A Brief History
On March 28, 1933, the first known incident of an airliner airplane being taken down by the actions of a passenger occurred when the City of Liverpool (airplanes, trains and the like used to have names like ships are named), a biplane operated by Imperial Airways was taken down because of a fire set by a passenger. Ever since then, terrorists, saboteurs, and assorted criminals have taken down airliners, usually with bombs, but also by commandeering the plane and flying it into the ground or other object, most notably the aerial hijackings of September 11, 2001 in which 2 jetliners were flown into the World Trade Center Twin Towers, another jetliner was flown into the Pentagon, and a fourth hijacked jetliner crashed in Pennsylvania as the crew and passengers battled the terrorists.
The Imperial Airways fire and crash of 1933 happened near Diksmuide, Belgium on a flight from Brussels, Belgium to London, England. The normal route of the flights went from London to Brussels to Cologne, Germany and then back again. Witnesses watching the biplane from the ground reported seeing the plane on fire and an occupant leaping from the burning craft, obviously to his death. (That passenger was later identified as German Dentist Albert Voss, an immigrant to Britain.) The ensuing crash killed all 15 people that had been aboard, which at that time was the worst British civil aviation disaster to date. Prior to hitting the ground, while only about 200 feet above the Earth, the unlucky plane split in half.
The airliner was an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy II, one of only 7 such planes built. With a crew of 2, the Argosy II could carry up to 20 passengers. Powered by 3 radial engines rated at 420 horsepower each, the Argosy II had a top speed of 110 mph and a range of 405 (statute) miles. Cruising speed was 90 mph. Flight service began from London to Paris (and back) in 1926. Imperial Airways spiced up their flights by removing 2 passenger seats and replacing them with a bar, attended by a steward. During their service life, 3 of the 7 Argosy II’s were lost to crashes.
Investigators found the source of the crash to have been a fire started in the rear of the cabin, perhaps in a lavatory or among the luggage. Voss became the prime suspect as he was alleged to have been making trips to Germany to acquire anesthetics that he was selling illegally in Britain. The investigators’ theory goes that Voss knew authorities were on to him and set the fire as a diversion. No firm conclusion could be reached as to motive or who was really to blame, but the generally accepted line is the fire was intentionally caused, destroying the aircraft in a somber first for commercial aviation.
Some airliners have been destroyed for political reasons or to kill a specific passenger aboard the plane. Others have been taken down by a person determined to kill themselves and take others with them, sometimes as an insurance fraud scheme. Sometimes the attempt fails, such as the infamous Shoe Bomber case, the equally infamous Underwear Bomber case, and other cases where passengers and crew members have subdued hijackers or saboteurs. Some airliners that have been lost have never been determined to have been intentionally taken down or crashed purely by accident. The good news is that the chances of being on a flight that is intentionally crashed are incredibly small, “the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade” (see the link for more information).
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you worry about being on a flight that is hijacked or blown up? Have you ever known anyone that was on such a flight? Are you satisfied with airline safety procedures? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bell, Victor and Bell. Flight 370: Disappearance of Malaysia Airliner. CreateSpace, 2016.
Gero, David. Flights of Terror: Aerial Hijack and Sabotage Since 1930. Haynes Publishing, 1997.
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