About the show

Statistically, traveling by airplane is safer than driving and other forms of transportation, but when something goes wrong during a flight, it can be catastrophic with potentially hundreds of lives at stake. This series examines some of the world's worst air disasters, using official reports, transcripts and interviews with people involved to tell the stories of midair mishaps and discover what went wrong in each case. 


Upcoming episodes

Sep 22nd

Fanning the Flames

"November 27, 1987 — A South African Airlines 747 is on a routine flight from Taiwan to Johannesburg when the cabin begins filling with smoke. As passengers struggle to breathe, crew members battle a fire in the cargo hold. Known as a combi, the aircraft is equipped to carry both passengers and cargo on the main level. There are 159 people and six large palettes of cargo on board.Less than an hour from home, the pilots must land their damaged aircraft – but they are over the Indian Ocean and the closest airport is 300 kilometers away on the island of Mauritius. The fire is burning through the plane’s wiring, the smoke is getting thicker, and the passengers are literally choking to death. Time is running out.The pilots attempt a rare maneuver to ventilate the aircraft. They descend to 14,000 feet where they instruct the cabin crew to open the doors. At that altitude, passengers can breathe the outside air – and the difference in pressure will clear the smoke. The pilots remain in contact with air traffic control in Mauritius, but even as the captain is being briefed about emergency landing procedures, the flight disappears without a trace. The next day, an oil slick, floating wreckage, and eight bodies confirm the worst. An investigation is launched to determine what caused the crash. Was there a bomb on board? Had South Africa been the target of terrorists? What cargo had the plane been carrying? Could it be linked to the fire?As the national carrier, South African Airlines is closely linked to the country’s Apartheid government. Conspiracy theories abound. Investigators are keen to figure out what caused the fire on this plane. The floating wreckage shows no signs of an explosion. Investigators now must decide whether to try to find and recover wreckage that’s deeper than the remains of the Titanic. Investigators ultimately commission the most expensive underwater salvage operation in history. After a painstaking exploration on the ocean floor, they finally locate and recover the wreckage, including the all-important cockpit voice recorders.Although the Combi is designed to not allow smoke to move from the cargo compartment to the passenger cabin, investigators discover that’s precisely what happened on this flight. They also learn there were problems with the aircraft’s emergency checklist. The checklist for clearing smoke calls for the crew to activate re-circulating fans and to open the cabin doors. But since the fire was still burning, activating the fans may have increased the amount of toxic smoke in the cabin. Opening the doors may have fed the still smoldering fire, making it worse. Investigators find enough evidence on the ocean floor to conclude that the fire originated in the cargo hold, and that it was more violent than they had originally suspected. But nothing listed on the plane’s manifest could have caused a fire. There are suspicions that the plane was carrying arms. At the time South Africa was under an international arms embargo, and was fighting a war. Even though the official investigation finds no evidence to support that theory, the rumours do not go away.Ten years later, a second commission re-examines the accident, and reaches a controversial conclusion. The investigation confirms the suspicious nature of the accident, and determines that undeclared cargo caused the fire. Without further information, however, investigators accept that the complete story of Flight 295 will forever remain a mystery."
Sep 23rd

Heavy Lift Off

"January 8, 2003 — A small commuter aircraft prepares for a half-hour flight from Charlotte to Greenville, North Carolina. Following standard procedure, the flight crew calculates the weight of all baggage, passengers, and fuel. Handlers raise concerns about heavy luggage, but the crew’s calculations show the plane is not carrying excess weight. After checking flight controls and being cleared by the tower, the pilots takeoff.Within seconds, the nose of the aircraft pitches dramatically upwards. The crew struggles desperately to right their plane. They’re just 350 meters off the ground when the plane stalls and plummets to the ground. Air-traffic controllers watch helplessly as the plane clips a packed US Airways hangar and explodes.The resulting fire threatens to engulf the entire hangar along with the planes and people still inside. Firefighters eventually get the inferno under control. But there are no survivors – all 21 people who were on board the plane are dead.Investigators comb the wreckage for clues. Among the debris, investigators discover the shredded remains of the aircraft’s elevator control cables. These cables control the pitch of the plane’s elevator which moves the plane up and down. One of the cables is far shorter than it should be.Investigators eventually learn that the cables had been adjusted by mechanics days earlier. They are shocked to learn that the mechanics performing the work had skipped nine of the required 25 steps in the cable-tightening procedure. That mistake caused the elevator’s downward movement to be cut in half. When the plane’s nose pitched up, the badly rigged elevator prevented the crew from regaining control of their plane. Investigators conclude that there was nothing the flight crew could have done to save their aircraft.The conclusion is a victory for investigators – but it also leaves them stumped. Why had the plane been able to fly successfully on nine occasions after the faulty maintenance? They determine that the crew performed their weight calculations correctly, using an industry accepted average weight of 175 pounds per passenger. Investigators subsequently weigh passengers at airports around the world and discover that the average passenger actually weighs 200 pounds. That discrepancy meant that Flight 5481 was in fact overweight, with too much weight at the rear of the plane. The excess weight caused the plane’s nose to tilt up, the faulty cables prevented the crew from getting the nose back down. Investigators had uncovered an error which had been putting millions of passengers at risk.As a result of the investigation industry weight averages were adjusted, and technology was developed to weigh passengers before they board small planes."
Sep 24th

