Out of a clear blue sky: a summer of aircraft crashes

Six aircraft crashes in as many weeks have claimed 500 lives. Still the experts insist flying is the safest way to travel. So why do our planes keep falling to earth? Michael McCarthy investigates
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Survivors said the Jakarta-bound plane started shaking when it reached an altitude of about 300ft before tilting sharply and smashing to the ground. Some described a loud bang while the plane was still in flight, followed by a ball of fire.

"It happened very fast, no one even had time to panic," said Rohadi Kamsah Sitepu, 35, from his hospital bed. "There was an explosion outside the plane followed by huge flames inside the cabin. Then we crashed. I struggled to take off my seat belt and then ran through a hole in the fuselage, jumping over charred bodies scattered all over the road."

Mr Sitepu, who escaped with minor bruises to his legs, said" "It's a miracle I survived. I can't believe it."

When the Mandala Airlines plane crashed in overcast weather 500 metres from the airport at Medan in north Sumatra, shoving aside cars and motorcycles before ploughing into a row of houses in a fireball, it killed at least 147 people, many of them on the ground. And it had aviation experts wondering at the biggest series of air disasters for several years.

Six major crashes in as many weeks: is this just random coincidence, or something more disturbing? In disasters from Greece to Peru, from Sicily to Venzuela, and now in Indonesia, nearly 500 people have lost their lives; and but for a remarkable escape another 300 would have died when their Air France airbus hit the deck at Toronto's Pearson airport on 2 August, at the start of the current spate of incidents.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor of the magazine Flight International, is one of the world's leading experts on air safety, and he agrees that the current round of accidents is remarkable. "It's a very, very long time since we've had this many, even in one year, and it's a really freakish time," he said.

But ask him if commercial flight is becoming less safe, as passenger numbers continue to boom and more and more planes take to the skies, and he denies it robustly. He says modern aircraft are far safer than their predecessors, incorporating key new features such as the enhanced ground proximity warning system, which has eliminated what was the major cause of air passenger death - controlled flight into the ground (a plane hitting a mountain the captain did not know was there.)

Instead, Mr Learmount points to a very different and perhaps uncomfortable conclusion: culture.

Specifically, he says that the less-developed countries have a much less strong safety culture, in every way, than the developed West, and that when this consideration is applied to air transport, it means that flying on airlines other than the "majors" - the big names such as British Airways, United, Lufthansa or Air France - is simply not as safe.

"Statistics tell us that it's safe to fly, but they also tell us who it's safe to fly with," he says.

"If you take these recent crashes, apart from the Air France one, where everybody got out safely, as they were meant to do, ask yourself if you have heard of the airlines concerned."

(They are, respectively, Turinter from Tunisia, Helios from Cyprus, West Caribbean from Colombia, TANS from Peru and Mandala from Indonesia.)

"The answer is that you haven't. This is not surprising, this is fact. There are massively different standards of safety achieved by airlines in different parts of the world. African airlines have always been the least safe to fly with: there are exceptions, such as South African Airways, and Ethiopian Airlines, interestingly enough, is another, but on the whole they have a pretty awful record. Latin America had been getting better than it used to be recently, but perhaps it's reverting to type, I don't know, and Indonesia has always been poor.

"The advice is and always has been, fly with the majors, because they have a superb safety record. But the chances of crashing when you fly with airlines coming from outside of western Europe, North America and Australasia are an order of magnitude greater.

"This is because countries which are more modern, politically and economically, have the luxury of a safety culture, which applies to everything, such as road safety, and not just aviation."

Mr Learmount went on: "If you pass a road crash do you stop and look at what make of car it is? No. What do you think ? Probably, that the driver made a mistake.

"It's the same with an aircraft. It's about who operates it, and what their safety standards are. All modern airplanes are safe, but they may not be if they don't get maintained properly and the crews don't get trained properly. In some countries, crews get trained according to the law, but trained to a minimum standard. Whereas the serious airlines of the world train their crews a damn sight better."

It was the same with aviation regulatory authorities, he said. "In most of the Western world, civil aviation authorities do the job they're supposed to do. Any airlines trying to break the rules might get away with it once in a small way, but if they keep on trying they will lose their licence. Yet in some countries the civil aviation authority doesn't do what it's supposed to do, and you have a watchdog only in name."

