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  Human Error Vs. Airborne Terrorism (Pg. 1)

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Robert Baron

President and chief consultant of, a worldwide aviation safety consulting firm that specializes in Crew Resource Management and Human Factors Training for aviation departments. Mr. Baron also owns and operates Learjet Crews International, Inc. He holds an Airline Transport Pilot Rating and has over 15 years of aviation experience as a Line Captain, Instructor and Check Airman in Learjet aircraft. He's also type-rated in the Cessna Citation and holds a Flight Engineer Rating for Turbojet aircraft. His academic achievements include a Bachelor's Degree in Professional Aeronautics/Aviation Safety and a Masters Degree in Aeronautical Science with specializations in Aviation Safety/Human Factors from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. If you have any questions or would like additional information on CRM/Human Factors training, please don't hesitate to contact Robert through e-mail or via phone at 954-803-5807.

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     Human Error Vs.
       Airborne Terrorism (Pg. 1 of 3)

     Robert Baron

  The following pictures represent the aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.



Somerset, PA



The following pictures represent the aftermath of human error.






On September 11, 2001...

        Four terrorists hijacked United Airlines flight 93, which departed Newark and was destined for San Francisco. The plane crashed in Somerset, Pennsylvania killing all 45 persons on board. The intended target of that hijacked plane may never be known, but it is believed that it was bound for the White House. It is important to point out that due to the bravery of the passengers in overpowering the hijackers on that doomed flight, the aircraft was prevented from being used as a missile.
        Five terrorists hijacked American Airlines flight 77, which departed Washington Dulles Airport and was destined for Los Angeles. The plane was flown directly into the Pentagon. A total of 189 persons were killed, including all who were onboard the plane.
        Five terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, which departed Boston and was destined for Los Angeles. The plane was flown directly into the north tower of the World Trade Center. On board the aircraft were 81 passengers, nine flight attendants, and the two pilots.
        Five terrorists hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, which departed Boston and was destined for Los Angeles. The plane was flown directly into the south tower of the World Trade Center. On board the aircraft were 56 passengers, seven flight attendants, and the two pilots.
        In the end, more than 3000 persons were killed in these four heinous attacks. I'm sure that each and every one of us has thought about what it must have been like for those passengers in their final moments on each of those four ill-fated airliners on September 11th, 2001.Thousands of innocent lives were lost because of fanatic martyrs who believe in some sort of a fantasyland after-life. Unlike hijackers of the past, there are no demands to be met or negotiations to be had. These people have only one motive; to kill as many Americans as possible and be willing to die for the cause. That is scary.  
        Thanks to 9/11, and for the foreseeable future, passengers will board commercial airliners with a newfound type of anxiety. After all, our domestic security was breached and our air transportation system was violated. We can't help but wonder if the passenger sitting next to us has been properly screened and is not armed with a box cutter, knife, or other weapon with the explicit intent to harm Americans. Things are different today, that's for sure.

        In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, we have stepped-up security at airports and have become extra vigilant for suspicious activities in our aviation environment (as well as other high-risk environments). Today, when boarding an aircraft, the average passenger fears a hijacking more than any other element of flight. However, if we put we things in perspective, an airline passenger has at least a 100 percent higher risk of being seriously injured or killed by human error than by terrorist activity. Therefore, the gist of this article is not about terrorism, per se, but how serious the consequences can be when human error is left unchecked. 

THE HUMAN ELEMENT: That by which we have physical or mental control to recognize, change, prevent, or mitigate a situation. Approximately 80 percent of all air crashes fall into this category. While the previous definition called it "pilot error," the term has been changed to "human error" to more realistically reflect that anybody who acts in a support capacity of a flight may contribute to the error chain. Not just the pilot. Of the previously cited 80 percent, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) further breaks down human errors into the following categories:


Unprofessional Attitudes

Visual Perception Misjudgment 19%
Pilot Technique 21%
Inflight Judgment or Decision 5%
Improper Operation of Equip. 6%
Unknown Causes 4%


Continuing with statistical data, the following two tables depict the causes of accidents (in percent) from the 1950's through the 1990's. Note that "pilot error" has, and still does, account for the highest percentage of accidents. 

Accident Causes by Category (pct)

Cause 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s Total
Pilot Er 41 34 27 28 27 31
Pilot Er (weather rel.) 9 17 14 15 14 14
Pilot Er (Mech. rel.) 6 5 4 3 4 4
TTL Pilot Er 56 56 45 46 45 49
Other Human Er 2 7 8 6 8 7
Weather 16 11 15 15 14 14
Mech. Failure 20 19 19 19 24 21
Sabotage 5 4 11 13 8 8
Other Cause 1 3 2 1 1 1

NOTE: The tables above and below
are compiled from the accident  database, representing 1,834 accidents from 1950 thru 1999.  The table above uses 1,286 accidents where a cause can be identified and excludes accidents where a cause could not be determined. The table below includes all 1,834 accidents including those where a cause could not be identified.

"Pilot error (weather related)" represents accidents in which pilot error was involved but brought about by weather related phenomena.  "Pilot error (Mech. related)" represents accidents in which pilot error was involved but brought about by Mech. failure.  "Other human error" includes air traffic controller error, improper loading of aircraft, fuel contamination, improper maintenance etc.  Sabotage includes explosive devices, shoot downs and hijackings.  "Total pilot error" is the total for all types of pilot error (on the fourth line in yellow).  Where there were multiple causes, the most prominent cause was used.

Accident Causes by Category (percent)

Cause 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s Total
Pilot Err 27 24 18 21 20 22
Pilot (weather rel.) 6 12 9 11 11 10
Pilot Err (Mech. rel.) 4 3 3 2 3 3
TTL Pilot Err 37 39 30 34 34 35
Other Human Er 2 5 5 4 6 4
Weather 10 7 9 11 11 10
Mech. Failure 13 14 12 15 18 14
Sabotage 3 3 7 10 6 6
Other Cause 1 2 1 1 1 1
Undeter. or missing 34 30 36 25 24 30


Odds of being on an airline flight which results in at least one fatality
Top 25 airlines with the best records
1 in 4.2 million 
Bottom 25 airlines with the worst records
1 in 186,000


Odds of being killed on a single airline flight
Top 25 airlines with the best records
1 in 12.4 million 
Bottom 25 airlines with the worst records
1 in 251,000

Source: BACK Associates and accident database, 1980 - 1999


Mortality Risk by Type of Scheduled Service
1987 - 1996

Advanced-world1 domestic jet 1 in 8 million
U.S. Commuter2 1 in 2 million
Developing-world3 domestic jet 1 in 500,000
International jet within advanced-world 1 in 5 million
International jet between advanced-world and developing-world 1 in 600,000
International jet within developing-world 1 in 400,000

1.  Advanced-world air carriers have home offices in economically advanced, technologically advanced and politically democratic countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom).  

2  Includes service by reciprocating-engine aircraft and turboprop aircraft.

3.  Developing-world air carriers have home offices in countries other than those countries categorized for the purposes of this study as economically advanced, technologically advanced and politically democratic.

 Source: Arnold Barnett and Alexander Wang, Massachusetts Institute of Technology



Robert Baron


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