Southern Storm

"April 4, 1977 — A DC-9 takes off in heavy rain for a 25-minute flight from Huntsville to Atlanta, Georgia. The flight crew is expecting some turbulence, but is unprepared for the increasingly dangerous weather. Using their onboard radar the crew navigates towards a break in the storm. But within minutes, hail the size of baseballs is beating down on the aircraft. The cockpit’s thick windshield cracks. Suddenly the aircraft loses electrical power, and then, both engines fail. If the crew can’t get to an airport, they’re going to crash. The plane finally emerges from the storm near the town of New Hope Georgia – but they’ve fallen too far to reach an airport. First Officer Lyman Keele directs his Captain to start looking for a place to land. They settle on Georgia State Highway 92, the rural road that runs through the small town of New Hope Georgia. The plane careens down the asphalt and plows into a gas station, igniting a fireball, and causing the plane to break up. The aircraft finally comes to a stop in the front yard of a local home. The survivors flee the flaming wreckage, but 80 people – including eight on the ground – are dead. Investigators must determine why the pilots flew into such a severe storm, and what caused the engines to fail. They learn that the pilots used their onboard radar to find a safe exit from the intensifying storm. The two experienced pilots agreed that there was a “hole” in the storm ahead. But in fact what they flew towards was the most intense part of the storm. It was so intense that the plane’s radar couldn’t read it – making it look like a hole.While examining the remains of the plane’s engines, investigators discover severe damage to the compressor blades. The blades compress air before feeding it to the engine’s combustion chamber. But the torrential rain and pounding hail had disrupted the airflow into the engines. That disruption caused the compressor’s powerful fan blades to bend and rub against each other. The engines then tore themselves apart. The crew could not possibly have restarted the engines.While analyzing the flight path, investigators discover one final, tragic error. There was an airport close enough for Flight 242 to land at. But controllers didn’t know it was there, it just beyond the range of their radar. The investigation’s recommendations lead to an industry-wide upgrade in weather radar systems for both aircraft and Air Traffic Control Centers."
Sep 25th

Explosive Evidence

"June 23, 1985 — Air India Flight 182 is cruising over the Atlantic Ocean – on its way from Canada to India. Air traffic controllers in Shannon, Ireland are monitoring the flight when suddenly its signal disappears from their screens. Search and rescue crews are quickly dispatched to scour the North Atlantic for the plane. Within hours, pieces of the aircraft and bodies are found scattered on the ocean surface. All 329 people on board the 747 are dead. And investigators begin the painstaking process of unraveling the mysterious tragedy. The wreckage is spread over nine square miles of the ocean floor. This is a vital clue for investigators. It tells them that the plane disintegrated at a great height. Autopsies also show the passengers died before they hit the water – another clue that something catastrophic had happened while the plane was flying. Investigators soon suspect the aircraft was brought down by mid-air explosion caused either by a sudden decompression… or by a bomb. To confirm the cause investigators must retrieve vital clues from the ocean floor. The plane’s data recorders as well as key pieces of wreckage are brought to the surface for analysis. The plane’s recorders indicate that the Flight crew had no warning of the disaster. There were no signs that anything was wrong with the plane – until it vanished from radar. Pieces of wreckage from the floor of the cargo hold are found to have small holes – blown from the inside of the plane to the outside. Investigators come to a horrifying conclusion – Air India 182 was brought down by a bomb.Police investigators soon connect the bombing of Air India to another bombing on the same day. A suitcase had exploded at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. It was being loaded onto another Air India Flight. Investigators find fragments from a stereo tuner which they conclude was carrying the bomb. They trace the tuner to a store near Vancouver, British Columbia. They also discover that on the day of the bombing a passenger in Vancouver checked a bag through to New Delhi, but never boarded the flight.The man who built the bomb is ultimately charged and jailed. The man thought to have masterminded the plot is killed while under arrest in India. Police never find the man who checked the bag onto the Air India Flight.The investigation’s many recommendations lead to major improvements in the way luggage is screened, and to stricter regulations for forwarding luggage on connecting flights. The quality of training for security guards also comes under scrutiny, and continues to be an area of concern for security experts."
Sep 26th

