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The Iranian Shootdown And Man-Caused Air Disasters

People are the weak link in aviation safety. Sometimes intentionally.

The apparent shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran earlier this week made me think about previous shootdowns of civilian airliners. I could remember offhand three additional shootdowns, one of which occurred only about five years ago. That made me speculate that guided missiles may have been one of the largest causes of air disasters in recent history.

I was curious enough that I looked up a list of air crashes by year and tallied up the total number of passenger airline fatalities around the world for the past six years. The numbers that I came up with were:

2014 – 920

2015 – 525

2016 – 302

2017- 68 (including 35 on the ground)

2018 – 520

2019 – 324 (including 10 on the ground)

2020 to date – 176

My first reaction was that the average death toll of 473 people (including the victims of the Ukrainian crash in Iran) is far higher than I would have thought. The good news is that very few of those fatalities were in the United States. Many were in third-world countries and quite a few were in Russia. Relatively few were on major airlines as well. Turboprops and regional jet airliners made up a significant portion of the total. Older aircraft were also well-represented in the list of fatal crashes.

In addition to the 176 people killed in the Iranian shootdown, I also remembered that a Malaysian Airlines 777 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in July 2014. All of the 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed.

Admittedly, the time span that I examined was somewhat arbitrary, but the 474 fatalities from the two shootdowns represent more than 16 percent of the total. To borrow an Obama-era phrase, these “man-caused disasters” represent a significant share of airline deaths over the past half-decade.

Shootdowns are not the only man-caused air disasters, however. An ISIS suicide bomber brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt in October 2015 killing 224. A Germanwings pilot committed suicide with his airplane in March 2015, killing 150. An employee of US regional airline Horizon stole a turboprop airliner and killed himself in 2018. Pilot suicide is also suspected in the disappearance of another Malaysian airliner in March 2014 with 239 passengers and crew. If we add these deaths, the share of airline fatalities since 2014 that was the result of foul play climbs to 38 percent.

While the number of foul play crashes was comparatively small, they typically occurred high-capacity airplanes with no survivors. So while there were more accidents involving small airplanes, these resulted in comparatively smaller losses of life. This is due both to the smaller capacity of these aircraft and the fact that many of the small-aircraft accidents were more survivable.

By way of comparison, the much-maligned Boeing 737 Max 8 was involved in two crashes that killed 189 and 157 people respectively. This translates into about 12 percent of the total.

Technology is making airliners much safer, the Max 8 notwithstanding. Air crashes that are the result of mechanical failures or maintenance problems are becoming increasingly rare.

As the machines become more reliable, human factors make up a larger share of air disasters. Some of those crashes are attributable to pilot error but, in our modern world, murder, suicide, and accidental shootdowns represent significant threats to airline safety.

Shootdowns are not only a third-world problem. A US Navy ship accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner back in 1988 killing 290. Five years earlier, a Russian MiG fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 killing 269 including a US congressman.

The core problem is technology that allows missiles to engage targets beyond visual range as well as human beings that can be careless, make wrong assumptions, or simply want to kill.

Technology and training can be improved. We can build airplanes and engines that are so reliable that failures are statistically insignificant. An old pilot joke is that new airplanes will carry a crew of one human pilot and a dog. The dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches anything. We probably aren’t that far from that joke becoming reality.

We can also improve training to help eliminate pilot error. Simulators teach pilots to handle the rare emergencies much better than training flights in airplanes can. Beyond teaching basic flying skills, standard operating procedures and line-oriented training attempt to instill good judgment into pilots so that they stay out of trouble in the first place.

These safety enhancements work pretty well, particularly with first-world airlines. Our Achilles heel is people: People who want to kill themselves and others and people who are at the controls of weapons systems who make bad decisions. As long as people are involved, there will be air disasters. The most we can hope to do is minimize them.

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