The modern marvel of human flight has amazed the world since its inception. These advancements in technology have made world travel quick and easy, effectively shrinking the Earth and hastening globalization.
However, the scientific marvel of flight still has its problems. Despite the advanced technology, flight accidents, though increasingly rare, happen. As those who fear flying will be quick to explain, there are many ways a flight can go wrong, from inclement weather to mechanical or electric failure, pilot error to suicide missions and terrorist threats.
Today, flights are equipped with a variety of tools and safety measures are taken to prevent all kinds of accidents. Radar, satellite imaging, and air traffic control can be used to monitor and assist aircraft. A “black box” (which is actually orange) is installed on each aircraft to record audio and flight data to help investigators piece together what happened.
Despite all this, some flight incidents may never be fully explained. Since 70% of Earth is covered in water, some of these accidents occur over an ocean, making locating wreckage extremely difficult. Even in incidents in which wreckage is found, many questions are left unanswered. The unexplainable quickly lends itself to conspiracy theories and speculation from terrorist attacks to alien abductions.
Here is a look at some of the major airplane mysteries around the world, both solved and unsolved.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 (2014) – Unsolved Yet
En route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early morning of March 8, 2014, Flight MH370 lost contact with air traffic control, disappeared from radar, and vanished without trace. The Boeing 777 was carrying 239 people (227 passengers, 12 crew) from 15 countries.
Search and rescue crews assembled from 12 countries searched the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea before spreading the search to the Andaman Sea on March 12.
Misinformation has spread because of the many uncertainties regarding the flight, including concerns of terrorism due to two passengers using stolen passports, but terrorism has been declared unlikely in this case. Crowdsourcing efforts are in place to assist with the search using satellite images of the area.
Plane Disappearances in the World
Airplane Disappearances in the World
Air France Flight 447 (2009) – 5 Days of Agony and more
Another recent commercial flight incident happened on June 1, 2009, when Air France Flight 447 departed from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on its way to Paris, France. The flight, an Airbus A330 carrying 228 people (216 passengers, 12 crew), crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, with no survivors.
Comparisons have been drawn between the recent Malaysian Airlines event and this one, as there were also no distress signals from the crew, though the flight passed through thunderstorms.
It took 5 days to find the first sign of the wreck, where search and rescue teams found a floating section of the plane’s tail. It was another 2 years until they found the rest of the wreckage on the ocean floor, 2 miles below the water surface. Of those 228 people, 74 were never recovered. Yet another year later, the report was finally published with conclusion that the weather was the major factor in the crash. Investigators believe that ice crystals broke the autopilot by blocking speed sensors and causing the plane to stall.
Angola Boeing 727 Disappearance (2003) – Vanished into Thin Air
A Boeing 727 went missing from Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Luanda, Angola on May 25, 2003. The plane had been sitting at the airport for over a year, after being decommissioned from its commercial airline use. The seats had been removed from the plane and the paint job was nondescript. It is unknown how many people were aboard the plane when it went missing, and the aircraft’s transponder had been shut off with no authorization at takeoff. The pilot was probably Ben Charles Padilla of the United States, who had been working on restoring the plane. Padilla went missing at the same time the plane did, along with John Mickel Mutantu from the Congo. Communications with the plane ended after a request to land in the Seychelles, but it never did.
A few months later, there were reports of a sighting of the plane over Conakry, Guinea, but it turned out to be another plane. The FBI and other intelligence agencies searched for the plane. What happened to the plane and Padilla remains a mystery, but suggestions that the plane was hijacked and Padilla crashed it are possibilities.
Egypt Air Flight 990 (1999) – Disputed Cause
On Halloween of 1999, a Boeing 767 flying from Los Angeles to Cairo, Egypt made a stopover at New York City. It took off as scheduled, but crashed into the Atlantic Ocean soon after departure, leaving no survivors. There were a total of 217 on board, including 203 passengers and 14 crew.
The investigation was initially conducted by Egyptian authorities, but after evidence arose of criminal activity arose, the American NTSB became involved. The investigation lasted 2 years, and US authorities concluded that the event was a pilot suicide and a deliberate crash, judging by the plane’s trajectory and black box recordings of an argument between the captain and the first officer. Information leaks suggested suicide or terrorism, as the co-pilot is heard stating “I rely on God” shortly before the crash, and other sources claimed that he suffered from PTSD.
Egyptian authorities dispute this, and concluded that the event was the result of mechanical failure of the aircraft’s elevator power control units. The dispute caused conflict between the two countries, and Egyptians began to speculate that the crash was caused by a US military accident and that the government was attempting to cover it up.
TWA Flight 800 (1996) – 4 Years of Mystery
On June 17, 1996, a Boeing 747 departing JFK International (New York City) and headed for Paris crashed shortly after takeoff, leaving no survivors. There were 230 people aboard, including 212 passengers and 18 crew. Though the plane wreckage was found quickly, the cause of the crash took 4 years to uncover. The conclusion: likely faulty wiring that caused the fuel tank to explode.
The lengthy investigation left plenty of time for conspiracy theories, however, which include a bomb, shoulder-launched missile strike from terrorists or the US Navy, and talks of a government coverup. Theories live on decades later, and in fact in 2013, the NTSB reiterated that there was no radar evidence and no witness testimony of a missile strike.
USAir Flight 427 (1994) – Sinister Designs?
