Controlled flight into terrain

Controlled flight into terrain
A piece of the remains of Air New Zealand Flight 901, which crashed in 1979. All 257 people on the plane were killed.

Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) describes an accident in which an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, a mountain, water, or an obstacle.[1] The term was coined by engineers at Boeing in the late 1970s.[2] The pilots are generally unaware of the danger until it is too late.

According to Boeing, CFIT is a leading cause of airplane accidents involving the loss of life, causing over 9,000 deaths since the beginning of the commercial jet age.[1] CFIT was identified as a cause of 25% of USAF Class A Mishaps between 1993 and 2002.[3]



Animation of the descent of Korean Air Flight 801 in Guam in 1997 (NTSB)

While there are many reasons why a plane might crash into terrain, including bad weather and navigation equipment problems, it is claimed that pilot error is the single biggest factor leading to a CFIT incident.[1]

Even highly experienced professionals may commit CFIT due to fatigue, loss of situational awareness, or disorientation. CFIT is considered a form of spatial disorientation, where the pilot(s) do not correctly perceive their position and orientation with respect to the Earth's surface.[4]

The incidents often involve a collision with terrain such as hills or mountains, and may occur in conditions of clouds or otherwise reduced visibility. CFIT often occurs during aircraft descent to landing, near an airport. CFIT may be associated with subtle equipment malfunctions. If the malfunction occurs in a piece of navigational equipment and it is not detected by the crew, it may mislead the crew into improperly guiding the aircraft despite other information received from all properly functioning equipment, or despite clear sky visibility that should have allowed the crew to easily notice ground proximity (compare tunnel vision).

Some pilots, convinced that advanced electronic navigation systems coupled with flight management system computers, or over-reliance on them, are partially responsible for these accidents, have called CFIT accidents "computerized flight into terrain".[citation needed]


Traditionally adequate procedures and crew coordination and communication (CRM) as well as control or surveillance by air traffic services may reduce the likelihood of CFIT. In order to prevent the occurrence of CFIT accidents, manufacturers and safety regulators developed terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). The first generation of these TAWS systems is known as a ground proximity warning system (GPWS), which uses a radar altimeter to assist in calculating terrain closure rates. This system has now been further improved with the addition of a GPS terrain database and is known as an enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS). This and the older system have mandatory pilot procedures and actions following any caution or warning event.[5] Smaller aircraft often use a GPS database of terrain to provide terrain warning. The GPS database contains a database of nearby terrain and will present terrain that is near the aircraft in red or yellow depending on its distance from the aircraft.[6]

Statistics show that aircraft fitted with a second-generation EGPWS have not suffered a CFIT accident[7] if TAWS or EGPWS are properly handled (there are at least three CFIT accidents of planes with EGPWS/TAWS: Garuda Indonesia Flight 200, 2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash, Mirosławiec air accident). As of 2007, 5% of the world's commercial airlines still lack a TAWS, leading to a prediction of two CFIT accidents in 2009.[7] The U.S. FAA has also conducted a study about civilizing 3D military thrust vectoring to recover jet liners from catastrophes.[8][9]

Notable accidents

Many notable accidents have been ascribed to CFIT.

