Civil aviation minister Praful Patel has said “human error” was the reason behind the Air India Express plane crash in Mangalore.
A study of accident data suggests pilot error is primarily responsible for plane crashes, most of which happen during the approach and landing phase of an aircraft.
Aviation expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan says human error in the Mangalore crash cannot be ruled out. “Most plane crashes in the world have happened due to human/pilot error.”
In data compiled by planecrashinfo.com of 1,300 fatal accidents of commercial aircraft across the world from 1950 to 2000, total pilot error emerges as the main contributor (total pilot errors includes pilot error, pilot error due to weather and pilot error due to mechanical failure).
Analysis of the data reveals some clear trends. For example, over the years, while pilot error due to weather and mechanical failure kept rising, crashes purely due to pilot error showed a decrease. In the 1950s, crashes due to pilot error were 40%, but came down to 24% in the 1970s and 26% in 2000. But crashes due to pilot error due to weather increased from 11% in the 1950s to 14% in the 1970s to 17% in 2000.
“Earlier, safety features in aircraft were not that sophisticated, leaving a large scope for pilot error,” Ranganathan says. “But since 2000, crashes due to pilot error have decreased with refined safety features coming in.”
The second reason for crashes is mechanical failure. Fatal accidents due to mechanical failure rose from 21% in the 1950s to 23% in the 1970s to 28% in 2000.
According to a statistical summary by Boeing of commercial jets from 1959 to 2000, planes crashed more during the final approach (11%) and landing phase (25%) than during take-off (12%), initial climb (8%) and the cruise period (10%). “This is because it is very easy to get airborne, but difficult to land. Landing is a skill,” says an ex-commander of Jet Airways.
However, if the crash is during the take-off period, the fatalities are more (16%) compared to final approach (13%) and landing (12%) deaths. “The reason is that when an aircraft takes off, its fuel tank is full,” he says. “So when it crashes, there is more combustion vis-à-vis a crash during landing when the tank has minimum fuel.”