, a flight from Islip, New York, en route to Tampa skidded off the taxiway before reaching the runway, moving off of the asphalt into “soft ground.” Once the plane left the taxiway, the crew called air traffic control and told them, “we just made your day very exciting.”

5. Odors
> No. of accidents: 5
> Pct. of all accidents: 3.7%
> Most recent occurrence: July 12, 2012

Odors on flights can be far more serious than a few passengers forgetting to close the lavatory door. In five accidents since the beginning of 2010, odors on commercial flights caused illness. In most cases, the cause of the smell was either unknown or still under investigation. In some instances, just the flight crew fell ill, although passengers were affected in other cases. In a Continental Airlines flight between San Antonio and Houston, passengers complained about burning eyes and breathing problems. One person needed to be taken to a hospital and four others were treated onsite. The FAA later attributed the problem to an “unknown substance on board.” A U.S. Airways flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Rome had to divert to Philadelphia following complaints of foul odor. In addition to the five crew members taken to the hospital, the FAA said four people were injured and 13 people declined medical treatment.

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4. Decompression
> No. of accidents: 5
> Pct. of all accidents: 3.7%
> Most recent occurrence: April 14, 2012

Gradual decompression can happen from a simple problem such as a leaky door, and it is generally a minor issue, Herbst said. Rapid decompression, however, is extremely serious but also extremely rare. In 2010, an American Airlines Boeing 757-200 flying from Miami to Boston had to make an emergency descent and release oxygen masks to passengers after a hole opened up in the body of the plane, causing rapid decompression. The next year, a Boeing 737-300 operated by Southwest, and flying from Phoenix to Sacramento, had to be diverted after a five-foot-long hole opened up, leading to a sudden decompression. Although no serious injuries occurred, Southwest eventually found five of its other 737s had similar unexposed cracks.

3. Bird strikes
> No. of accidents: 7
> Pct. of all accidents: 5.2%
> Most recent occurrence: December 15, 2012

Although birds striking planes are very common, according to Herbst, they usually do not result in accidents. Still, since the start of 2010, there have been seven different serious accidents as the result of bird impacts. In one 2010 incident, a flock of birds struck the windshield of an American Airlines MD82 that had just taken off from Dallas-Fort Worth, damaging the aircraft and requiring the flight to return to the airport. In July 2012, a bird struck the nose cone of a United flight preparing to land in Denver. This resulted in a large hole in the front of the plane and ruined the plane’s instruments used for monitoring airspeed.

2. Landing gear problems
> No. of accidents: 8
> Pct. of all accidents: 5.9%
> Most recent occurrence: June 6, 2011

There have been eight instances since 2010 in which landing gear did not work the way it should, leading to plane damage and injuries. The landing gear problems came in different forms, including tires catching fire and brakes not properly deploying during landing. While landing gear issues are not that uncommon, Herbst noted, they are one of the least serious accidents that could happen during a flight. “If you’re a pilot and you’re going to have an accident, that’s probably the one you’d like to have,” he said.

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1. Turbulence
> No. of accidents: 71
> Pct. of all accidents: 52.6%
> Most recent occurrence: April 4, 2013

Turbulence-related accidents are by far the most common type that airlines experience. Among the different injuries that passengers and crew have suffered from turbulence were broken wrists and broken ankles. In certain cases, fliers who were not wearing a seat belt have even hit the cabin ceiling. Earlier in 2013, on an American Eagle flight to Chicago, two flight attendants and one passenger were injured when the plane encountered severe turbulence. Last year, turbulence on a flight from Aruba to Miami injured 12 people, five of whom had to be hospitalized.

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