Car crashes are much more common than airplane crashes, but ask anyone what scares them more and they’ll say airplane crashes. We feel completely helpless in planes and so isolated, which could be why, even though a crash is extremely unlikely, therapy groups exist for the sole purpose of helping people get over flight fright. For the passengers on these flights, fear turned out to be tragically warranted. Here are 15 times people died on airplanes.
After a United Airlines flight going from Denver to Portland exploded in 1955, killing all five crew and 39 passengers inside, investigators found some interesting information. Daisie Eldora King, a passenger on the plane, recently had some life insurance policies taken out in her name but they had not been signed. The investigators discovered that King’s son, who had a criminal record, had been suspected of blowing up his mother’s restaurant in an attempt to get her life insurance policies. King’s son had tried a similar plan a second time, and this time put a bomb in his mother’s suitcase.
After a flight going from Reno to San Francisco crashed moments before landing, a .357 handgun was discovered in the wreckage. Investigators in the 1964 crash looked into Francisco Paula Gonzales, a former Olympics competitor for the Philippines sailing team. Gonzales was in debt and had purchased an enormous life insurance policy just before takeoff. Reports found that Gonzales had shot the pilots just before landing, then shot himself. All 44 passengers on board died. Gonzales had apparently done a lot of gambling the night before and lost money.
In 1974, Samuel Byck walked into Baltimore-Washington International Airport, shot a police officer to death, then got on a plane. Byck insisted the pilots take off and when they would not, he shot them both. One pilot died from his wounds and one survived. Byck then tried to force a passenger to fly the plane, but was quickly shot at from outside the plane. Byck, not yet dead, shot himself to death. It was later discovered that Byck had been flagged by the Secret Service for sending threats to President Richard Nixon, and his plan was to fly a plane into the White House and kill the president. This crash inspired the movie, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”
Earnest P. Pletch had a short temper and a thing for stealing airplanes. In 1939 the young Missouri resident killed his flight instructor during a flight when the instructor refused to fly them to Mexico. Pletch shot his instructor in the head, dumped the body, and took over the plane. At the time, Pletch was awaiting trial for his involvement in another airplane robbery.
Albert Guay wanted his wife out of the picture so he could start a new life with his mistress. He hatched an elaborate plan: put his wife and a bomb on the same plane. In 1949 on a flight from Montreal to Quebec City, a plane exploded, killing Guay’s wife, Rita, and all 23 people on board. Albert had taken out a $10,000 life insurance policy on Rita just days before.
In 1999 Yuji Nishizawa discovered a security loophole at an airport in Tokyo: passengers getting on flights could take checked luggage from arriving flights, after getting through security. Nishizawa, who had always dreamed of flying a plane, smuggled a knife onto a plane and forced the crew to allow him to fly the plane, stabbing a pilot to death. Eventually the crew took over the plane again, and Nishizawa was given a life sentence. The pilot was the only victim, but there were 503 passengers and 14 crew members on board. The most bizarre thing is that before this crime, Nishizawa had written to several authorities trying to alert them of the security loophole, but his letters went unanswered.
In 1962 after a flight from Chicago to Kansas City blew up, investigators discovered that one passenger—a Thomas G. Doty—had taken out an enormous life insurance policy right before his flight, naming his pregnant wife and their daughter as the beneficiaries. Doty had been facing financial problems, and had been charged with bank robbery before the flight. He bought six sticks of dynamite for 29 cents each and placed them in the used-towel bin of the right rear bathroom. All 45 passengers on Doty’s flight died.
In 1948, some fishermen near Macao in the People’s Republic of China found an unconscious body floating in the water. The body belonged to Wong Yu, a passenger on a Cathay Pacific Airways flight that had just crashed. Wong Yu was the only surviving passenger, but that turned out to be no coincidence. Wong Yu was part of a hijacking plan: he and his cohorts had planned to take over a flight of rich passengers, land it on a remote island, and hold the passengers for ransom. When the pilot would not cooperate, one of Yu’s cohorts shot him, and just as the plane began to nosedive, Yu jumped out a window. The 25 remaining passengers on board died in the crash.
In 1960, when a cracked window was discovered on a flight scheduled to go from New York to Miami, the passengers were split into two groups and put on two alternate airplanes. That little change would save the lives of half the original group. One of the new airplanes crashed after a dynamite bomb exploded in it, killing all 29 passengers and five crew on board. One passenger named Julian A. Frank was discovered with bomb fragments in his body — the bomb apparently went off right underneath his seat. Further investigation found that Frank was under investigation for embezzlement from his law firm right before his flight, and that he’d taken out a large life insurance policy before boarding. It is likely that Frank planned this as his suicide, and took out the insurance policy to leave his family taken care of.
In 1959, after a flight going from Tampa to New Orleans exploded and crashed near the Gulf of Mexico killing 42 people, two strange things were discovered. One of the identified bodies belonged to a William Taylor, but Taylor was not listed on the flight manifest. Meanwhile Dr. Vernon Spears, who was listed on the manifest, was found alive and well. Both men had apparently purchased life insurance policies just before the flight. Further investigation found the two men had once been cellmates in prison. It’s suspected that Spears had Taylor purchase an airplane ticket in his name so he could fake his own death, and collect on his insurance policy through his wife. Spears may have purchased Taylor’s policy with plans on cashing in on it. Authorities were unable to confirm this though, and Spears got off without charges.
In 1977 a Lufthansa flight was headed to Frankfurt from Palma de Mallorca when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked it, and forced the pilots to land in Mogadishu, Somalia. A West German counterterrorism group raided the plane and killed three of the hijackers. All passengers on board were saved.
In 1985, six members of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad took over a flight from Athens to Rome. The hijackers kept a large group of passengers hostage and were demanding the release of terrorists involved in previous hijackings. The passengers were eventually released except for one — U.S. Navy Seabee diver Robert Stethem. They killed Stethem and left his body on a ramp in Beirut.
In 1985 after three members of the Abu Nidal Organization took over an EgyptAir flight headed from Athens to Cairo, an Egyptian Security Service member opened fire on one of the hijackers and killed him. The other hijackers shot back, killing the security service member and puncturing the fuselage in the plane. The plane was forced to land in Malta where some passengers were released but others were held hostage. The Maltese prime minister did not respond to the hijacker’s demands and two more passengers were executed. Eventually Egyptian commandos stormed the plane and opened fire. Sixty of the 92 passengers were dead when it was over.
In 1986 after a Pan Am flight headed from Karachi, Pakistan for Frankfurt, Germany was taken over by Abu Nidal Orginzation members disguised as security guards, the crew landed the plane and escaped through the cockpit. Hijackers killed two passengers. Eventually Pakistani authorities stormed the plane and 20 more passengers were killed in the crossfire.
In 1996, three Ethiopians took over an Ethiopian Airlines flight, hoping to force the pilot to fly to Australia where they sought political asylum. Knowing he did not have enough fuel for that trip, the pilot tried to land near Comoros Islands but couldn’t find a runway, and landed in the water. People onshore swam to the plane to help, but it was too late for 122 passengers and crew who died. One honeymooner on a beach caught the crash on camera.