The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time

We take air travel for granted, but sending massive amounts of machinery hurtling into the air is still a risky endeavor. Sometimes, things go wrong and you find yourself on the business end of an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

The worst part is, you just never can tell when disaster is going to strike. Well, maybe sometimes you can...

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5
First Hot Air Balloon Flight Ends in Tears (and Explosions)

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time

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On September 19, 1783, a sheep, a cockerel and a duck embarked on an untethered hot air balloon ride from the front courtyard of the Palace of Versailles. Incredibly, that's actual history and not the opening line of a joke.

The mastermind behind this animal-tastic adventure was Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier. Prior to sending a bunch of farm animals off to their inexplicably avoidable deaths in a hot air balloon (how he got them back down to Earth is anyone's guess), Monsieur Rozier was renowned for his research in flight technology.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
Rare photo of Monsieur Rozier.

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After his first foray into balloon flight resulted in zero animal deaths, Rozier concluded that there was no reason humans shouldn't be all up in hot air balloons also. With one unprecedented win under his belt already, he was able to convince King Louis XVI to allow him and a nobleman named Francois Laurent d'Arlandes to become the first human untethered hot air balloon pilots.

After several successful flights, Rozier figured that he was above the laws of physics and logic and decided to take a trip across the English Channel using what he dubbed as his "hybrid balloon." The balloon featured two compartments. One was heated by an open flame which was fueled by brandy, a fact historians have speculated was exactly as totally rad as it sounds.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
Dad called it fuel for a reason.

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However, Rozier decided to foolishly fill the other compartment with highly combustible hydrogen instead of the more reasonable choice, helium, just because that element wouldn't be discovered for another 50 years. Besides, who has time for determining an element's capacity for explosiveness when there are awesome hot air balloon flights to embark on?

Roughly 15 minutes into the English Channel flight, the flame and the hydrogen predictably found each other and joined forces to form a Voltron-like explosion. Surprisingly, the explosion wasn't fatal, but that 1,500-foot plummet to the Earth most certainly was.

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Of course, the only lesson the world learned from the ordeal was that there had to be much more awesome ways to go down in one of these things. Like...

4
First Female Balloonist Ends In... Well, Guess

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Throughout history, there have been women who have attempted to carry on their husbands' work after they've passed on. Not a problem if the husband was a day laborer or a prostitute or something. But in the case of Marie Blanchard, her husband was a balloon pilot back when balloons were still propelled by hydrogen and death wishes.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
You think they just give out these babies?

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Nevertheless, after Blanchard's husband died from a heart attack (followed by a fall from a hot air balloon, of course) in 1809, Marie continued his rich tradition of balloon demonstrations. Though inexperienced in balloon piloting, she made up for it with an even more astounding failure to understand anything at all about combustible gasses and what happens when you shoot off fireworks around them.

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Don't even act like you don't want to keep reading now.

One night (yes, night), Marie took her balloon into the air and, figuring that piloting a flying death trap in the dark wasn't crazy enough, decided to launch fireworks from the balloon. Fireworks! Within minutes, Marie let one fly too close to the balloon and the flame ignited the hydrogen inside.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
Wait 'til you land before celebrating.

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After an undoubtedly flamboyant fall from the sky, Marie caught a break and landed on the roof of a building. But to the horror of the crowd below, she then slipped from the roof to the street below where her neck caught a far less lucky break. Marie not only earned the distinction of being the first female balloon pilot, but also the honor of being the first woman to die in one.

3
The Flying Flea

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Would you fly in a plane designed by a man hellbent on convincing the world that flight science was a scam? Of course you would, because flying is awesome. If you don't believe us, look no further than the story of Henry Mignet (we recommend the linked site mostly for the far-out background music).

During WWI, he convinced a friend of his in the French Air Force to let him taxi a plane (the driving portion of a flight before takeoff). For most people, this would be enough. For Mignet, it was not. He decided to add a little bit of the ol' "let's gun this and see if we can fly it" to the end of his taxi maneuvering. Not surprisingly, he crashed. This was the moment he decided flight science is a scam.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
"I'll believe it when I see a plane that I didn't just set on fire."