Flight Date Comments
TWA Flight 3 January 16, 1942 Hollywood movie star Carole Lombard was one of the victims.
Star Dust airliner August 2, 1947 Due to a misjudgment of position, the flight crew appear to have believed that the aircraft was approaching the airport of Santiago, when in fact it was still above Tupungato mountain in the Andes. The plane vanished shortly after its last transmission estimating the time of its arrival at Santiago. Its wreckage was discovered fifty years later.
Superga air disaster May 4, 1949 The entire Torino A.C. football team was killed in a collision with the hill of Superga, near Turin.
Pan Am Flight 151 June 21, 1951
British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Flight 304 October 29, 1953 American pianist William Kapell was one of the victims.
Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810 December 9, 1956
Northeast Airlines Flight 823 February 1, 1957
1958 Bristol Britannia 312 crash December 24, 1958
American Airlines Flight 320 February 3, 1959
The Day the Music Died February 3, 1959 Musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson killed, along with the pilot.
TAA Fokker Friendship disaster June 10, 1960
Alitalia Flight 771 July 7, 1962
United Airlines Flight 389 August 16, 1965
American Airlines Flight 383 November 8, 1965
Iberia Airlines Flight 062 November 4, 1967 British film and television actress June Thorburn was one of the victims.
TWA Flight 128 November 20, 1967
South African Airways Flight 228 April 20, 1968 Incorrect flap retraction sequence after take-off; problems reading a drum-type altimeter
Southern Airways Flight 932 November 14, 1970 Crashed near Huntington, West Virginia, killing all 75 on board, including 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team. The crash was the subject of the 2006 feature film, We Are Marshall.
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 October 13, 1972
Survivors amongst the wreckage of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571
Known less formally as the Andes flight disaster, October 13, 1972 to December 23, 1972, during which stranded snow-bound survivors resorted to cannibalism. The incident became the subject of feature films and best-selling books.
Braathens SAFE Flight 239 December 23, 1972
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 December 29, 1972 The cockpit crew became fixated on a faulty landing gear light and had failed to realize that the autopilot had been switched off. The distracted crew did not recognize the plane's slow descent and the otherwise completely airworthy aircraft struck swampy ground in the Everglades, killing 101 out of 176 passengers and crew. This accident became the subject of books and made-for-television movies.
Delta Air Lines Flight 723 July 31, 1973
TWA Flight 514 Dec 1, 1974
Air New Zealand Flight 901 November 28, 1979 Crashed into Mount Erebus, Antarctica on November 28, 1979. There is still disagreement over the exact causes of the crash, but it is commonly accepted that a changing of preprogrammed coordinates, the pilots' loss of situational awareness and whiteout conditions at the time were contributory factors leading to the crash. All 257 people on the plane were killed.
Dan-Air Flight 1008 April 25, 1980 Crashed into high terrain in Tenerife after turning the wrong way in a holding pattern. All 146 people aboard were killed.
Mt. San Pietro disaster December 1, 1981 Inex-Adria Aviopromet Flight 1308, flying from Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Ajaccio, Corsica, crashed into mountains shortly before it was scheduled to land. All 180 people on board were killed.
Avianca Flight 011 November 27, 1983
Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 January 1, 1985 Struck Mount Illimani in Bolivia at an altitude of 19,600 feet. The flight took off from Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Asunción, Paraguay, and intended to reach El Alto International Airport in La Paz, Bolivia. All 19 passengers and 10 crew were killed on impact.
1986 Mozambican Tupolev Tu-134 crash October 19, 1986 Mozambican president Samora Machel and 33 others were killed.
Avianca Flight 410 March 17, 1988
Indian Airlines Flight 113 October 19, 1988 The aircraft hit an electric mast in Ahmedabad, India, five miles (eight km) out on approach in poor visibility. All six crew members and 124 of 129 passengers were killed.
Independent Air Flight 1851 February 8, 1989
Flying Tiger Line Flight 66 February 19, 1989
Flying Tigers 747
The aircraft was on an international cargo flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and crashed shortly before landing. The crew descended below approach altitude and crashed into a hill. All four crew members were killed.
Surinam Airways Flight PY764 June 7, 1989
Indian Airlines Flight 605 February 14, 1990 Crashed short of the runway during final approach to Bangalore, killing 92 on board.
Air Inter Flight 148 January 20, 1992 Crashed into Mt. Ste. Odile in the Vosges Mountains whilst on approach into Strasbourg Entzheim Airport.
Thai Airways International Flight 311 July 31, 1992 Crashed on approach to Kathmandu. All 111 people on board were killed, 59 days before the PIA Flight 268 accident at Kathmandu (see next item),
Pakistan International Airlines Flight 268 September 28, 1992
Wreckage Of PIA Flight 268.
Crashed on approach to Kathmandu. The approach to Kathmandu is difficult, as the airport is located in an oval-shaped valley surrounded by mountains. Flight 268 was approximately 900 feet below the designated approach path and crashed into a steep cloud-covered hillside. All 167 people on the plane were killed.
SAM Colombia Flight 505 May 19, 1993 Crashed near Mt. Panamo Frontino, killing the 132 people on board the Boeing 727
Asiana Airlines Flight 733 July 26, 1993 While approaching in bad weather, a Boeing 737-500 crashed into a mountain near Mokpo, South Korea. 68 of 106 on board were killed.
Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 June 5, 1995
American Airlines Flight 1572 November 12, 1995
American Airlines Flight 965 December 20, 1995 Crashed into a mountain near Cali, Colombia. The crew failed to recognize a series of navigational errors they had made, and forgot that they had deployed the air brakes. All eight crew members and 152 of the 156 passengers were killed.
1996 Croatia USAF CT-43 crash April 3, 1996 A modified Boeing 737 crashed into a mountain in Croatia. One of the victims was United States Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown.
Vnukovo Flight 2801 August 29, 1996 All 141 people aboard a Tupolev Tu-154M were killed, when the aircraft crashed into Operafjellet during approach to Svalbard Airport, Longyear, Svalbard, Norway. This airport does not provide any approach service.
Aeroperú Flight 603 October 2, 1996
Korean Air Flight 801 August 6, 1997
Garuda Indonesia Flight 152 September 26, 1997 An Airbus A300, registered PK-GAI, crashed in Pancur Batu, Pematang Siantar, North Sumatera. Became the worst air disaster in Indonesian aviation history.
1996 New Hampshire Learjet crash December 24, 1996 Found November 13, 1999
Crossair Flight 3597 November 24, 2001 Flight from Berlin to Zurich that crashed during its landing approach, killing 24 people.
Air China Flight 129 April 15, 2002
Kam Air Flight 904 February 3, 2005
2006 Slovak Air Force Antonov An-24 crash January 19, 2006
Armavia Flight 967 May 3, 2006
Steve Fossett Sep 3, 2007
Atlasjet Flight 4203 November 30, 2007
Santa Bárbara Airlines Flight 518 February 21, 2008
Polish Air Force Tu-154 Flight April 10, 2010 President Lech Kaczyński on board
2010 Israeli helicopter disaster in Romania July 26, 2010 6 IAF and 1 Romanian Air Force officers were killed.
Airblue Flight 202 July 28, 2010 Crashed into the Margalla Hills near Islamabad, Pakistan
RusAir Flight 9605 Jun 21, 2011 Crashed near Petrozavodsk Airport (PES, ULPB). Tu-134 RA-65691.

