First, we took to the air by hot air balloon. Next, we went even higher via ever-developing aircraft. Astronauts then made their way into outer space and even to the moon.
And now, with the advent of Virgin Galactic, there has been the prospect of non-astronauts going into outer space in a new-age space plane. Indeed, more than 700 celebrity non-astronauts have reserved seats on Virgin Galactic with tickets costing $250,000 a piece.
Unfortunately, as we know, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo recently crashed in the Mojave Desert. It is easy to think that this calamity, along with prior notable aviation accidents, means that it is not safe to fly. Is that true? Read on.
Prior Aviation Accidents
The first fatal aviation accident actually occurred as long ago as 1875, with the crash of a hot air balloon near Wimereux, France. The balloon’s inventor and passenger died as a result of the crash.
The first airplane fatality resulted from the crash of a Wright Model A plane that crashed in Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1908. Orville Wright, the co-inventor and pilot of the plane, was injured, but a passenger was killed in the crash.
The Tenerife disaster, which occurred in March 1977, still is the accident with the highest number of airline passenger fatalities. Indeed, 583 people died when two 747s collided on the runway; one had tried to take off without clearance and collided with the other that was taxiing on the runway.
As far as single-aircraft disasters go, the highest number of fatalities was the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in August 1985. The aircraft experienced explosive decompression which destroyed the vertical stabilizer and all of the hydraulic lines, making the 747 incapable of being controlled; 520 people died because of this crash.
And the deadliest commercial aircraft crash here in the United States took place in May 1979, when American Airlines Flight 191 crashed near O’Hare International Airport because of the loss of an engine following improper maintenance. This crash caused the death of all 271 passengers and crew on board the plane.
This may sound bleak, but excluding the four aircraft that crashed during the 9/11 attacks, there have been only a total of 15 separate aviation accidents ever worldwide with a death toll between 250 and 499 people; and only the aforementioned two disasters with over 500 deaths.
Given that there are many tens of thousands of people in air every single day of every year and every decade — from a percentage standpoint — the number of fatalities from aviation accidents has been incredibly low. Indeed, on a per-person and per-mile basis, air travel is consistently ranked as the safest form of transportation.
It is incredibly important to major manufacturers of aircraft, and to commercial airlines, that they offer a safe means of travel. Obviously, if airline travel were not perceived as safe by the public, people would not fly and these companies would go out of business.
The airline industry, as aviation technology has developed, has developed various safety devices such as evacuation slides, advanced avionics, engine safety features, and landing gear that can be lowered even after loss of power and hydraulics.
Yes, it is true that any life lost from an aviation accident, like the loss of the co-pilot of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, is a tragedy. But generally speaking, the skies still are a friendly place to fly.
Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is of counsel in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.