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26 February 2009

Do Plane Crashes Happen in Threes? - Sometimes, Yes

Note: updated version of article published 24 July 2014

Since was launched in 1996, the site has tracked fatal events and other significant events involving airline passengers. When these events occur, especially if two occur a just a few days apart, I sometimes get the "Do bad things like plane crashes always happen in threes?" question asked by visitors to the site, by members of the media, and by others. I used to just dismiss the question out of hand because events like plane crashes, especially those involving passenger airliners, are very rare, and the circumstances are usually very different for each crash, often involving different airlines, different aircraft types, and even different countries.

Although it's easy to reject the original question, it is quite legitimate to ask a related question about how frequently groups of rare events occur over a relatively short period of time. One day, just for fun, I turned the "things happening in threes" question into something that could be analyzed systematically using the information within I changed the general question into the following specific question: "How frequent are sequences of three or more fatal or significant aviation safety and security events where the time between events is ten days or less?"

For the purposes of answering this question, I limited the data to those events that are regularly tracked by These would be plane crashes or other airline events that kill at least one passenger, or other events that considers to be significant with respect to aviation safety or aviation security (see for a detailed definition of a fatal or significant event). Multiple events due to the same cause (for example, the four crashes associated with 9/11) were treated as one event.

Significant events that don't kill anyone sometimes attract more media attention than the average plane crash. The January 2008 ditching of a US Airways A320 in the Hudson River in New York was one example. It was very dramatic, it got a huge amount of media exposure, and no one was killed.

A review of the records from 1996, the year was launched, to February 2009 revealed some interesting facts:

* With the exception of 2007 and 2009, every year since 1996 included at least one sequence of three fatal or significant events that were separated by no more than ten days In fact, there was a sequence of five significant (but nonfatal) events in January 2008.

* There were seventeen sequences of three or more events that were separated no more than ten days. Three were sequences of five events, three sequences had four events, and the other eleven consisted of three events each. Correction: Since this article was published, a previously overlooked fatal accident from 24 August 1999 was added, and this led to an additional sequence of three for that year.

* Most of the fatal and significant events tracked from 1996 to the present were not part of any sequence of three or more events.

* Well known fatal events that were a part of one of these sequences include the Swissair MD-11 crash in 1998, the Concorde crash in 2000, the August 2006 crash of a Comair jet, in Lexington, KY, and the August 2008 crash of a Spanair MD83 in Madrid.

* Well known events that were not a part of one of these sequences include the ValuJet and TWA Flight 800 crashes in 1996, the Alaska Airlines crash in 2000, and the four crashes associated with 9/11.

* There have been five fatal or significant events in a 70-day period between 20 December 2008 and 25 February 2009, but only two of them have been less than ten days apart.

For twelve of the past 13 calendar years (1996 to 2008), there has been at least one grouping of three or more fatal or significant events that occurred over a relatively short period. At the same time, no information has come about in the investigations of any of those events that indicates that there was any sort of connection among them, or any evidence that the earlier events in the sequence made a later event more likely.

After reviewing the facts, I no longer say that plane crashes don't happen in threes. Since at least 1996, they have happened in threes, in fours, and in fives. Let us all hope that there are no sixes and sevens in our future.

Review Events by Year
1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002
2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008

Turkish Airlines Plane Crash in Amsterdam

25 February 2009; Turkish Airlines 737-800; Amsterdam, Netherlands: The aircraft, on a scheduled international flight from Istanbul, Turkey, to Amsterdam, Netherlands crashed in a field about a mile (1.6 km) short of the runway. The fuselage was broken into three major sections, and both engines were torn off. There was apparently no post crash fire. Three crew members, including both pilots, were killed, as were at least six others among the 135 passengers and crew members.'s Initial Report on this Accident
Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | Google Video | YouTube

Additional information about this event.

For more videos, visit the YouTube channel.