On September 8, 1994, a Boeing 737 flying from Chicago O’Hare to Pittsburgh crashed just before landing, killing all 127 passengers and 5 crew members. The aircraft was controlled by a captain and first officer with many years of experience. On the approach to Pittsburgh, the plane stalled, rolling on its side before nosediving on land near a shopping center and highway about 10 miles from the airport. The true cause of the crash was under investigation for 4.5 years, one of the longest in history. Though much of the plane was destroyed in the crash, the black box was located soon after the accident, but it was clear that the crew had not known the exact problem. The flight data was studied and a conclusion was finally reached, regarded as malfunction of the rudder. However, this was USAir’s second crash in as many months, causing more speculation about the airline, which was deep in debt at the time, pointing to lack of maintenance or something more sinister.
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (1972) – Miracle of the Andes
On October 13, 1972, a chartered flight from Montevideo, Uruguay bound for Santiago, Chile crashed into the Andes Mountains. The plane, a twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D, was owned by the Uruguayan Air Force and carried 40 passengers, including the Old Christians Club rugby union team, and 5 crew. With bad weather conditions, the flight path was altered and headwinds slowed the plane. These factors along with cloud cover in the mountains made the pilots unable to determine they were off course, and they crashed into the mountains.
18 people died either on impact or within some time soon. Three countries sent rescue crews, but even after 8 days they had found nothing. The remaining survivors put in the best efforts to get rescued, they learned via transistor radio that the search was called off and lost hope. Once the plane’s food supply was exhausted, and after weeks without food, some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism of the others who did not make it. On October 29, an avalanche tragically killed 8 more of the survivors and buried the plane. The remaining survivors decided to send a search group out to hike through the mountains and find help. The two hikers, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa hiked for days until they found help on December 22, 1972, and helicopter rescue crews picked up 16 final survivors. They had survived 72 days after the accident, in what is known as the Miracle of the Andes.
Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 (1962) – Failed Military Mission
On March 16, 1962, the US military charter, Flying Tiger Line Flight 739, carrying 93 US soldiers and 3 soldiers from South Vietnam vanished over the Pacific Ocean between Guam and Clark Air Base in the Philippines. The flight departed from Travis Air Force Base in California, bound for Saigon, with refueling stops along the way, including Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam and Clark Air Base.
No traces of the plane, a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation propliner, were ever found, despite one of the largest air and sea recovery attempts ever. Rescuers covered over 520,000 kilometers over 8 days, and the US Civil Aeronautics board eventually announced that they were “unable to determine the probable cause of the incident.”
The only hint of an answer was a civilian tanker that cited seeing a bright flash in the sky at around the right time, suggesting an in-flight explosion. Other potential theories include sabotage or conspiracy.
Pan Am Flight 7 (1957) – Clipper Romance of the Skies
Known as the Clipper Romance of the Skies, the Pan Am Flight 7 – normally heading west from San Francisco around the world to finally land in Philadelphia after many stops – vanished on the night of November 9, 1957. Between takeoff from San Francisco and its first stop in Honolulu, the plane crashed into the Pacific, killing all 44 people on board, including 36 passengers and 8 crew.
The Coast Guard sent out search and rescue crews in a massive search for the wreck, locating it on November 14, retrieving 15 bodies floating with life jackets. What happened to the plane remains unknown, though evidence of high levels of carbon monoxide suggested that was the cause. Other theories include engine failure, interference from the crew, or a scheme involving insurance fraud and explosives.
Many planes have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle, off the coast of the southeastern United States and over many Caribbean Islands, where compass variations are powerful.
Flight Star Tiger (1948) – Gone with the Wind
A British South American Airways flight from Santa Maria, in the Portuguese Azores Islands (in the middle of the Atlantic) was headed for Bermuda on January 28, 1948. The plane, an Avro Tudor IV, began in Lisbon but had to refuel in the Azores, stopping overnight. It carried 25 passengers and 6 crew through the windy conditions across the ocean the next day. Ten hours into the 12 hour flight, in the middle of the night, the plane had been blown off course and was battling a storm. The plane lost contact with other nearby flights (which had no problems caused by weather), and was never heard from again.
Search efforts included 26 aircrafts and 882 hours total in the 5 days after the disappearance, but not a trace was ever recovered. After an 11-day investigation, authorities found that “the fate of Star Tiger must remain an unsolved mystery.”
Possible explanations include flying at too low an altitude that the crew forgot they were flying at only 2,000 feet instead of 20,000 feet and crashed into the water upon descent. There also were problems with altimeters reading low elevations at the time.
Other suggestions include sabotage and the perils of the Bermuda Triangle itself.
Flight 19 (1945) – No Trace of 6 Planes
On December 5, 1945, 5 Navy Avenger planes embarked on a training mission over the Atlantic Ocean, near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The pilots began to report extreme disorientation and nausea during the flight and lost contact with the air station. All 5 planes vanished, and a PBM Mariner sea plane was sent out to search and rescue, but it too disappeared, making for a total of 6 lost planes and 27 crew members. Rescuers searched an area of 700,000 square miles over 5 days, but no debris, oil, or traces of the planes were ever found.
Amelia Earhart (1937) – Braveheart Lost to the World
Amelia Earhart, known as the Queen of the Air, was famous for flying planes, as the first female pilot to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean at age 30 in 1928. But years later, on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, she was not as successful. About a month into the trip, on July 2, 1937, her twin-engine Electra monoplane went missing over the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Holwand Island. Despite a multi-million dollar search, not a trace of Earhart or her plane was ever found. She was declared dead in 1939.
Several theories have emerged to explain the disappearance, including the plane running out of fuel, it crashing into an island of Japan, or that she survived a crash and starved on a remote island, and even that she survived and changed her name, living a normal life.