Ocean Landing

"When Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 departed from Addis Ababa on November 23, 1996, it was carrying 163 passengers and 12 crew members. Among them were an American diplomat, a legendary news cameraman, and three young Ethiopians with a deadly plan. Twenty minutes into the flight, the three young men rushed the cockpit and hijacked the aircraft. They demanded that the plane switch course to Australia – an 11-hour flight. It was a suicidal request – the plane had only three hours of fuel.Captain Leol Abate had been hijacked twice before. When he was unable to convince the hijackers to change their destination, he developed a back-up plan. Without their knowledge, he headed toward the tiny Comoros Islands. An airport there might be his last chance. With fuel running out, the hijackers refused to change their mind – and refused to let the Captain land at the Comoros airport. Abate’s only option was an extremely dangerous ditching at sea. With the help of his co-pilot Abate does his best to save his plane and those on board. The plane crashes into the sea 500 yards from a Comoros beach. Its final few, terrifying seconds are caught on video by someone watching from shore. The hijackers are all killed in the crash. The pilot, co-pilot and 50 others survive. Flight 961 remains one of the deadliest hijackings in history. In 1997, the pilot and co-pilot received the Flight Safety Foundation Award for their bravery."
Sep 26th

Miracle Escape

"August 2, 2005 - In a raging thunderstorm, after a difficult landing, Air France 358 skids off the runway in Toronto. As it crashes, the left engine catches fire. More than 300 passengers and crew have only seconds to escape. With only half of the emergency exits open, and only two of the slides deployed, frantic passengers fight through flames and thickening smoke. In less than three minutes, the plane is completely engulfed by fire. Barefoot, without luggage, survivors emerge by the side of Toronto’s busiest highway, and catch rides back to the airport from bewildered commuters. When all are accounted for, miraculously, all on board escape the crash. The investigation reveals that weather wasn’t the only – or even most important – cause of the accident. Co-pilot inexperience may have contributed significantly. But more importantly, there were eight other runway over runs in the world last year which killed more than 100 people. There are technologies in use in some cities that could decrease that number significantly, but only if they’re implemented.An incredible story of terror and survival, with important challenges to the way planes are flown around the world. "
Sep 26th

Falling From the Sky

"June 24, 1982 - On a clear summer night, during a seemingly calm trip to Australia, the impossible happens to British Airways Flight 009. Smoke starts filling the cabin. The engines catch fire – then stop working. The flight crew witness a bizarre shower of brilliant sparks strike the windshield of the aircraft. The entire plane is surrounded by a shimmering white glow. Without power, the plane begins falling from the sky. Passengers are terrified. The crew have no idea why their engines have quit – or how to get them working again. As they fall through the night the captain faces a difficult choice – return to the nearest airport and likely crash into the mountains, or attempt an incredibly difficult ocean landing. Just minutes before crashing into the sea, the stricken plane’s engines roar back to life. The jet limps back to Halim airport in Jakarta. But the crew realizes that their windshield is severely damaged -- making it nearly to impossible to see their runway. After suffering through a night of bizarre twists and turns, they manage to touch down safely at Halim. But they are still bewildered -- what had knocked their plane from the sky? What investigators discover changed the way pilots are trained and altered the understanding of how volcanoes can affect aviation."
Sep 27th

Fire Fight

"In June of 1983, a small mechanical problem in the back of an Air Canada DC-9 quickly turned into an all-out emergency 10 kilometers in the air. The aircraft was travelling to Toronto from Dallas when passengers noticed smoke coming from the rear washroom. As the smoke grows thicker, the crew has no choice but attempt to land the plane. For fifteen hellish minutes, passengers and crew struggle to deal with the thick toxic smoke. When the plane finally hits the runway in Cincinnati, all on board struggle to exit the burning plane as quickly as possible.Ninety seconds after touching the ground, the plane is engulfed in a ball of fire. Twenty-three of the forty-six people perish; the pilot is the last one to make it out alive. It takes emergency workers hours to control the blaze.Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are on the scene within an hour. They uncover a long history of problems with this DC-9, including a previous explosive decompression that may have damaged vital wiring. While the cause of the fire is never identified, in the wake of the tragedy, the NTSB recommends a comprehensive series of changes that make flying safer. These include better crew training, and improvements to emergency exits which allow passengers to escape planes more quickly. "
Sep 27th

