Sunday, 15 February 2009

Ground casualties in air crashes

Investigations are continuing into the crash of the Dash 8 aircraft in New York State on Thursday. All 49 people on board were killed plus one man on the ground. It could have been much worse, though. The local emergency co-ordinator commented: "It's remarkable that it only took one house, as devastating as that was. It could have easily wiped out that entire neighbourhood.”

We do not know yet how far the skill of the pilot was a factor in averting an even greater disaster, but it certainly has been in a number of other cases. When two aircraft collided over the Indian town of Charkhi Dadri in 1996 in the worst mid-air crash in history, eye-witnesses praised the crew of a Saudi Arabian aircraft for managing to steer the jet in its dying moments away from people’s homes so that it came down in a field, where it dug a trench 60 yards long. Everyone on board was killed, but there were no casualties on the ground.

Mercifully, the world’s five worst air crashes in terms of the number killed on board caused no deaths on the ground. One of the worst accidents for ground casualties came in August 1944 when a USAF Liberator bomber crashed on the village of Freckleton in Lancashire. 58 people were killed in the village, including 38 children in the local school.

Of course on 9/11, when four aircraft were hi-jacked with the deliberate aim of crashing them, the death toll was much higher – more than 2,700 on the ground, as well as over 250 on the airliners, while the Pan-Am jumbo blown up above Lockerbie killed 11 people on the ground.


  1. Mr. Disaster Historian!

    Your post on ground casualties was stupendous. I've done some digging around regarding those hapless members of the general public unlucky enough to be standing beneath aeroplanes when they suddenly decide that they cannot fly anymore.

    Airshows seem to have been especially dangerous in the past, and the worst incidents seem shared equally between east and west.

    So here goes with my Alan Freeman-style top four incidents of air crash ground casualties:

    1) 28 August 1988 - Ramstein Air Force Base (AFB), West Germany - The Frecce Tricolori (Italian Air Force Display Team) take to the skies with Aermacchi MB-339 jet trainers for a display. A mid-air collision causes a fireball as the fuel from the two colliding aircraft ignites and and crashes onto the audience causing 70 ground fatalities and 346 serious injuries.

    2) 27 July 2002 - Sknyliv Airfield (now Livi International Airport), Ukraine - Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi Su-27 (NATO reporting name 'Flanker') performs a low-altitude roll. The crew eject as the aircraft seems to descend almost out of control towards the ground. After ejection, the crewless aircraft's port-side wing clips the nose of a stationary Ilyushin Il-76 (NATO reporting name 'Candid') causing the aircraft to cartwheel into the audience killing 85, and injuring over 100. Still the world's worst airshow disaster.

    3) 6 September 1952 - Farnborough Air Show - A DeHavilland De-110 breaks up over spectators immediately after breaking the sound barrier during a flying display. 31 killed including the pilot, John Derry the first UK pilot to break the sound barrier coincidentaly four years earlier on 6th September 1948.

    4) 5th December 1997 - Irktsk, Russia. An Antonov An-124-100 (NATO reporting name 'Ruslan') carrying Sukhoi Su-27s to Vietnam takes off from Irkutsk Airport bound for Vladivostock. At about 300-ft, number one and two engines on the port wing fail. The aircraft begins a rapid descent crashing around 4,800 ft from the runway threshold, hitting an apartment block. In total 45 people are killed on the ground, together with the 23 passengers and crew on the aircraft.

  2. thanks for this, NT - as erudite and fascinating as ever. So, if I've got this right, if we discount 9/11 and airshows - which sound almost as dangerous - the worst air crash for civilian casualties on the ground was Freckleton (58 killed) and the worst in peacetime was Irkutsk. Or maybe you know different.......