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Top 10 Deadliest Weather-related Aviation Accidents on Record

By: Christopher C. Burt, 10:46 PM GMT on December 29, 2014

Top 10 Deadliest Weather-related Aviation Accidents on Record

Although the cause of the recent disappearance of Air Asia Flight QZ8501 with 162 on board (and presumed lost) has yet to be determined, weather conditions may have been the cause or at least related to its loss. If weather was a factor in the accident then it will rate as the 12th deadliest weather-related aviation disaster on record (the 11th deadliest was an Aeroflot flight that crashed as a result of a microburst in Almaty, Kazakhstan on July 8, 1980 killing 163) . Here is a list of the top 10 weather-related aviation disasters on record.

1. 583 fatalities: Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain on March 27, 1977

Aviation’s deadliest disaster was the result of two Boeing 747 aircraft (Pan Am Flight #1736 and KLM Flight #4805) colliding on a runway at Los Rodeos Airport (now called Tenerife North Airport) in the Canary Islands, Spain in March of 1977. There were no survivors on the KLM flight and 61 survivors on the Pan Am flight. Although, as is the case in most weather-related aviation accidents, a variety of mishaps combined and led up to the accident, dense fog played a critical role. The two aircraft would have been aware of one another’s presence in fair conditions since the KLM flight began to take off when it collided with the Pan Am flight that was still on the runway. Because of dense fog neither aircraft nor the flight controllers could see one another. For a complete report of the disaster read this Wikipedia account.

2. 275 fatalities: Iran Ilyushin Military Aircraft near Kerman, Iran on February 19, 2003

Very little is actually known about this accident aside from the report that the large jet crashed into a mountainside while descending for a landing in poor weather. The Russian-built Ilyushin IL-76 military transport was carrying members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard from Zahedan Airport to Kerman Airport at the time of the accident. Although a terrorist organization (the Abu-Bakr Brigade) claimed responsibility for the plane’s destruction, weather (heavy snow and high winds) was the more likely culprit. There were no survivors and this remains the 9th deadliest aviation disaster on record. Read more here.

3. 256 fatalities: Arrow Air Flight#1285 near Gander, Newfoundland, Canada on December 12, 1985
Arrow Air was chartered by the U.S. military to transport U.S. troops from Cairo, Egypt to their home base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky via Cologne, Germany and Gander, Newfoundland in Canada. The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 crashed shortly after take off from the Gander Airport killing all aboard. Icing on the wings of the plane was determined to be the primary cause of the accident. More can be found about this accident here.

4. 234 fatalities: Garuda Indonesia Flight #152 near Medan, Indonesia on September 26, 1997

The primary cause of this accident was determined to be the result of a very thick haze caused by smoke from manmade forest fires burning in Sumatra, Indonesia at the time of the accident. The Airbus A300 was approaching Medan Airport in North Sumatra, Indonesia (originating in Jakarta) when it crashed into a hillside at an elevation of 1,150 feet. Although there was some confusion concerning instructions from flight control at the Medan Airport, low visibility was determined to be the primary cause of the accident. There were no survivors. More about the incident may be found here.

5. 228 fatalities: Korean Air Flight #801 in Guam on August 6, 1997

Heavy rainfall and high winds were determined to have contributed to the crash of this Korean Air flight from Seoul, Korea to Guam in 1997. The Boeing 747 was making a landing approach at the airport in Guam when it slammed into Nimitz Hill just three miles short of the runway at an altitude of 660 feet. The primary cause of the accident, however, was determined to be pilot error when he attempted to make an instrument landing even though the glideslope landing system (ILS) was not in operation at the airport at the time. There were 26 survivors. More about the crash can be found here.

6. 228 fatalities: Air France Flight #447 over the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009

Although pilot error was determined to be the primary cause of this accident, weather played a prominent role in the disaster. The Airbus A330 was flying from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France when it encountered a line of towering thunderstorms (over 50,000 feet in height) in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. It appears that the aircraft’s pitot tubes (to measure speed) iced over and caused the autopilot to disconnect leading to a stall. The pilots mis-compensated for this by pitching the aircraft nose up instead of down in order to gain speed and stability. A very detailed analysis of this famous accident can be found here.

