Mayday

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. 

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Upcoming episodes

Aug 6th
1200a

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."
Aug 7th
1200a

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."
Aug 8th
900p

Hidden Danger

"Around the globe, more than six billion people have traveled on a Boeing 737. They’re the backbone of the aviation industry. But in 1991, something happened onboard a 737 that sent shudders through the world of aviation.Moments from landing, United Airlines 585 starts spinning out of control and falls out of the sky at 450 kilometers per hour. Everyone on board is killed. In ten violent seconds, the crash site has become one of the most mysterious air disasters in aviation history.Almost two years after the crash, the NTSB had studied the crew, the weather, the rudder, and thousands of other pieces of evidence – but they can’t solve the mystery. For only the fourth time in its history, the NTSB release a report stating the cause of the crash of flight 585 was undetermined.On September 7, 1994, a year after the report on Flight 585 is released, the killer strikes again. Another 737 – this time US Air 427 – crashes near Pittsburg. All 132 passengers and crew are killed. Investigators begin to quickly see some striking similarities between US Air 427 -- and the unsolved case of United 585. But, like the earlier accident, investigators have plenty of theories, but can’t nail down a cause. With two crashes just a few years apart, serious questions are now being raised about the safety of 737s around the world. Billions of dollars, perhaps the airline industry itself, are at risk. Investigators need a break in the case, and fast.It’s only when another 737 has a similar problem – but doesn’t crash – that investigators crack the case open. The pilot of Eastwind 517, is on final approach into Richmond Virginia when, without warning, his 737 twice rolls sharply to the right. The pilot is able to recover, and land the plane safely. NTSB investigators quickly determine that what happened on board Eastwind 517 is alarmingly similar to events on flights 427 and 585. The pilot’s testimony leads investigators to zero in on the 737’s rudder controls. After a series of grueling tests, investigators discover that a key piece of equipment – a small hydraulic valve - jams and then functions in reverse under the right circumstances. It means that any time a pilot tried to correct a roll over, by pushing on the rudder, the rudder might turn in the opposite direction, causing a fatal accident. In the aftermath of the investigation, sweeping changes were made to improve the safety of the 737 -- and the entire aviation industry. New training protocols were designed to help pilots react to unusual in-flight events, upset recoveries and advanced maneuver training. The FAA also directed Boeing to redesign the rudder’s dual servo valve to eliminate the potential for reversal. Boeing spent more than a billion dollars to replace the valves on thousands of 737’s around the world."
Aug 8th
1000p

Panic over the Pacific

"China Airlines Flight 006 is less than 500 kms from Los Angeles when disaster strikes. A series of small problems – beginning with the failure of the jet’s fourth engine – snowballs into an all-out emergency.The plane stalls, and begins tumbling toward the Pacific Ocean. As it twists and turns, the strong G-forces make the ride hellish for the crew and passengers who are crushed to their seats. The wings buckle, the doors to the landing gear are ripped off and crash into the tail. Precious hydraulic fuel – essential for landing – is lost. The wild spinning motion – and the thick clouds – mean the crew can’t tell up from down.In just two minutes the plane falls 30,000 feet (10 kms). Then, as it bursts through the clouds, the crew are finally able to see the horizon. Using this as a reference, they level their plane, and pull it out of its terrifying dive. Leaking hydraulic fluid, and flying with a mangled tail, the crew manage to land their crippled plane safely. The captain is hailed as a hero by the passengers.Investigators piecing together the extraordinary events of Flight 006 tell a different story. While the pilot and crew were able to save the lives of everyone on board, mistakes they made during the flight caused the near disaster. For the first time, the NTSB examines how sleep patterns and circadian rhythms helped put both the crew, and passengers, in an extremely dangerous position."
Aug 8th
1100p

Out of Sight

"A calm Labour Day weekend is shattered by a devastating tragedy. A Los Angeles neighbourhood is destroyed and more than 80 lives are lost when two planes fall from the sky. An Aeromexico DC 9 is preparing to land at Los Angeles International Airport – one of the busiest in the world – when it collides with a much smaller plane, a Piper PA-28 Cherokee. The Cherokee slices off the tail of the DC 9, causing it to spiral out of control and crash. The smaller plane also crashes into the quiet suburb. The devastation is horrifying, all onboard perish and five homes are destroyed. The entire area is ablaze. Investigators must discover why this horrible event happened and ensure it never to occurs again. When interviewing the air traffic controller on duty, investigators discover another plane had entered the controlled air space surrounding LAX – the TCA – without permission. Dealing with this third plane may have distracted the controller and kept him from seeing the Cherokee on his radar. The crew on the larger plane, and the pilot on the smaller plane also seemed oblivious to each other in the minutes before the crash – suggesting problems with the standard “see and avoid” technique relied on at busy airports. The NTSB issued its report and the FAA took the recommendations to heart. It imposed changes to the way planes are monitored and tracked around congested airports by putting in place a new system which orally and visually alerts controllers to potential collisions. In addition, it regulated that smaller planes must be equipped with a new kind of transponder while larger planes have to be outfitted with collision avoidance systems. Since these measures were adopted, there hasn’t been another mid-air collision in or around a congested airport."
Aug 9th
1200a

