A recent analysis, conducted and reported by USA Today, found that the same oversight that led to a fatal plane crash in Madrid over the summer has actually happened repeatedly in the United States. That oversight was a failure to properly set the wing flaps and slats prior to takeoff—a normally routine task. On August 20, 154 people were killed moments after a Spanair plane attempted to takeoff. The pilots had not set the wingflaps and slats, which expand the size of the plane's wing, resulting more lift for the plane. Takeoff is a much riskier affair without the wingflaps and slats set.
That is why it is very disturbing that, since 2000, there have been reports of 55 incidents in which pilots failed to properly set the wings for takeoff, according to USA Today (analyzing data from the NASA aviation safety database). Luckily for people on board those planes, a warning system alerted pilots in most of those incidents to the failure; however, some incidents proved nearly fatal.
USA Today cites on incident at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in which the plane nearly dropped to the ground after the pilot attempted takeoff without properly setting the wings. In that case, the warning system failed and did not alert pilots to the problem.
The report goes on to note that human error, either committed by flight crew or maintenance workers, caused "all nine fatal airline accidents in the USA since 2000." Furthermore, failure to set the wingflaps was cited as the cause for 2 crashes in the US in the 1980s that resulted in 170 casualties.
Stress, fatigue or interruptions to routines were cited as causes of pilot error. In an interview with USA Today, Ben Berman, a former NTSB investigator said, "You'll do the same thing correctly 1 million times and then not do it correctly one time. Things like a moment of stress, a spike in workload, a change in routine—all these things can throw humans off track."
The plane crash in Madrid was the worst aviation accident in Spain in 25 years. The plane reportedly only reached an altitude of 40 feet before it crashed down. According to the airline, wingflap and slat settings are checked 3 times prior to take off. For some reason, not only were the wings not properly set, but the warning system did not alert pilots to the problem.
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Pilot error was also blamed as a likely cause of a float plane crash that killed one person and seriously injured a 5-year-old. The NTSB determined that the pilot failed to retract the float plane's landing gear during a water landing, leading to the plane crash.
Pilots are undoubtedly skilled individuals, capable of handling high stress situations—situations that most people could not dream of dealing with. Unfortunately, when they make mistakes, those mistakes can be tragic.