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Pilot error is a term used to describe the cause of a crash of an airworthy aircraft where the pilot is considered to be principally or partially responsible. Pilot error can be defined as a mistake, oversight, lapse in judgement, or failure to exercise due diligence by an aircraft operator during the performance of his/her duties.
An aircraft operator is generally not held accountable for an incident that is principally due to a mechanical failure of the aircraft unless the mechanical failure occurred as a result of pilot error.
The pilot may be declared to be in error even during adverse weather conditions if the investigating body deems that the pilot did not exercise due diligence. The responsibility for the accident in such a case would depend upon whether the pilot could reasonably know of the danger and whether he or she took reasonable steps to avoid the weather problem. Flying into a hurricane (for other than legitimate research purposes) would be considered pilot error; flying into a microburst would not be considered pilot error if it was not detectable by the pilot, or in the time before this hazard was understood. Some weather phenomena (such as clear-air turbulence or mountain waves) are difficult to avoid, especially if the accident aircraft is the first aircraft to encounter the phenomenon in a certain area at a certain time.
One of the most famous incidents of an aircraft disaster attributed to pilot error was the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 near Miami, Florida on December 29, 1972. The pilot, co-pilot, and Flight Engineer had become fixated on a faulty landing gear light and had failed to realize that the auto pilot had been switched off. The distracted flight crew did not recognize the plane's slow descent and the aircraft eventually struck the ground in the Everglades killing 101 out of 176 passengers and crew.
The subsequent NTSB report on the incident blamed the flight crew for failing to monitor the aircraft's instruments properly. Details of the incident are now frequently used in training exercises by aircrews and air traffic controllers as case studies.
Placing pilot error as a cause of an aviation accident is often controversial. For example, the NTSB ruled that the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 was due to the failure of the rudder which was caused by "unnecessary and excessive rudder pedal inputs" on the part of the co-pilot who was operating the aircraft at the time. Attorneys for the co-pilot, who was killed in the crash, argue that American pilots had never been properly trained concerning extreme rudder inputs. The attorneys also claimed that the rudder failure was actually caused by a flaw in the design of the Airbus A300 aircraft and that the co-pilot's rudder inputs should not have caused the catastrophic rudder failure that led to the accident that killed 265 people.
During 2004 in the United States, pilot error was listed as the primary cause of 78.6% of fatal general aviation accidents, and as the primary cause of 75.5% of general aviation accidents over all. For scheduled air transport, pilot error typically accounts for just over half of worldwide accidents with a known cause.
Some famous air crashes due to pilot errorEdit
- July 28, 1945 - a United States Army Air Forces B-25 bomber bound for Newark Airport crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building after the pilot became lost in a heavy fog bank situated over Manhattan. All three crewmen were killed as well as eleven office workers in the building.
- August 2, 1947 - Star Dust a British South American Airways Lancastrian crashed in the Tupungato glacier field high in the Andes about 60 miles (80 km) from its destination of Santiago, Chile killing all 11 aboard. The plane was instantly buried from the resulting avalanche and heavy snowfall; later, it became encased in glacier ice. The wreckage was not discovered until 2000 and details of the crash are somewhat clouded, but modern investigators believe a navigation error on the part of the flight crew was the principal cause of the accident.
- February 28, 1966 - American astronauts Elliott See and Charles Bassett were killed when their T-38 crashed into a building at Lambert Field airport during bad weather. A NASA investigation concluded that See had been flying too low on his approach to land.
- March 27, 1977 - Tenerife disaster, a senior KLM pilot failed to understand or follow tower instructions causing two planes to collide on the runway at Tenerife killing 583 people.
- November 28, 1979 - Air New Zealand Flight 901, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 carrying 257 passengers and crew on a tourist excursion to overfly Antarctica. The plane crashed into the lower slopes of Mount Erebus killing 237 passengers and 20 crew. The official inquiry blamed the pilot for flying below his assigned altitude.
- January 13, 1982 - Air Florida Flight 90, a Boeing 737 with 79 passengers and crew crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and careened into the Potomac River shortly after taking off from Washington National Airport. Seventy five passengers and crew and four motorists on the bridge were killed. The NTSB report blamed the flight crew for not properly employing the plane's de-icing system.
- August 28, 1988 - Ramstein airshow disaster, a member of an Italian aerobatic team misjudged a stunt causing a mid-air collision. Three pilots and 67 spectators on the ground were killed.
- August 31, 1988 - Delta Air Lines Flight 1141 crashed on takeoff as the crew forgot to deploy the flaps for increased lift. Of the 108 crew and passengers on board, 14 are killed.
- January 8, 1989 - In the Kegworth air disaster, the fan blade cracked on the left engine of a new Boeing 737-400, but the pilots mistakenly shut down the right engine. Instrumentation on the 737-400 was different from earlier models, but no simulator for the new model was available in Britain.
- October 12, 1997 - Singer John Denver was killed when his new Rutan Long-EZ experimental aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Pacific Grove, California. The NTSB indicated that Denver lost control of the aircraft while attempting to manipulate the fuel selector handle. They cited his unfamiliarity with the aircraft's design as the principal cause of the crash.
- July 16, 1999 - American publisher John F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the former president, was killed along with wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette when his Piper Saratoga crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha's Vineyard. The NTSB ruled that the crash was caused by "the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation."
- April 15, 2002 - Air China flight 129, a Boeing 767 crashed near Pusan, South Korea killing 128 of the 166 people aboard. The co-pilot had been flying too low.
- October 25, 2002 - Eight people, including U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, were killed in a crash near Eveleth, Minnesota. The NTSB concluded that "the flight crew did not monitor and maintain minimum speed."
- February 26, 2004 - a Beech 200 carrying Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski crashed killing Trajkovski and eight other passengers. The crash investigation ruled that the accident was caused by "procedural mistakes by the crew" during the approach to land.
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