Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Five mysterious air disasters

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared in clear skies over the South China Sea on Saturday morning. But it is not the only commercial aircraft to disappear from radar screens under balmy conditions. We look at some of the most well-known examples of aircraft crashes, ranging from a famous air disaster in faraway Chile that led to cannibalism to other horrific incidences closer to home, such as the SilkAir 185 crash and a JAL crash that claimed 520 lives.

1. Air France Flight 447, 2009

The Airbus A330-200 departed Rio de Janeiro on May 31 at 7.29pm local time, bound for Paris. The last contact with the plane was three hours into the flight. Similar to Malaysia Airlines, there was a time lag of six hours before Air France acknowledged that it had lost contact with the plane. Despite search-and-rescue missions turning up no evidence of any wreckage, by the afternoon of June 1, Air France had accepted the worst - that the plane had crashed with no survivors. It took another day before flight missions spotted debris and on June 6, the first two bodies were recovered. In all, 216 passengers and 12 aircrew perished in the accident.

An investigation followed and the final report released on July 5, 2012, attributed the crash to a combination of mechanical failures, which caused the autopilot to disconnect, and human error, when the crew's attempts at controlling the plane instead caused it to stall.

2. EgyptAir Flight 990, 1999

The Boeing 767 left John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York at 1.20am after a stopover on Oct 31. About 30 minutes after becoming airborne, the plane suddenly went into a sharp descent and eventually crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

All 217 people on board were killed. But the postscript to the crash proved as mysterious as the actual causes of the accident. Since the plane went down in international waters, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) asked the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to help with the investigation.

The NTSB's investigation suggested that co-pilot Gameel Al-Batouti, a 59-year-old who was the relief pilot on duty, had deliberately driven the plane into a dive. The board wanted to hand the investigation over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but the ECAA was furious and objected. Two separate investigations ensued, with the NTSB concluding that Al-Batouti was suicidal and deliberately took down the plane, while the ECAA attributed the crash to mechanical failures. The two competing conclusions have proven to be fuel for conspiracy theorists, especially since 33 members of the Egyptian military, including two Brigadier-Generals, a Colonel and a Major, were on the plane.

3. SilkAir Flight MI 185, 1997

The Boeing 737-300, which crashed into the Musi river near Palembang on Dec 19, 1997, is the worst air disaster in Singapore history.

The flight took off from Jakarta at 3.37pm local time, bound for Singapore. Barely 30 minutes later, the plane went into a steep nosedive at such a speed that the tail section started to separate from the fuselage. It took less than a minute for it to drop from cruise altitude into the river.

All 104 people on board, including 46 Singaporeans, died. At the time, investigators were mystified as to why the then 10-month-old plane, with an experienced pilot at the helm and good weather conditions, could have crashed.

After a three-year investigation by the Indonesian Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from the United States, the final 200-page report was inconclusive. The plane had been shattered into such small pieces that the investigators were unable to discover the mechanical causes of the crash.

4. Japan Airlines Flight 123, 1985

This was the worst accident involving a single aircraft, claiming the lives of 520 passengers and crew members. There were just four survivors.

The Boeing 747SR-46 was flying a domestic route from Tokyo to Osaka. Just 12 minutes after taking off from Haneda Airport on Aug 12, the plane's rear bulkhead gave way, causing an explosive decompression of the plane. The rudder was torn off and all four hydraulic systems destroyed.

The pilots sent a distress signal and tried to manoevre the aircraft back in the direction of Haneda. But the loss of the hydraulic systems meant they had no control over the plane. Although the flight crew kept the plane going for 32 minutes, it finally crashed into the mountains in Ueno, Gunma Prefecture.

Although a search-and-rescue team from a nearby American base located the plane just 20 minutes after it crashed, Japanese authorities asked them to stay away. The wreckage was found by a Japanese helicopter during the night and rescue crews decided to wait for daylight to continue operations.

The cause of the crash was due to a badly repaired patch at the bottom of the plane which failed after too many flights.

5. Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, 1972

This chartered flight carrying a rugby team from Montevideo has passed into pop culture legend thanks to the 1993 Hollywood movie starring Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton.

The plane crashed in the Andes on Oct 13, en route from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile. Clouds had obscured the mountain pass through which the plane was supposed to fly. There were 45 people on board, 12 of whom died in the crash. By the next morning, another five had died and another died on the eighth day. Without food supplies or adequate clothing to deal with the minus 30 deg C temperatures on the mountaintop, the 27 survivors took a collective decision to eat the bodies of the dead.

Eight more survivors died in an avalanche before three others were sent off on a last-ditch attempt to get help, hiking over mountainous terrain. Two of them finally stumbled onto signs of human habitation. The last 16 survivors were finally rescued on Dec 22, more than two months after they crashed.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.