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To alleviate this, he designed his own "aircraft," dubbed it The Sky Louse and released the design to the public.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
Mignet's original "Sky Kill PainCopter" was deemed impractical.

According to people that have actually built them, the Louse was basically a coffin with a motor on the front constructed from spare wood, nails, glue and a motorcycle engine. (Look for a KISS version to be available sometime next year.) Interestingly, the Louse contains none of the conventional features of an airplane such as rudder pedals or engine cowls. It does, however, contain an extra (albeit unnecessary) set of wings behind the cockpit.

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Upon its release, the numerous people that built and tried to fly them (as if you wouldn't have) found that if they sent the plane into a steep enough nose dive, the Louse would lock into that position and crash. As far as why more than one person had to conduct this experiment, we have no idea.

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2
Better Off Wet

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If you asked an old-school airplane designer to draw you a picture of an airplane, you would HOPE it looked like this:

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time

And in fact that was made by designer Gianni Caproni, who designed perfectly normal and functioning planes... until he decided to throw all of his design experience to the wind and design a plane that looked like this:

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There are many words that come to mind when looking at the picture above (Photoshop being among them), but we assure you, it's real. Rather than design a plane that resembled designs he knew worked, Caproni decided to build a plane that would allow us to laugh at him 88-years later.

Question: If you call a plane with two wings a bi-plane, what is a plane with nine wings called?

Answer: Hilarious.

Built from a houseboat, Caproni intended for the Caproni Ca. 60 to transport 100 passengers back and forth across the Atlantic, something unheard of in the early 1900s. But still, Caproni had very few naysayers. Given his fame as a designer, it would have been like telling Henry Ford, "Honestly, that whole gas thing is probably a mistake."

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
Ford, seen standing behind the chair of a naysayer he's just choked out from behind.

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Unsurprisingly, the Caproni Ca. 60 made only one flight. And by "flight" we mean "it lumbered its way to a cruising altitude of 60-feet before crashing to the ground and shattering just 15-seconds later." Somehow, Caproni survived. Even more impressive is the fact that his reputation pretty much came out intact also.

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1
The Gimli Glider

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In 1983, Canada had recently switched from the British Imperial system of measurements to the Metric System like a bunch of weirdos. During a pre-flight check, Captain Robert Pearson discovered the fuel gauge had malfunctioned. As this was one of only four all-computerized planes in Canada's fleet (they have six now), Pearson contacted Air Canada's Maintenance Control and asked what to do, as the plane no longer conformed to the MEL (minimum equipment list).

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Rather than telling him to cancel the flight, they told him the plane was fine to fly as long as he was certain he had enough fuel. As Canada had only recently switched to that newfangled Metric System thing, Pearson had a difficult task ahead of him.

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He knew two things to start with: 1) He needed 22,300 Kg of fuel to get to his destination and 2) there were 7,682 liters of fuel already in the tanks. In order to know how much fuel he needed, Pearson had to know how many liters are in a kilogram. With his back against the wall, Pearson turned to the most obvious source of mathematical information: The guy driving the fuel truck. The number they came up with was 1.77.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time
Not a mathematician.

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Unfortunately for Pearson, he and the man driving the gas truck were only partially right. 1.77 is the correct number if you are converting liters to POUNDS. In order to get kilograms, you multiply by .8. In other words, Flight 143 had 20,302 pounds in its tank. And because a pound weighs less than half of what a kilogram does, the plane didn't even have half of the fuel it needed.

When the first engine failed, Pearson planned an emergency landing at the nearest major airport, but when the fuel ran out completely a few minutes later, Pearson made an even emergencier landing at an abandoned Air Force base in Gimli.

The 5 Most Predictable Aviation Disasters of All-Time

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When he arrived, he was forced to land a 300,000 "glider" at an abandoned air force base that, it turned out, was not abandoned. There was a drag race being held there that day. No one bothered to tell the pilot that, probably figuring a bunch of drag racers were acceptable collateral damage.

Luckily, only a few passengers were injured and no one was killed. For his unbridled weights and measurements prowess, Pearson received a medal. And a suspension from Air Canada, which is probably just as good as a medal.

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