Flying commercial is a very safe form of travel, but FBI Special Agent Kim Otto is a nervous flyer. Why? Because she knows things can go wrong and she has no control when they do. Her job on Hunt for Jack Reacher requires air travel almost constantly. What does she do? She feels the fear and does it anyway. Every flight is a test of her courage. What kinds of things is she worried about?
Here are several air travel worst case (but unlikely) scenarios that justify her concern about flying:
Flight Instruments Fail
Air France Flight 447 in 2009 crashed when the flight instruments failed. The plane flew through a storm, apparently causing small ducts that measure airspeed to freeze over. The plane then traveled too slowly, stalled, and the plane crashed, killing 228 people on board.
Landing Gear Fails
A Bek Air pilot at Kazakhstan’s Astana International Airport in March 2016 found that the front landing gear wouldn’t lower. The good news is that the pilot realized it wasn’t lowering with time to spare before landing. They aborted landing, climbed back into the air, and tried to fix it. When those attempts were unsuccessful, the crew attempted to land without landing gear. On the ground, officials covered the tarmac with special foam to help prevent fire. The plane landed with its nose down, but no one was hurt.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, an overheating tail compartment is to blame for 9 unexpected landings on Allegiant airlines in 2015. Statistics for other airlines are not readily available.
Of course, the cabin of the airplane needs to remain pressurized for survival during flight. Otto knows that without oxygen, passengers only last about 18 seconds. A variety of things can cause the pressurization to fail: technical problems, a crack in a window, and doors that haven’t been sealed properly, to name a few.
In 2005 a plane crashed en route from Cyprus to Athens after a loss of cabin pressure. The official investigation found that:
“The pressurisation system had been left in manual gear, causing cabin pressure to drop and the pilots to fall unconscious as they suffered hypoxia. Oxygen supplies for passengers ran out after 15 minutes, and when the plane, running on autopilot, ran out of fuel, it crashed 33km from Athens airport.”
The engine is one part of the plane that’s especially susceptible to external factors (ash, birds, weather). Portions of the turbine can be damaged, oil leaks can occur, and fuel pump problems or fuel contamination can damage the engine. In 1996, Delta Flight 1288 experienced catastrophic engine failure, causing debris to break off and puncture the fuselage. An investigation found there was a fracture in the fan, which started as a crack that formed during the engine’s initial manufacture. Two people were killed in the incident. 140 survived.
Even if the mechanical aspects are running well, Otto knows that half of all plane crashes are caused by pilot error. Which also means that a good pilot makes all the difference.