“Two Weeks Ago, I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever”

There’s a story that has been circulating around the internet, entitled “Two Weeks Ago, I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever — How Two Jetliners Nearly Collided Over the Pacific, Why No One Knows About It, and What It Means for Safety Oversight Aboard Airplanes.”

It’s written by someone that took a United flight from Kona to Los Angeles on April 25, 2014.

To summarize the (unnecessarily) word story in a sentence, shortly after reaching the cruising altitude the plane “dived” 600 feet per the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), which was done in order to avoid a US Airways plane at a similar altitude that was headed in their direction.

I don’t for a second discredit what happened, other than the claim that this was “almost the deadliest plane crash ever.” The writer says that he was flying a United 757-300 with 289 passengers and “five or six crew members.” In reality United’s 757-300s have only 213 seats, so he was quite a bit off. And that isn’t significant in and of itself, other than that he specifically makes the point of saying that this would have been more deadly than the Tenerife Disaster, where 583 people died. And clearly that’s not the case.

I don’t doubt it was scary, and I don’t doubt I would have $hit my pants, and I don’t doubt that there was some danger, but at the end of the day the TCAS is there for exactly these situations, and pilots are specifically trained for how to respond to that. So yes, there was the potential for increased risk, just as there is if there’s smoke in the cabin or an indicator light goes off. But the system worked exactly as it was supposed to.

I suppose if nothing else it’s a nice reminder that we often take safe air travel for granted, which is just a miracle to me. But I think Louis CK can sum that up just as well:

I’m curious to hear if others have a different take on the story than I do!

Comments

  1. A couple of things:
    1) People think some things need to be perfect all the time. You get this on cruises trains and many other things in life. Sometimes s*it happens and you just have to roll with it.
    2) As you said in the post, TCAS did what it was supposed to do. There are a lot of “potential” disasters that thankfully never occur because of systems in place. Tenerife ? I hope we are more advanced in our situational awareness now to reduce the odds of that happening. It sounds like the incident was a good demonstration of the systems in place to prevent it rather than widespread negligence that caused it. Be thankful could be worse.

  2. I always love your hokey sentence or question at the end of every post to get the conversation going.

  3. @ mark — I always love your comment at the end of my posts about toilets/me asking questions. Makes my day every time. Have a nice weekend!

  4. Meh… I wouldn’t judge others reaction to a near mishap in the air. I’m sure many people thought you were being over dramatic in your post about the royal jordian weather flight, and could have written a similar blog post like this about your reaction.

    But when you are there it’s different, and everyone has as a right to feel how they want to about it, and it probably shouldn’t be trivialized

  5. @ Jay — And I totally agree, and I did say I would have crapped myself as well. I don’t doubt it was terrifying, just like my Royal Jordanian flight.

    My only point is that a) even if something had happened, it wouldn’t have been the deadliest disaster ever (which is the title of the story) and b) airplanes have a bunch of backup systems, so that when one “front line” thing fails, there’s something in the background to prevent things from going wrong, and that worked perfectly here.

    Totally agree this was probably terrifying, though.

  6. Aside from his poor math I don’t see the issue with the blog. It is written for a non aviation enthusiast audience so it goes into more detail than many here would need but so what. He is assuming (correctly) that most of his readers have little to no understanding of the workings of aviation.

    At the end if the day it IS disappointing that apparently neither United nor USAir decided that the incident warranted further investigation outside the carrier.

  7. “at the end of the day the TCAS is there for exactly these situations, and pilots are specifically trained for how to respond to that.”

    This is so true, unless of course, one of the pilots disengages their TCAS system, killing all aboard, ref. Gol 1907

    NTSB has made it mandatory since then.

    Ref.: http://bit.ly/1jTMt8o

    This week while taking-off Azul’s flight from CPQ-AJU-MCZ was aborted mid departure when taking off from AJU; EMB195 use all their breaking power to come to a halt before the end of the runway, due to a chopper being on the take-off route. Ref. in Portuguese http://bit.ly/1oSnSAI

    TCAS is important; PAX do get afraid when it gets used, not a nice experience.