15 February 2009

Updates to Two Most Recent Continental Crashes just finished updating the status of the 20 December 2008 crash of a Continental Airlines 737-500 at Denver. The aircraft, which was on a scheduled flight to Houston's Intercontinental Airport, departed the runway during takeoff and skidded across a taxiway and a service road before coming to rest in a ravine several hundred yards from the runway. The aircraft sustained significant damage, including a post crash fire, separation of one engine and separated and collapsed landing gear. There were about 38 injuries among the 110 passengers and five crew members, including two passengers who were seriously injured. Because this did not involve the death of an airline passenger, this is a significant event as defined by

Below are the audio and video versions of the podcast.

Continental Airlines Accident in Denver
Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | Google Video | YouTube

For more videos, visit the YouTube channel at

Additional Information on the Buffalo Accident
The site added a page with fatal and significant events involving the Dash 8 model airliner, the same model involved in the fatal 12 February 2009 crash in Buffalo, NY.

Additional information about both the Buffalo and Denver events is available at

13 February 2009

Continental Connection Crash in Buffalo 12 February 2009

The aircraft, a scheduled flight from Newark, NJ and operated by Colgan Air, crashed in a residential area about five miles from the airport. At least one house on the ground was destroyed. All 44 passengers and four crew members were killed, along with one person on the ground.'s Initial Report on this Accident
Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | Google Video | YouTube

Additional information about this event.
Plane crashes involving the Dash 8
Synopsis of NTSB accident investigation

For more videos, visit the YouTube channel.

11 February 2009

Interview with Bird Strike Expert Dr. Ron Merritt

On January 18th, 2009, three days after the bird strike related ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York, Dr. Todd Curtis of interviewed bird strike expert Dr. Ron Merritt. He's currently the president of Detect, Inc., which manufactures bird strike avoidance radars. Dr. Merritt was also at one time the military commander of US Air Force unit responsible for understanding and reducing bird strike hazards to Air Force aircraft. During this wide ranging conversation, they discus a variety of bird strike and wildlife hazard topics, including the need for wildlife experts in the US Airways accident investigation team, wildlife control policy issues, and the history of the key bird strike organizations in the US and Canada.

Interview with Dr. Merritt and Dr. Curtis

Post about the related interview of Dr. Curtis on the Escapes radio program.

For more information on the accident, including videos and background information on bird strike hazards and airliner ditchings, visit:

10 February 2009

Interview on the Escapes Radio Talk Show

On February 9th, 2009, Dr. Todd Curtis of was interviewed on the "Escapes" radio show hosted by Ann Lombardi of the the Trip Chicks, who along Wendy Swartzell run the Atlanta area travel company Passport to Adventure. During the show, we discussed several of the issues around the previous month's ditching accident involving a US Airways A320 in New York, including what can be done about bird strike hazards, and how passengers should deal with fear of flying.

Listen to the interview

For more information on the accident, including videos and background information on bird strike hazards and airliner ditchings, visit:

09 February 2009

The "Miracle on the Hudson" and

Last month's ditching of a US Airways A320 was quite dramatic, and the survival of all on board, due in part to a very quick and very effective rescue operation, has been called the "Miracle on the Hudson" by the public and the media. Two elements of the accident, the ditching and the suspected role of birds in the accident, were of particular interest to Dr. Todd Curtis,'s founder, has had a long relationship with bird and wildlife hazard professionals in the US, Canada, and Europe, and had designed and launched the web site of Bird Strike Committee USA.

After the crash, a number of bird hazard items were added to, including updates of two previous research projects of Dr. Curtis. You can find links to those projects, as well as other links to Bird Strike Committee USA and other bird hazard related information, at

The crash involved a suspected bird strike, a common occurrence that rarely leads to a crash. The ditching aspect of this accident was even more rare, with this event being only the fourth time that a passenger jet airliner has been involved in a ditching. The attention the site attracted, especially an article published in the USA Today newspaper the day after the accident, led to clarify its definition of ditching, a definition that is much more specific than those provided by the NTSB, FAA, and other major aviation safety organizations (See

You can find many more details about the event, and about issues related to the US Airways ditching, at Among the resources at that location are: podcasts about the US Airways accident

Previous US Airways crashes

Other significant A320 events

An overview of bird strike hazards to aircraft

Jet airliner ditching events

Selected bird strike videos

Comparison of the US Airways event with seven other bird strike accidents

Bird strike study from the Foundation