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An aviation accident is defined by the Convention on International Civil Aviation Annex 13 as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft, which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight until all such persons have disembarked, where a person is fatally or seriously injured, the aircraft sustains damage or structural failure or the aircraft is missing or is completely inaccessible. If the accident includes damage to the aircraft such that it must be written off, or in which the plane is destroyed, it is further defined as a hull loss accident.
The first fatal aviation accident was the crash of a Rozière balloon near Wimereux, France, on June 15, 1785, killing its inventor Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier as well as the other occupant, Pierre Romain. The first involving a powered aircraft was the crash of a Wright Model A aircraft at Fort Myer, Virginia, USA, on September 17, 1908, injuring its co-inventor and pilot, Orville Wright, and killing the passenger, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge.
Excluding the nearly 3,000 combined fatalities instigated by terrorists using four aircraft during the September 11 attacks, there have been 15 incidents with a death toll between 250 and 499 (passengers plus crew plus ground). Only two incidents have resulted in 500 or more fatalities each – the Tenerife two-aircraft disaster and the single-aircraft Japan Airlines Flight 123.
583: The Tenerife disaster, which happened on March 27, 1977, remains the accident with the highest number of airliner passenger fatalities. 583 people died when a KLM Boeing 747 attempted to take off without clearance, and collided with a taxiing Pan Am 747 at Los Rodeos Airport on the Canary Island of Tenerife, Spain. There were no survivors from the KLM aircraft; 61 of the 396 passengers and crew on the Pan Am aircraft survived. Pilot error was the primary cause. Due to a communication misunderstanding, the KLM captain thought he had clearance for takeoff. Another cause was dense fog, meaning the KLM flight crew was unable to see the Pan Am aircraft on the runway until immediately prior to the collision. The accident had a lasting influence on the industry, particularly in the area of communication. An increased emphasis was placed on using standardized phraseology in air traffic control (ATC) communication by both controllers and pilots alike, thereby reducing the chance for misunderstandings. As part of these changes, the word "takeoff" was removed from general usage, and is only spoken by ATC when actually clearing an aircraft to take off.
520: The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 on August 12, 1985 is the single-aircraft disaster with the highest number of fatalities: 520 died on board a Boeing 747. The aircraft suffered an explosive decompression from an incorrectly repaired aft pressure bulkhead, which failed in mid flight, destroying most of its vertical stabilizer and severing all of the hydraulic lines, making the 747 virtually uncontrollable. Pilots were able to keep the plane flying for 32 minutes after the mechanical failure before crashing into a mountain. Remarkably, several people survived, but by the time the Japanese rescue teams arrived at the crash site, all but four had succumbed to their injuries.
349: On November 12, 1996, the world's deadliest mid-air collision was the 1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision involving Saudia Flight 763 and Air Kazakhstan Flight 1907 over Haryana, India. The crash was mainly the result of the Kazakh pilot flying lower than the assigned clearance altitude. All 349 passengers and crew on board both aircraft died. The Ramesh Chandra Lahoti Commission, empowered to study the causes, recommended the creation of "air corridors" to prevent aircraft from flying in opposite directions at the same altitude. The Civil Aviation Authorities in India made it mandatory for all aircraft flying in and out of India to be equipped with a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), setting a world wide precedent for mandatory use of TCAS.
346: On March 3, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, crashed in a forest northeast of Paris, France. The London-bound plane crashed shortly after taking off from Orly airport; all 346 people on board died. It was later determined that the cargo door detached, which caused an explosive decompression; this caused the floor just above to collapse. The collapsed floor severed the control cables, which left the pilots without control of the elevators, the rudder and No. 2 engine. The plane entered a steep dive and crashed. It was the deadliest plane crash of all time until the Tenerife disaster in 1977.
