Controlled flight into terrain

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"CFIT" redirects here. For the IQ test, see Cattell Culture Fair III. For the Canadian radio station, see CFIT-FM.
A piece of the 35-year-old remains of Air New Zealand Flight 901, which impacted Mount Erebus in 1979. All 257 people on the plane were killed making it the fourth largest loss of life in a single crash when it occurred.[1]

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.[2] The pilots are generally unaware of the danger until it is too late. The term was coined by engineers at Boeing in the late 1970s.[3] Accidents where an aircraft is already damaged and uncontrollable at the time of the collision (also known as uncontrolled flight into terrain) are not considered CFIT. Terrorist incidents and suicide-by-pilot are different from CFIT, even if the aircraft is crashed into a natural structure.

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.[4] CFIT was identified as a cause of 25% of USAF Class A Mishaps between 1993 and 2002.[5]


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, pilot error is the most common factor found in CFIT accidents.[2]

The most common type of pilot error in CFIT accidents is the failure of pilots to know at all times what their position is, and how their actual position relates to the altitude of the surface of the Earth below and immediately ahead, on the course they are flying (a loss of situational awareness). Fatigue can cause even highly experienced professionals to make significant errors, which culminate in a CFIT accident.[6]

CFIT accidents frequently involve a collision with terrain such as hills or mountains during conditions of reduced visibility, while conducting an approach to landing at the destination airport. Sometimes a contributing factor can be subtle navigation equipment malfunctions which, if not detected by the crew, may mislead them into improperly guiding the aircraft, despite other information received from properly functioning equipment.


Prior to the installation of the first electronic warning systems, pilot simulator training, traditional procedures, crew resource management (CRM) and radar surveillance by air traffic services were the only defenses against CFIT. While those factors undoubtedly reduced the total amount of CFIT accidents, they did not eliminate them entirely. To prevent the continued occurrence of CFIT accidents, manufacturers developed terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). The first generation of those systems was known as a ground proximity warning system (GPWS), which used a radar altimeter to assist in calculating terrain closure rates. That system was further improved with the addition of a GPS terrain database and is now known as an enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS). When combined with mandatory pilot simulator training, which emphasizes proper responses to any caution or warning event, the system has proved very effective in preventing further CFIT accidents.[7]

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.[8]

Statistics show that aircraft fitted with a second-generation EGPWS have not suffered a CFIT accident[9] if TAWS or EGPWS are properly handled (there are at least two CFIT accidents of planes with EGPWS/TAWS: 2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash and the 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.[9] In the case of Mount Salak Sukhoi Superjet 100 crash, the TAWS was working but the pilot intentionally turned it off.[10]

Notable accidents[edit]

Many notable accidents have been ascribed to CFIT.

