The United States boasts one of the safest skies for aviation in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it has a squeaky clean accident record. The country has witnessed plenty of air incidents, especially in the mid-20th century, some of which remain the worst airline crashes in US history. Here’s our list of the five worst accidents that have ever occurred on US soil.
1. American Airlines Flight 191
Fatalities: 273 total; 258 passengers and 13 crew members
The crash of American Airlines Flight 191 is one of the deadliest ever, claiming the lives of 273 people when the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 operating this flight lost its left engine on takeoff and slammed into an open field. On May 25, 1979, flight AA191 bound for Los Angeles International Airport was operating a regularly scheduled domestic passenger service and taking off from runway 32R of Chicago O’Hare International Airport when one of its engines detached from the wings.
The separation of the number-1 engine smashed the forward edge of the wing, severing the hydraulic lines that controlled the wing. Due to the disrupted and unbalanced aerodynamics of the aircraft, it soon lost its control and eventually crashed into a field around 1400m from the end of the runway. All people onboard, i.e., 258 passengers and 13 crew members, lost their lives, and the aircraft was entirely damaged by the impact force and fuel ignition. Besides, the crash killed two employees working at a repair garage in the vicinity of the accident site.
2. American Airlines flight 587
Fatalities: 265; 251 passengers, nine crew members, and five people on the ground
The second horrible air crash involved the disaster of American Airlines flight 587 on November 12, 2001. AA587 was a regularly scheduled international passenger flight on the New York JFK-Santo Domingo route. The Airbus A300B4-605R deployed on the route had just taken off from John F. Kennedy International Airport carrying 260 aboard when it suddenly crashed into a neighborhood in Belle Harbor, Queens. A total of 265 people, including 251 passengers, nine crew, and five people on the ground, lost their lives as a result of the horrible crash.
Despite the accident being widely rumored as a terrorist attack, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the crash to the first officer’s aggressive use of rudder control which eventually caused the separation of the vertical stabilizer and two engines from the aircraft.
3. Trans World Airlines Flight 800
Fatalities: 230; 212 passengers and 18 crew members
Another worst air accident in the history of the United States is the explosion of the jumbo jet Boeing 747-100 performing Trans World Airlines Flight 800. On July 17, 1996, TWA flight 800, a scheduled international passenger flight, was carrying 230 people onboard on the New York JFK-Rome route. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, due to the explosion of flammable fuel vapors in the center fuel tank. All 230 passengers and crew onboard were killed in the explosion.
TWA Flight 800 resulted in a large-scale investigation with extensive inquiries and consequent changes. It became one of the most extensive, complex, and costly air crash investigations of that time, taking four years and one month for NTSB’s report to be published. The key improvement to flight protocols and equipment following the investigation into this horrendous crash is the development of additional requirements for aircraft to prevent fuel tank explosions.
4. Northwest Airlines flight 255
Fatalities: 156; 149 passengers, six crew, and two people on the ground
On August 16, 1987, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 operating Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed in Romulus, Michigan, shortly after takeoff from Detroit Airport, resulting in one of the worst air accidents ever in the United States. There were altogether 154 fatalities, including 148 passengers, all six crew members, and two people on the ground. Only a four-year-old girl named Cecilia Cichan survived the horrendous crash despite severe injuries.
The improper takeoff configuration due to pilot error, mismanagement of the aircraft, and confusion are the primary reasons behind this tragedy.
5. Pan Am Flight 759
Fatalities: 153; 138 passengers, seven crew, and eight people on the ground
Pan Am Flight 759, a regularly scheduled domestic passenger flight of American mainstay Pan Am, became the worst catastrophe on US soil when it crashed in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, killing all 145 people onboard. The Boeing 727-235 bound for San Diego International Airport was flying from Miami International Airport when the aircraft encountered microburst-induced wind shear during the liftoff, forcing the jet down. The terrible disaster killed all 138 passengers and seven crew, along with eight people on the ground.