329: On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 Boeing 747-237B crashed off the southwest coast of Ireland when a bomb exploded in the cargo hold. All 307 passengers and 22 crew members died. One passenger had checked in as "M. Singh". Singh did not board the flight, however, his suitcase containing the bomb was loaded onto the plane. "Mr Singh" was never identified and captured. It was later determined Sikh extremists were behind the bombing as a retaliation for the Indian government's attack on the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, which is very important for the Sikhs. This was, at the time, the deadliest terrorist attack involving an airplane.
301: On August 19, 1980, Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 163, a Lockheed L-1011 became the world's deadliest aviation accident that did not involve a physical crash. The crew performed a successful emergency landing after a fire broke out in the aft C-3 baggage compartment, which eventually burned through the ceiling of that compartment and then expanded into the aft passenger cabin. While the crew managed to land the plane safely, the Captain did not stop immediately and order an evacuation. Instead, he took the time to taxi off the runway and by then, everyone had become unconscious and no one opened any doors to begin the evacuation. All 301 passengers and crew died in the fire before rescue ground crews could open any door.
298: On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board was shot down in an area of Eastern Ukraine near the Ukraine/Russian border. No survivors have been reported following this accident. There were 283 passengers, including 3 infants, and 15 crew members on board MH17. The crew were all Malaysian, while the 283 passengers were of various nationalities, the majority of them from the Netherlands. According to a Dutch report, high-energy objects hit the plane in midair, causing it to break apart.
290: On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655, an Iranian civilian airliner, was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles from the U.S. Navy's guided missile cruiser, USS Vincennes, over the Strait of Hormuz. All 290 passengers and crew aboard died. 
275: On February 19, 2003, an Iranian military Ilyushin Il-76 crashed in mountainous terrain near Kerman in Iran. The official report says bad weather brought the aircraft down; high winds and fog were present at the time of the crash.
273: On May 25, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191, following improper maintenance and the loss of an engine, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10, lost control and crashed near O'Hare International Airport in Des Plaines, Illinois. The crash resulted in the deaths of all 271 passengers and crew on board, as well as two people on the ground. It remains the deadliest commercial aircraft accident in the United States history, and was also the country's deadliest aviation disaster until the September 11 attacks in 2001.
270: On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747–121 bound for New York-JFK from London-Heathrow with continued service to Detroit, was destroyed by a terrorist bomb over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. All 243 passengers and 16 crew, and 11 people on the ground (all residents of Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie), died, making it the worst terrorist attack involving an aircraft in the UK. This remains the deadliest terrorist attack on British soil. Following the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed new security measures on American airlines flying out of 103 airports in Western Europe and the Middle East.
269: On September 1, 1983, a Soviet interceptor Sukhoi Su-15 shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a Boeing 747-230B, after it flew into Soviet airspace; all 269 passengers and crew on board died.
265: On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, New York, just after departing John F. Kennedy International Airport bound for Las Américas International Airport, Santo Domingo. The first officer's overuse of the rudder in response to wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines 747 was cited as cause. All 260 people on board, as well as five people on the ground, died from the crash. It is the second-deadliest aviation accident on U.S. soil, after American Airlines Flight 191.
264: On 26 April, 1994, China Airlines Flight 140 was completing a routine flight and approach at Nagoya Airport, Japan, when the Airbus A300B4-622R's First Officer inadvertently pressed the Takeoff/Go-around button which raises the throttle position to the same as take offs and go-arounds. The action and the two pilots' reaction resulted in a crash that killed 264 (15 crew and 249 passengers) of the 271 (15 crew and 256 passengers) people aboard.
261: On July 11, 1991, Nigeria Airways Flight 2120, a Douglas DC-8-61 aircraft operated by Nationair Canada, crashed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia after two tires ignited upon takeoff, leading to an in-flight fire. All 261 people died. It is the deadliest aviation accident involving a DC-8, and the largest aviation disaster involving a Canadian-registered aircraft.
257: On November 28, 1979, Air New Zealand Flight 901, an Antarctic sightseeing flight, collided with Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew on board. The flight crew had not been informed that the computer coordinates for the flight path of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 had been changed the night before, directing the flight directly into Mount Erebus rather than the usual path down McMurdo Sound.