7. 203 fatalities: China Air Flight #676 in Taiwan on February 16, 1998

This Airbus A300 flight was approaching Chiang Kai-Shek Int’l Airport in Taipei, Taiwan from Bali, Indonesia when it crashed into a residential neighborhood while making its approach to the airport in rain and fog. Once again, pilot error was the primary cause of the accident as a result of the pilot inadvertently stalling the aircraft as it attempted to make a second landing after a failed initial landing attempt. There were no survivors on the plane and seven of the fatalities occurred on the ground. More can be found about the accident here.

8. 199 fatalities: TAM Airlines Flight #3054 in Sao Paulo, Brazil on July 17, 2007

TAM Airlines (a Brazilian carrier) was making a domestic flight from Porto Alegre, Brazil to Sao Paulo when it hydroplaned upon landing and overshot the runway plowing into a warehouse and gas station. The wet runway was determined to be the cause of the accident since mechanical or pilot error were discounted during the post-crash investigation. There were no survivors on the plane and 12 on the ground were killed. More about the accident can be found here.

9. 176 fatalities: Chartered aircraft landing in Kano, Nigeria on January 22, 1973

This Boeing 707 was on a chartered flight (Jordanian owned) carrying Muslim pilgrims from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Lagos, Nigeria when it was diverted by bad weather to Kano. High winds at the Kano Airport reportedly caused the airliner to skid off the runway while landing. There were 26 survivors. At the time it was the deadliest aviation accident on record. A contemporary news account of the disaster can be found here.

10. 171 fatalities: Cubano de Aviacion Flight #9646 near Havana, Cuba on September 3, 1989

This Russian-built Ilyushin 11-62M was taking off from Jose Marti Airport in Havana on its way to Cologne Bonn Airport, Germany in heavy rain and high winds gusting to 50 mph (80 km/h) when, at an altitude of just 175 feet a downburst forced it to the ground. It struck a navigation facility before careening into a residential neighborhood. There were no survivors on the aircraft (126 crew and passengers) and 45 residents of the neighborhood died. It remains Cuba’s worst aviation accident on record. More about the accident can be found here.

P.S. : The Most Amazing Aviation Survival Story Ever

The most amazing survival story ever in commercial aviation history was that of the 17-year-old German passenger Juliane Koepke who fell 10,000 feet strapped into her seat into the Amazonian jungle of Peru after a lightning bolt struck and ignited the right wing fuel tank on a commercial flight from Lima to Pulcappa, Peru on Christmas Eve December 24, 1971. All 91 passengers and crew aboard perished, except for Juliane. Her three-seat segment in the aircraft 'helicoptered' 10,000 feet through the atmosphere and into the dense Amazonian forest (she described the forest canopy as looking like broccoli as she fell towards it). She landed on the forest floor (jungle canopy breaking her descent) with a broken collar bone and popped eyeball (a result of the decompression during her fall). After 10 days wandering through the jungle and swimming down a river she happened upon a lumbermen shack where she was eventually rescued. Many documentaries have been produced about this incredible story including a film by Werner Herzog who was booked on the same flight while researching locations for his cult classic film 'Aguire; The Wrath of God'.

NOTE: This may not be a complete list of the worst “weather-related” aviation accidents on record since it is often a fine line determining just how important weather factors played in various major aviation disasters. In all of the above cases, human error or mechanical failure also played a significant role in the respective accidents (like deciding to fly in bad weather as happened in the Cuban instance). This list has been culled from various Wikipedia sources and thus may have some inconsistencies with other sources. Sorry, I have not included any photos or graphics: an endless series of images of crashed planes is not something worth dwelling upon. Photos of the aircraft types, and graphics concerning the flights, may be found in the links I provided at the end of the text in each case. Also note comment #2 (following this blog) with links to videos about some of the accidents.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Extreme Weather Aviation

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.