Flight Date Comments
TWA Flight 3 January 16, 1942 Fifteen minutes after takeoff from Las Vegas, the plane hit a sheer cliff on Potosi Mountain, 32 miles from the airport, at an elevation of 7,770 ft. No survivors among the 19 passengers and 3 crew on board, including movie star Carole Lombard and her mother. Cause was the deviation from the safe airway route, during a nighttime flight.
BSAA Star Dust 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 Collision with the hill of Superga, near Turin.
Pan Am Flight 151 June 21, 1951 Collision with hill, Liberia, Africa
United Airlines Flight 610 June 30, 1951 Crashed into Crystal Mountain, CO, after failing to make a required left turn, to remain on the flight planned course to Denver.
Air France Flight 178 September 1, 1953 Crashed into the Pelat Massif in the French Alps
British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Flight 304 October 29, 1953 Premature descent while intercepting ILS for SFO airport
TWA Flight 260 February 19, 1955 Crashed into Sandia Mountains, near Albuquerque, NM, while in instrument flight conditions. Suspected failure of a critical navigation instrument.
United Airlines Flight 409 October 6, 1955 Unexplained deviation from flight plan course; hit Medicine Bow Peak, CO
Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810 December 9, 1956
1958 Bristol Britannia 312 crash December 24, 1958
American Airlines Flight 320 February 3, 1959
1959 Air Charter Turkey crash April 23, 1959
Piedmont Airlines Flight 349 October 30, 1959
TAA Fokker Friendship disaster June 10, 1960
Alitalia Flight 771 July 7, 1962
Aero Flight 217 November 8, 1963 DC-3. Crashed into a knoll on landing approach at Mariehamn, Finland. The root cause was a malfunctioning altimeter.
Linjeflyg Flight 277 November 20, 1964 Crash killed 31 of 43 people on board, making it the deadliest aviation accident in Sweden.
United Airlines Flight 389 August 16, 1965
American Airlines Flight 383 November 8, 1965
TABSO Flight 101 November 24, 1966 Crashed Bratislava, Slovakia, killing all 82 on board
Iberia Airlines Flight 062 November 4, 1967
TWA Flight 128 November 20, 1967 Crashed short of the runway, after descending below the minimum descent altitude (MDA), in non-visual conditions, while conducting a non-precision approach to the Cincinnati airport.
South African Airways Flight 228 April 20, 1968 Failure by crew to maintain a safe airspeed and altitude and a positive climb by not observing flight instruments during take-off.
Scandinavian Airlines System Flight 933 January 13, 1969 Failure by crew to monitor rate of descent, resulting in a water landing near LAX
Southern Airways Flight 932 November 14, 1970 Crashed near Ceredo, West Virginia, killing all 75 on board. The flight was chartered by Marshall University and the passengers consisted of players, coaches, and boosters of the football team returning from a game against East Carolina.
Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 September 4, 1971 Flew into the side of a canyon on approach to Juneau, Alaska. 111 fatalities (104 passengers, 7 crew)
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 October 13, 1972 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 December 1, 1974
Turkish Airlines Flight 452 September 19, 1976 Crashed into a hill 60 miles off the destination airport killing all 154 people on board.
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 pre-programmed coordinates without informing the pilots, 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.
Inex-Adria Aviopromet Flight 1308 December 1, 1981 Struck Corsica's Mt. San Pietro and crashed shortly before it was scheduled to land. All 180 people on board were killed.
VASP Flight 168 June 8, 1982 Highest death toll of aviation accidents in Brazil for 24 years.
Avianca Flight 011 November 27, 1983
1984 Biman Bangladesh Airlines Fokker F27 crash August 5, 1984 Worst air disaster in history of Bangladeshi aviation.[11][12]
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 President Machel of Mozambique and 33 others die when their off course plane descends and flies into the Lebombo Mountains.
Avianca Flight 410 March 17, 1988
Air France Flight 296 June 26, 1988 Crashed into trees while performing a flyover for an airshow at Mulhouse-Habsheim Airport. Out of 130 passengers and six crew members, three passengers died in the post-impact fire.
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 764 June 7, 1989
Indian Airlines Flight 605 February 14, 1990 Crashed short of the runway during final approach to Bangalore, killing 92 on board.
Death of Stevie Ray Vaughan, East Troy, Wisconsin August 27, 1990 Bell 206B Jet Ranger helicopter flown into the side of a hill in heavy fog.
Alitalia Flight 404, Zurich November 14, 1990 DC-9-32 flown into side of mountain on landing approach due to defective ILS gear, killing all 40 passengers and 6 crew. Lack of proper crew resource management has been identified as contributing cause.
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 113 people on board were killed, 59 days before the PIA Flight 268 accident at Kathmandu.
PIA 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 501 May 19, 1993 Crashed near Mt. Panamo Frontino, killing all 132 people on board the Boeing 727-100
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 Buga, 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 151 of the 155 passengers were killed.
1996 Croatia USAF CT-43 crash April 3, 1996 A modified Boeing 737 crashed into a mountain in Croatia.
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; this circumstance thus leads to higher risks at landing.
1996 New Hampshire Learjet crash December 24, 1996 Found November 13, 1999
Korean Air Flight 801 August 6, 1997 A Boeing 747-300 crashed into Nimitz Hill on approach to Guam, killing 228 of 254 people aboard. The fatigued crew were following outdated flight maps, while ATCO had modified its MSAW system to eliminate false alarms.
Garuda Indonesia Flight 152 September 26, 1997 An Airbus A300, registered PK-GAI, crashed in Pancur Batu, Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra, becoming the worst air disaster in Indonesian aviation history.
Kenya Airways Flight 431 January 30, 2000 Impacted ocean after takeoff from Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, killing all 10 crew and 159 out of 169 passengers. The pilots put the plane into a descent in response to an erroneous stall warning.
Air Philippines Flight 541 April 19, 2000 Crashed in Island Garden City of Samal, Davao del Norte, killing all 131 people on board. It is also currently the deadliest air disaster in the Philippines.
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
Atlasjet Flight 4203 November 30, 2007
Santa Bárbara Airlines Flight 518 February 21, 2008
2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash April 10, 2010 Polish president Lech Kaczyński was among those killed in the crash.
Airblue Flight 202 July 28, 2010 Crashed into the Margalla Hills near Islamabad, Pakistan
RusAir Flight 9605 June 20, 2011 Crashed near Petrozavodsk Airport (PES, ULPB). Tu-134 RA-65691.
First Air Flight 6560 August 20, 2011 Was an internal Canadian charter flight from Yellowknife Airport, Northwest Territories, to Resolute Bay Airport, Nunavut. It crashed approximately 2 km (1.2 mi) east of the Resolute Bay, Airport runway, in poor weather attempting a go-around after a failed ILS landing. 12 of the 15 people on board were killed.
Royal Norwegian Air Force C-130J March 15, 2012 Crashed into Kebnekaise, Sweden en route to Kiruna Airport, killing the 5 officers on board. C-130J-30 'Siv'.
Mount Salak Sukhoi Superjet 100 crash May 9, 2012 Aircraft crashed while on a demonstration flight, killing all 45 on board. The pilots had intentionally turned off the terrain warning system and were speaking to potential customers when the impact occurred.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b "Boeing: Commercial Airplanes - Jetliner Safety - Industry's Role in Aviation Safety". Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved June 2013. 
  3. ^ [1][dead link]
  4. ^ Boeing Training Aid Addresses Leading Accident Cause, Feb. 20, 1997
  5. ^ Air Force Magazine, February 2004, Published by Air Force Association, 1501 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA 22209-1198, USA.
  6. ^ (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)
  7. ^ Honeywell Aerospace EGPWS Website
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^ a b David Learmount (January 13, 2009). "Forecasts 2009 - Safety and security are in the doldrums". Flight International. Retrieved 2009-11-04. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ Accident description for S2-ABJ at the Aviation Safety Network
  12. ^ "AROUND THE WORLD; 49 Die in Bangladesh As Plane Plunges". The New York Times. 6 August 1984. Retrieved 2 September 2014. 

External links[edit]