Aviation accidents are so rare that they naturally make front-page news. Some plane crashes, however, have left lasting imprints due to their unique circumstances or indelible images. Although not the deadliest in American history, these seven plane crashes are among the most unforgettable.
1. Empire State Building B-25 crash (1945)
Thick fog enveloped a B-25 Mitchell bomber as it approached Manhattan on a routine flight from Massachusetts to New Jersey on the Saturday morning of July 28, 1945. Flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet in heavy fog, the 10-ton aircraft suddenly slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors. Wreckage littered the streets below. One engine tore completely through the structure, the world’s tallest at the time, and started a fire that destroyed a penthouse art studio across the street. The crash killed the three American servicemen aboard the bomber and 11 people in the skyscraper, including National Catholic Welfare Conference workers assembling care packages for soldiers overseas. Firefighters extinguished the resulting blaze within 40 minutes, preventing the building from becoming structurally compromised. Memories of the accident were stirred when terrorists deliberately flew two airliners into the World Trade Center’s twin towers on September 11, 2001.
2. Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision (1956)
Another American landmark was the backdrop for a terrible tragedy on June 30, 1956. That morning, TWA Flight 2 took off from Los Angeles for Kansas City. Three minutes later, United Airlines Flight 718 departed Los Angeles for Chicago. Incredibly, their paths would meet 400 miles away over the Grand Canyon where both pilots, who were operating under visual “see and avoid” rules, averted a thundercloud with the TWA Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation passing on the left and the United Douglas DC-7 on the right. When the airliners emerged on intersecting trajectories at 21,000 feet, the United plane’s left wing struck the TWA’s tail and sliced through the rear of its fuselage. Both aircraft plunged to the canyon floor, and all 128 on board both planes perished. The deadliest American aviation accident at the time led to a congressional investigation and spurred the creation of the modern air-traffic control system.
3. Air Florida Flight 90 (1982)
As heavy snow blanketed Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was bound for warmer climes in Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale. With ice and snow weighing on its wings, the Boeing 737-222 struggled to elevate off National Airport’s runway and never climbed above 400 feet before losing altitude. The airliner struck seven occupied vehicles on the 14th Street Bridge, one mile north of the airport, before plummeting into the icy Potomac River. A dramatic rescue operation that included U.S. Park Police helicopters, bystanders and Pentagon personnel managed to save four passengers and one flight attendant from amid the ice floes, but 74 aboard the plane and four motorists on the bridge died. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited pilot error and improper de-icing procedures as causes of the crash. In 1985, the 14th Street Bridge was renamed in honor of Arland Williams, Jr., who died of his injuries after passing rescue ropes to other passengers.
4. United Airlines Flight 232 (1989)
Bound for Chicago from Denver on July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 suffered a catastrophic tail engine failure that severed its hydraulic lines and knocked out the flight control systems of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Unable to control air speed, sink rate, landing gear or brakes, the crew attempted an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, by adjusting the thrust of the two remaining engines. Landing on a closed runway at Sioux Gateway Airport, the plane’s right wing struck first, and, as news video showed, its fuel immediately ignited. While the tail section and cockpit broke apart upon impact, the main fuselage bounced several times, rolled on its back and stopped upside down in a cornfield. Although 112 died from the force of the impact and smoke inhalation, the majority of the 296 passengers and crew, including the pilots, survived.
5. Learjet N47BA (1999)
The country was captivated on October 25, 1999, when news broke that air traffic controllers had lost radio contact with a Learjet 35 that had veered hundreds of miles off its planned flight path from Orlando to Dallas. U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard pilots who were scrambled to intercept the aircraft reported that they couldn’t see inside the crew cabin because the windshield appeared to be covered in frost or condensation. The plane continued its northwest path until it ran out of fuel and crashed in a field near Aberdeen, South Dakota. Reigning U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart was among the six people killed. The NTSB reported the probable cause of the crash was the incapacitation of the two pilots due to a loss in cabin pressure and an inability to get emergency oxygen.
6. Reno Air Races (2011)
Veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward thrilled the crowds at the annual National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, on September 16, 2011, as he flew his highly modified P-51 Mustang past the 500-mile-per-hour barrier for the first time ever. After “The Galloping Ghost,” his World War II-era military plane, made a tight turn around a pylon, it suddenly pitched up with 17 Gs of acceleration, incapacitating Leeward. The aircraft then rolled and nose-dived toward the crowd. As video showed, it smashed into the airstrip apron at over 400 miles per hour in front of box seating in the grandstand. The plane disintegrated upon contact, killing Leeward and 10 spectators and injuring more than 60 people. An NTSB investigation determined that loose screws on the tail assembly and unprecedented speed caused the crash.
7. Asiana Airlines Flight 214 (2013)
Amid clear skies on July 6, 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 approached San Francisco International Airport at an extremely low altitude and slow speed. The Boeing 777-200ER that had departed Seoul, South Korea, with 307 aboard clipped a seawall short of the runway. As video showed, the impact sheared off the plane’s tail section and sent the fuselage into a violent spin. Most passengers escaped on the emergency chutes after the right engine caught fire, but three passengers died. Among the 187 injured were four flight attendants thrown onto the runway while strapped into their seats when the tail broke apart. An NTSB investigation determined that the flight crew had mismanaged the final approach and that the plane’s system for controlling air speed had been inadvertently deactivated.