The Plane That Wouldn’t Talk

"February 6, 1996 — A group of German tourists in the Dominican Republic is waiting impatiently to board their flight to Frankfurt. Mechanical problems have grounded their plane – and the airline is forced to substitute the original aircraft with a Boeing 757 owned by Birgenair. This plane has been sitting idle on the tarmac for almost three weeks. After hours of preparation, the plane and the crew are finally ready to take off.As the plane is accelerating for take-off, the flight’s Captain notices a problem with his airspeed indicator, it doesn’t match his First Officer’s gauge. In spite of the conflicting readings, the crew lifts off, and engage the auto pilot for the climb over the Atlantic Ocean. Within moments, the plane’s computer begins bombarding the cockpit with confusing alarms. The first indicates that the plane is traveling far too fast. But when the Captain reduces power slightly, he hears a warning that he’s suddenly flying too slowly. Then the cockpit fills with the sound of the most distressing alarm known to flight crews – the stick-shaker alert. The alarm warns the crew that the plane is moving so slowly, that it’s about to stall. Is the plane traveling too fast or too slow? The bewildered Captain doesn’t know which warnings to trust. The plane begins falling from sky, losing altitude and spinning wildly out of control. The crew never regains control of the plane, and less than five minutes after takeoff, it slams into the Atlantic Ocean. All 189 people on board are killed.When investigators recover the plane’s black boxes from the ocean, they learn that the crew took off with a faulty airspeed indicator, and then faced a baffling sequence of conflicting warnings from the plane’s computer. Investigators now confront a new mystery: How could the failure of one single instrument – the airspeed indicator – cause the crash of one of the world’s most sophisticated jetliners?Investigators turn their focus to the device that feeds information to the airspeed indicator – the pitot tube. They eventually determine that because these tubes had not been properly protected during the aircraft’s three-weeks on the ground, local insects had built nests in the tubes, and blocked them. That’s what caused the Captain’s airspeed indictor to malfunction. Investigators also discover that the same blocked pitot tube that fed the Captain’s airspeed indicator, also fed information the Auto Pilot. The plane was never traveling too fast, the auto pilot was getting faulty readings. The Captain’s decision to slow the plane down caused the jet to stall. But because he was getting so many conflicting warnings, he was never able to understand the problem, and take the necessary steps to recover. As a result of the crash, Boeing changed the potentially confusing alarms on their 700 series of airplanes. Boeing also made it easier for pilots to recognize that the auto pilot was getting faulty airspeed readings, and correct the problem in the flight. The crash of Birgenair Flight 301 also led aviation authorities to require that all commercial pilots undergo simulator training for a blocked pitot tube situation. "
Sep 28th

Fatal Distraction

"December 29, 1972 — Eastern Airlines Flight 401 is preparing to land in Miami. 163 passengers are on board the sophisticated new L-1011 jet. When the crew try to lower their landing gear, only two of three indicator lights turn green. The crew can’t be sure their landing gear is locked. Without the confirmation, it would be dangerous to land. Captain Robert Loft decides to circle away from the airport and trouble-shoot the problem. The auto-pilot is programmed to keep the plane circling at 2,000 feet. Freed from the task of flying, all three crew members focus their attention on the faulty indicator. Co-Pilot Bert Stockstill works on removing the assembly to check the bulb. Second Officer Don Repo is sent to an area below the cockpit where he should be able to see if the landing gear is locked.But in the Miami Tower, the controller notices something unusual – Flight 401 is no longer flying at 2,000 feet, it’s down to 900. He radios the crew but it’s too late to pull up. The jet crashes into a remote part of the Florida Everglades. 101 people die, but incredibly 77 survive. Many are badly wounded. Jet fuel burns the skin. Alligators lurk nearby. It takes almost an hour for the Coast Guard to find the remote crash site and begin ferrying survivors to nearby hospitals.This is the first-ever crash of a jumbo jet and, at the time, the largest death toll in US civil aviation history. Investigators need to figure out why this sophisticated jet, fell from the sky without anyone in the cockpit noticing. They examine the engines for signs of failure, but find none. They recover the plane’s Auto Pilot computer and test it on another plane. There’s nothing wrong with it. Only when they listen to the Cockpit Voice Recorder do they discover that the crew was so obsessed with a light bulb, that they didn’t hear the warning that their plane was dropping. The discover that Captain Loft unintentionally disengaged the auto-pilot when he accidentally nudged his control column while turning to talk to his Second Officer. Investigators ultimately blame the accident on pilot error. The crew was so focused on the light-bulb that they didn’t look at their instruments, and didn’t notice that the plane was falling. Following the crash pilots are warned that a slight nudge of the control column can disengage their auto-pilot. But there’s a much more lasting legacy to this accident. Until this disaster investigators had never had to consider that the dynamic inside a cockpit could cause a crash. This accident changed that and forced investigators to examine human relations when considering the cause of a crash. Italso led to a whole new area of study, Crew Resource Management. As a result of this accident, pilots would be taught, not just how to fly planes, but how to convey instructions, and delegate responsibility in the cockpit. Flight 401 is taught to this day as an example of poor Cockpit Resource Management."