See also

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  1. ^ a b c [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Air Force Magazine, February 2004, Published by Air Force Association, 1501 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA 22209-1198, USA.
  4. ^ (Parmet, AJ and Ercoline, WR, Chapter 6, Spatial Orientation in Flight. In Fundamentals of Aerospace Medicine, 4th Edition, 2008, Davis, Johnson, Stepanek and Fogarty, Eds. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)
  5. ^ Honeywell Aerospace EGPWS Website
  6. ^ [3]
  7. ^ a b David Learmount (January 13, 2009). "Forecasts 2009 - Safety and security are in the doldrums". Flight International. Retrieved 2009-11-04. 
  8. ^ “Multiaxis Thrust Vectoring Flight Control Vs Catastrophic Failure Prevention”, Reports to U.S. Dept. of Transportation/FAA, Technical Center, ACD-210, FAA X88/0/6FA/921000/4104/T1706D, FAA Res. Benjamin Gal-Or, Grant-Award No: 94-G-24, CFDA, No. 20.108, Dec. 26, 1994.
  9. ^ "Vectored Propulsion, Supermanoeuvreability, and Robot Aircraft", by Benjamin Gal-Or, Springer Verlag, 1990, ISBN 0-387-97161-0, ISBN 3-540-97161-0.

External links

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