256: On December 12, 1985, a Douglas DC-8, Arrow Air Flight 1285, carrying American military personnel on a charter flight home for Christmas, crashed in Newfoundland; all 248 passengers and 8 crew members died. The Canadian Aviation Safety Board investigating the cause of the crash issued two different reports: The majority report cited ice on the wings as cause of the crash; the minority report suggests an explosion was the likely cause.
In over one hundred years of implementation, aviation safety has improved considerably. In modern times, two major manufacturers still produce heavy passenger aircraft for the civilian market: Boeing in the United States of America, and the European company Airbus. Both place huge emphasis on the use of aviation safety equipment, now a billion-dollar industry in its own right; for each, safety is a major selling point—realizing that a poor safety record in the aviation industry is a threat to corporate survival. Some major safety devices now required in commercial aircraft involve:
Measured on a passenger-distance calculation, air travel is the safest form of transportation available: Figures mentioned are the ones shared by the air industry when quoting air safety statistics. A typical statement, e.g., by the BBC: "UK airline operations are among the safest anywhere. When compared to all other modes of transport, on a "fatality per mile basis", air transport is the safest — six times safer than traveling by car; twice as safe as rail."
However, when measured by fatalities per person transported, buses are the safest form of transportation. The number of air travel fatalities per person is surpassed only by bicycles and motorcycles. This statistic is used by the insurance industry when calculating insurance rates for air travel.
Per every billion kilometers traveled, trains have a fatality rate 12 times over air travel; by comparison, fatality rates for automobiles are 62 times greater than air travel. By contrast, for every billion journeys, buses are the safest form of transportation. By the last measure, air transportation is three times more dangerous than car transportation, and almost 30 times more dangerous than bus.
A 2007 study by Popular Mechanics found passengers sitting at the back of a plane are 40% more likely to survive a crash than those sitting in the front. Although this article quotes Boeing, the FAA and a website on aircraft safety, all claim there is no "safest" seat. The article studied 20 crashes, not taking into account the developments in safety after those accidents. However, a flight data recorder is usually mounted in the aircraft's empennage (tail section), where it is more likely to survive a severe crash.
Over 95% of people in U.S. plane crashes, between 1983 and 2000, survived.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) collects voluntarily submitted aviation safety incident/situation reports from pilots, controllers and others. The ASRS uses reports to identify system deficiencies, issue alert messages, and produce two publication, CALLBACK, and ASRS Directline. The collected information is made available to the public, and is used by the FAA, NASA and other organizations working in research and flight safety.
The Aircraft Crashes Record Office (ACRO), a non-government organization based in Geneva, compiles statistics on aviation accidents of aircraft capable of carrying more than six passengers, excluding helicopters, balloons, and combat aircraft. Note that ACRO only considers accidents in which the aircraft has suffered such damage that it is removed from service, which will further reduce the statistics for incidents and fatalities compared to some other data.
According to ACRO, recent years have been considerably safer for aviation, with fewer than 140 accidents every year between 2009 and 2013, compared to as many as 211 as recently as 1999.
Annual fatalities have been less than 1,000 in six of the ten years since 2004, with 2013 experiencing the lowest number of fatalities, at 265, since the end of World War II. The nearly 3,000 deaths associated with the September 11 attacks escalated 2001 to a total of 4,140 deaths, the most since the end of World War II.
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The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is tasked by Article 15(4) of Regulation (EC) No 216/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of February 20, 2008 to provide an annual review of aviation safety.
The Annual Safety Review presents statistics on European and worldwide civil aviation safety. Statistics are grouped according to type of operation, for instance, commercial air transport, and aircraft category, such as aeroplanes, helicopters, gliders, etc. The Agency has access to accident and statistical information collected by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). States are required, according to ICAO Annex 13, on Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation, to report to ICAO information, on accidents and serious incidents to aircraft with a maximum certificated take-off mass (MTOM) over 2250 kg. Therefore, most statistics in this review concern aircraft above this mass. In addition to the ICAO data, a request was made to the EASA Member States to obtain light aircraft accident data. Furthermore, data on the operation of aircraft for commercial air transport was obtained from both ICAO and the NLR Air Transport Safety Institute.
Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention provides the international Standards And Recommended Practices that form the basis for air accident and incident investigations by signatory countries, as well as reporting and preventative measures. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is specifically focused on preventing accidents, rather than determining liability.
Within Australia, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau is the federal government body responsible for investigating transport-related accidents and incidents, covering air, sea, and rail travel. Formerly an agency of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, in 2010, in the interests of keeping its independence it became a stand alone agency.
In Brazil, the Aeronautical Accidents Investigation and Prevention Center (CENIPA) was established under the auspices of the Aeronautical Accident Investigation and Prevention Center, a Military Organization of the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). The organization is responsible for the activities of aircraft accident prevention, and investigation of civil and military aviation occurrences. Formed in 1971, and in accordance with international standards, CENIPA represented a new philosophy: investigations are conducted with the sole purpose of promoting the "prevention of aeronautical accidents".
In Canada, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB/BST), is an independent agency responsible for the advancement of transportation safety through the investigation and reporting of accident and incident occurrences in all prevalent Canadian modes of transportation — marine, air, rail and pipeline.
In France, the agency responsible for investigation of civilian air crashes is the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile (BEA). Its purpose is to establish the circumstances and causes of the accident and to make recommendations for their future avoidance.
In Germany, the agency for investigating air crashes is the Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation (BFU). It is an agency of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development. The focus of the BFU is to improve safety by determining the causes of accidents and serious incidents and making safety recommendations to prevent recurrence.
In Hong Kong, the Civil Aviation Department 's Flight Standards & Airworthiness Division and Accident Investigation Division are charged with accident investigation involving aircraft within Hong Kong.
Created in 1999 in Italy, the Agenzia Nazionale per la Sicurezza del Volo (ANSV), has two main tasks: conducting technical investigations for civil aviation aircraft accidents and incidents, while issuing safety recommendations as appropriate; and conducting studies and surveys aimed at increasing flight safety. The organization is also responsible for establishing and maintaining the “voluntary reporting system.” Although not under the supervision of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, the ANSV is a public authority under the oversight of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers of Italy.
In New Zealand, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC), is responsible for the investigation of air accidents. "The Commission‟s purpose, as set out in its Act, is to determine the circumstances and causes of aviation, rail and maritime accidents, and incidents, with a view to avoiding similar occurrences in the future, rather than to ascribe blame to any person." The TAIC will investigate in accordance with annex 13 of the ICAO
In Russia, the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC, MAK according to the original Russian name) is an executive body overseeing the use and management of civil aviation in the Commonwealth of Independent States. This Organization investigates air accidents in the former USSR area under the umbrella of the Air Accident Investigation Commission of the Interstate Aviation Committee.
In the United Kingdom, the agency responsible for investigation of civilian air crashes is the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) of the Department for Transport. Its purpose is to establish the circumstances and causes of the accident and to make recommendations for their future avoidance.
United States civil aviation incidents are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). NTSB officials piece together evidence from the crash site to determine likely cause, or causes. The NTSB also investigates oversea incidents involving US-registered aircraft, in collaboration with local investigative authorities, especially when there is significant loss of American lives, or when the involved aircraft is American built.
It is common for an airline to cease using the flight number of a fatal crash, although that is not always the case. For example, the following continue to be used: Japan Airlines 123, Aeroflot Flight 593, Aero Flight 311, Iran Air Flight 655, United Airlines Flights numbered 608, 624, and 823, Aer Lingus Flight 712, and US Airways Flight 1016.
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At press time no information had been released concerning the flightdata and cockpit-voice recorder of Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC-10 ZK-NZP which crashed on Mount Erebus on 28 November.
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