Fog of War

"In April, 1996, American government officials and high-powered U.S. businessmen were on a trade mission to Bosnia and Croatia. The last leg of the trip took them to Dubrovnik. Among those aboard the flight was US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, a close friend and political ally of President Clinton. Their aircraft was a specially outfitted 737 military jet and the crew were all experienced military personnel.As they neared the airport, rain made the journey increasingly difficult. A plane that landed just before them got in touch, warning the crew that conditions were the minimum needed to land safely.Just after three o’clock, local air traffic controllers lost contact with the American plane. Because the airport was devastated by the recent war in the region, it was operating with outdated landing equipment. The airport didn’t even have radars. Local controllers took no chances and called for help.After several hours of searching, a local farmer calls in a tip. Eventually, the plane is found high in the hills outside of the airport. It’s in pieces. There are no survivors. News of the crash races from Croatia to Washington. The political pressure to find answers is immense. The American Air Force launches an investigation to determine the cause of the crash. It takes 64 months for the report to be released and it lays the blame firmly with the military and states that several fatal factors came together to cause the accident: the equipment at Dubrovnik airport was inadequate, the 737 wasn’t outfitted to land at such an airport, the crew made several errors, key flying charts were wrong and most importantly, the airport in Dubrovnik wasn’t approved by the Department of Defence."
Aug 10th
1200a

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."
Aug 11th
1200a

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. "
Aug 12th
1200a

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."
Aug 13th
1200a

Phantom Strike

"September 29, 2006 — Fresh off the factory floor in Southern Brazil, a sleek $25 million Legacy business jet is being delivered to its new owner in New York. An hour into the flight the plane is powering through the skies over the Amazon Rain Forest. Suddenly a violent jolt sends shock waves through the plane. Passengers look out the window and are horrified to see that part of the plane’s wing has been sheared off. The jet has become hard to control, and the damage to the wing is getting worse. The crew must land. Below them, a dense jungle stretches as far as the eye can see. Luckily the crew spots an Army base with a runway long enough for their plane. But with the damage to their wing they know it could be a rough landing. They come in fast, but manage to bring the plane to a stop before the end of the runway. That’s when a whole new problem develops. The passengers and crew are detained and interrogated by police. Another plane, a Boeing 737 with 154 people on board has crashed nearby. Everyone on board GOL Flight 1907 was killed. Investigators suspect that events on the Legacy and the crash of the GOL flight are related, but how? Investigators studying the crash of the GOL plane make a telling discovery. They find paint on the GOL’s wing that matches the paint on the Legacy jet. It’s clear that the two planes collided high above the Amazon. How had two planes under the authority of Brazilian Air Traffic Control ended up on a collision course? The investigation would uncover a string of technological and human errors that would lead to criminal charges and an unprecedented crisis in Brazilian aviation.Investigators learn that both planes were assigned the same altitude by air traffic controllers at opposite ends of the country. The small jet was supposed to drop to 36,000 feet part way through its flight. If it had, it would not have collided with the 737. But for some reason air traffic controllers never gave the Legacy the crucial order to descend. Instead, the plane stayed on its collision course. Investigators uncover a dangerous flaw in Brazil’s computerized air traffic control system. The computer led controllers to believe that the Legacy was flying 1000 feet lower than it actually was. Both aircraft were equipped with a safety feature designed to prevent mid-air collisions. The system relies on signals from an airplane’s transponder. But the Legacy jet’s transponder was mysteriously silent for more than fifty minutes leading up to the crash. This meant there was no system to warn either crew that a plane was closing in on them. The investigation ultimately reveals that Brazilian air traffic controllers are overworked and poorly trained. Two of the controllers on duty that day are charged with manslaughter. The tragedy of GOL Flight 1907 leads a major overhaul of Brazil’s air traffic control system"