Mr Learmount is insistent that modern jet airliners have themselves never been so safe to fly. The enhanced proximity warning device, mandatory on all new planes for the last decade, makes it virtually impossible for a captain to fly his aircraft straight into a mountain hidden in cloud, which for many years was the biggest single cause of air passenger death.

The digital instrument technology in the cockpit now is much more informative and reliable than the old battery of dials which used to face pilots, he says. "You don't have a lot of little electrical and mechanical instruments, each one of which can misrepresent things, or fail. You now have far more capable technology, screens which can tell you more things more quickly and more accurately, and will not fail.

"It gives pilots what they refer to as situational awareness. In the old days you had to draw up a mental picture of your position from a whole lot of round dials, of where you were relative to what you didn't want to bump into. Now the picture is on a screen in front of you.

"There's no doubt about it, aviation is a lot safer than it used to be."

The six disasters

2 August, Toronto: The great escape

More than 300 people cheated death when an Air France A340 airbus from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport burst into flames on landing in rough weather at Pearson airport, Toronto. The 297 passengers and 12 crew in flight 358 scrambled down the escape chutes after the airliner skidded off a runway and plunged into a ravine, narrowly missing Canada's major highway; 14 people suffered minor injuries. Strong winds, driving rain, lightning and hail were sweeping the area; the aircraft may have suffered a lightning strike. Shortly after the last of the passengers reached safety, it became a fireball.

6 August, off Sicily: Ditching in the Mediterranean

Eighteen people died when a Tunisian plane carrying Italian holidaymakers from Bari in southern Italy to the Tunisian island of Djerba was forced to ditch in rough seas off Sicily. The French-Italian ATR72 turboprop plane, operated by the Tuninter company and carrying 34 passengers and five crew, developed trouble in both engines and came down in 10ft waves 12 miles off Cape Gallo, between Palermo and Ustica. The Tunisian pilot, co-pilot and stewardess survived with injuries, but two crew members died, as did 16 of the passengers. Survivors clung to the wreckage of the plane until they were picked up.

14 August, near Athens: The ghost jet

In one of the most macabre of crashes, 121 people were killed after their aircraft flew by itself for hundreds of miles before plunging into a mountainside - tracked by Greek fighter jets - when the crew were apparently incapacitated, perhaps by a failure of cabin pressure. The 115 passengers and six crew on flight ZU522, a Boeing 737-31S en route from Larnaca in Cyprus to Athens operated by the Cypriot budget company Helios Airways, included eight children and 48 teenage footballers and their trainers on their way to a football tournament in Prague. The cause of the crash is still being investigated.

16 August, Venezuela: 161 dead

A Colombian-operated aircraft bringing home holidaymakers from the French Caribbean island of Martinique from a trip to Panama City crashed in the middle of the night into wooded hills near the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, killing all 153 passengers and eight crew on board. Flight WC707, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 operated by West Caribbean Airways, reported engine trouble halfway through the journey, and requested permission to make an emergency landing. Minutes later the second engine failed and the plane crashed. The crew were Colombians; the passengers came from Martinique.

23 August, Peru: Crash in the jungle

Forty people were killed when an airliner crashed near a Peruvian jungle town while attempting an emergency landing in a storm. The TANS Peru Flight 204, a Boeing 737-200 en route from the Peruvian capital, Lima, to Pucallpa in the Amazon, went down near Pucallpa municipal airport after the pilot radioed that he could not land because of strong winds and torrential rains. The plane split apart when the captain brought it down in a jungle marsh, yet 58 of the 92 passenger and eight crew members managed to escape, wading through knee-deep mud in a hailstorm to get away from the wreckage.

5 September, Indonesia: Crash on a city

An Indonesian passenger jet crashed after take-off from the Sumatran city of Medan, killing 100 of the 117 people on board and 47 people on the ground when it slammed into the Padang Bulan residential area near Medan airport. The Boeing 737-200, run by the low-cost airline Mandala, was carrying its 112 passengers and five crew to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, when it exploded just after leaving the ground and plunged into houses 500 metres from the end of the runway. The 17 aircraft survivors included an 18-month-old toddler.