The Lion Air Crash and Other Times When Planes Came Down


The Lion Air Crash and Other Times When Planes Came Down

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Despite James Cameron’s best attempts to convince us otherwise in Titanic, plane crashes will always be the gold standard in blood-curdling transportation disasters. The morbid visual of a huge metal object plummeting from the sky commands a grim fascination, that’s triggered even further when the plane looks like it’s heading to crash into a crowded city.

It’s thrilling when we are watching this unfold on a screen with our 3D glasses on, but frightening when reel becomes real and a passenger aircraft crashes into the sea, like Lion Air flight in Indonesia did earlier today. The Lion Air flight was a Boeing 737 MAX 8, a brand new type of aircraft, but that did not help as pilots lost control shortly after taking off from Jakarta airport. Of the 188 souls on board, it is unclear if there are any survivors. Like these other equally shocking aircraft accidents, its a grim reminder of what can happen when humankind’s restless innovation meets the cruel hands of fate.

The Indonesian Incident


Imagine snoozing in a hotel room on a sleepy tropical island when suddenly, the roof gets taken off by a crashing plane. That’s what residents of Medan, Indonesia experienced in 2015, when a military transport plane experienced technical difficulties soon after takeoff. The pilot’s attempt to return to the airport went down in flames, literally, crashing into the town’s buildings and causing a huge fireball. One hundred and forty-one people lost their lives that day.

A New York Nightmare

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In 1960, it wasn’t just one plane crashing over a teeming city, but two. Over the city of New York, a pilot miscalculated his holding pattern, putting his plane on a collision course with another aircraft – both were passenger planes. The two planes had a combined total of 128 people on board, who all died in the mid-air collision. The final death toll, after one plane crashed in a military airfield and the other into a residential building and church, was 134.

Terror over Taiwan

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Continuing the trend of human error leading to disastrous accidents, the 2015 crash of a TransAsia flight in Taiwan was put down to the pilot’s mistake of switching off the plane’s only working engine after the other engine stopped working. In a dramatic crash captured on camera, the plane descends toward the city streets with giddying speed, clipping a bridge with its left wing before crashing into the river below. Fifty eight people were on board, but only 15 survived. The pilot was not one of them.

Mayday, Mexico City

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Moving from a straightforward instance of human incompetence, to one where the cause of the crash has led to the sprouting up of conspiracy theories, we arrive at the 2008 Mexico City crash. A government plane carrying the Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino, former Assistant Attorney General Jose Luis Santiago, and several government advisors came down at rush hour in the capital city’s busy financial district. Given that Santiago, who vigorously pursued extraditions against drug smugglers, had already been the target of an earlier assassination attempt, it was speculated that the crash might have been sabotage. Investigations revealed that the pilots were unqualified to fly the specific aircraft, and had flouted established convention by trailing a larger plane too closely, encountering unmanageable wake turbulence. This lackadaisical approach led to the loss of 16 lives.

Escape from New York

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The chances of a safe landing in a city are few and far between, as seen in Sully where Tom Hanks plays the role of the heroic Captain Sullenberger, the retired fighter pilot-turned-commercial pilot, who was responsible for what became known as “the Miracle on the Hudson”. When his flight hit a flock of geese and caused the engines to flame out soon after takeoff, Sullenberger was able to turn the plane around and nail an improbable landing on the Hudson River. Of the 155 people on board, 155 survived. That’s right. Sometimes, even plane crashes have happy endings.