  8. I don’t have a comment on the issue here….but OMG that video was LOL hilarious. I think I just woke up my neighbors I was laughing so hard!

  9. Yeah it’s a little dramatic.

    “The United flight two weeks ago had at least one thing go wrong. Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss. Thankfully, just enough went right that a disaster even beyond the scale of Tenerife was averted.”

  10. A potential midair collision certainly is very very different then a light going off or smoke in the cabin. The speed at which catastrophic events come is inversely related to how quickly we understand them. Global warming as such as like a train wreck at 1 mile an hour. 9/11 happened more quickly than the people in charge could comprehend or understand to take action accordingly. Two jets closing in on each other head-on is a very fast catastrophic event, the accident that happened over Lake Constance in southern Germany/Switzerland was a 90° impact and similarly systems failed, everyone died. Another one of those happened over South America between a general aviation private jet and a commercial jetliner. My recollection is everyone on the commercial jet died. That was a very near hit that was so close it appears to have caused a wing to fall off of the commercial jetliner.

    The collision avoidance systems are not foolproof and when humans are involved inevitably there’s more error.

    These are quite different events than a warning lights going off or smoke in the cabin.

    Of note, your favorite carrier Lufty, has had two significant failures on 747–400 in the last couple of weeks on their longest operating route. They have twice had to cancel flights and take equipment off-line for repairs. One time in the remote station in EZE and second time in Frankfurt on the same LH 510/ 511 pair. In both instances they had to overnight passengers and bring out additional aircraft to keep some semblance of the schedule running.

  11. The article exists because most people don’t realize that FedEx does a better job at tracking your 2 cents worth of paper than the FAA does at tracking a $150 million airplane with ~220 people on it just because it’s over the oceans, something that is unthinkable given that the technology has existed for decades.

  12. Kevin Townsend is an attention whore. An air traffic controller made a mistake and two airplanes missed each other by a lot because back-up systems and pilots’ training worked. Not news.

  13. One could have said the same thing about your Royal Jordanian flight. Wings, Engine and the Aircraft is made to take that kind of weather and it worked. Pilot regular train for bad weather and it worked.

  14. @aegt

    One would be quite ignorant if he says the same about lucky’s flight on RJ.

    Every US carrier prohibits commercial pilots from flying into severe turbulence, and for good reason. I have a long background in aviation, and quite frankly, I didn’t think Ben’s account of his RJ flight was an characterization. Severe turbulence is nothing to screw around with.

  15. @aegt: Spot on. The difference is one seems to be a well seasoned traveller, lots of flying hours while the other may eventually fly occasionally.

    @Dan: We have lucky’s report of his side of the story. We do not know for sure how distant the plane was effectively from the storm, whether plane was instructed to be there by Air Traffic Control, etc – that is, we do not have the other side of the story.

    So far we have two pax claiming two different incidents where they did not feel safe.

  16. Reminds me of a headline in “Not The New York Post” (a spoof of yellow journalism): “Hundreds Almost Die in Mid-Air Near Collision!”

  17. Exactly. How can you almost die in an accident that didn’t happen? This was a story to share with your buddies over a beer, but a viral essay? Embarrassing. I flew back from Jamaica and we hit an air pocket and the plane dropped several hundred feet. I’m going to get started on my need-for-relevance essay right now.

  18. He also said “The US Airways flight coming at us was a passenger jet of similar size “, the flight would have been a a320/a321/b752, ranging from roughly 180-220 passengers, at most, the fatalities would have been around 440, very shy of the 590 he estimated!

  19. If we ignore the claim of purported deadliest crash, it’s an interesting article and comments from an active UA pilot are interesting to read as well

    FYI, commenters identified another flight as US 432 (AWE432) which is a B752 with 190 seats, based on what I can find.

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