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Controlled flight into terrain facts for kids

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Air New Zealand Flight 901
Wreckage from Air New Zealand Flight 901, a CFIT accident that occurred in 1979 in Antarctica

A controlled flight into terrain (CFIT, usually pronounced cee-fit) is an accident in which an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, a mountain, a body of water or an obstacle. In a typical CFIT scenario, the crew is unaware of the impending disaster until too late. The term was coined by engineers at Boeing in the late 1970s.

Accidents where the aircraft is out of control at the time of impact, because of mechanical failure or pilot error, are not considered CFIT (they are known as uncontrolled flight into terrain), nor are accidents resulting from the deliberate action of the person at the controls, such as acts of terrorism.

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


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.

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.

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, the only defenses against CFIT were pilot simulator training, traditional procedures, crew resource management (CRM) and radar surveillance by air traffic services. While those factors undoubtedly reduced the total number 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.

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.

Statistics show that aircraft fitted with a second-generation EGPWS have not suffered a CFIT accident 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 disaster). As of 2007, 5% of the world's commercial airlines still lack a TAWS, leading to a prediction of two CFIT accidents in 2009. In the case of Mount Salak Sukhoi Superjet 100 crash, the TAWS was working but the pilot intentionally turned it off.

Notable accidents

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. 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 Crashed into a mountain after crew deviated from a known flight path; a fire alarm in one engine and icing of the wings were contributing causes.
1958 Bristol Britannia 312 crash December 24, 1958 Poor weather and a poorly-designed altimeter led to the crew overestimating their altitude by 10,000 feet.
American Airlines Flight 320 February 3, 1959 Crashed in New York City's East River on a night approach, due largely to a combination of poor cockpit management, improper use of the autopilot, and lack of situational awareness.
1959 Air Charter Turkey crash April 23, 1959 Crew failed to notice that strong winds had made the flight drift into mountainous terrain.
Piedmont Airlines Flight 349 October 30, 1959 Navigational error led to the flight impacting a hill short of the airport.
TAA Fokker Friendship disaster June 10, 1960 No cause was ever established; theories include altimeter malfunction or interference by a child visiting the cockpit.
Alitalia Flight 771 July 7, 1962 Navigational error and lack of situational awareness led pilot to descend prematurely.
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 One of the deadliest aviation accidents in Sweden.
United Airlines Flight 389 August 16, 1965 No official cause determined, but a leading theory was misinterpretation of a problematic 3-pointer altimeter.
American Airlines Flight 383 November 8, 1965 Poor weather and misreading of a drum-type altimeter may have led to an improperly-early descent.
TABSO Flight 101 November 24, 1966 Crashed Bratislava, Slovakia.
Iberia Airlines Flight 062 November 4, 1967 No official cause determined, but it was noted that the plane had the 3-pointer style of altimeter that had been suspected of contributing to a number of other accidents.
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
Prinair Flight 277 March 5, 1969 Crashed in mountainous terrain near Fajardo, Puerto Rico. The air traffic controller at Isla Verde International Airport in San Juan incorrectly thought the flight was near San Juan and instructed it to land.
Southern Airways Flight 932 November 14, 1970 Crashed near Ceredo, West Virginia.
Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 September 4, 1971 Flew into the side of a canyon on approach to Juneau, Alaska.
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 October 13, 1972 Known less formally as the Andes flight disaster, October 13, 1972 to December 23, 1972. The incident became the subject of feature films and best-selling books.
Braathens SAFE Flight 239 December 23, 1972 Faulty ILS signals and a distracted crew led to an impact miles from the runway.
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. This accident became the subject of books and made-for-television movies.
Delta Air Lines Flight 723 July 31, 1973 Crew misprogrammed flight director and failed to maintain control of glidepath during final approach.
Texas International Airlines Flight 655 September 27, 1973 Continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions; poor navigation resulting in loss of situational awareness; captain ordered descent below minimum safe altitudes. Aircraft impacted Black Fork Mountain, Arkansas.
TWA Flight 514 December 1, 1974 Bad weather and poor communications between the crew and ATC led to an improper descent.
Turkish Airlines Flight 452 September 19, 1976 Crashed into a hill 60 miles off the destination airport.
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.
Dan-Air Flight 1008 April 25, 1980 Crashed into high terrain in Tenerife after turning the wrong way in a holding pattern.
Inex-Adria Aviopromet Flight 1308 December 1, 1981 Struck Corsica's Mt. San Pietro and crashed shortly before it was scheduled to land.
VASP Flight 168 June 8, 1982 Sensory illusion during a night approach led to the captain descending below minimum safe altitude, despite warnings from the plane's automated systems and the first officer.
Avianca Flight 011 November 27, 1983 Pilot/navigational error led to premature descent into hilly terrain.
1984 Biman Bangladesh Airlines Fokker F27 crash August 5, 1984 Worst air disaster in history of Bangladeshi aviation.
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.
1986 Mozambican Tupolev Tu-134 crash October 19, 1986 The off-course plane descends and flies into the Lebombo Mountains.
Avianca Flight 410 March 17, 1988 Failure to maintain a sterile cockpit coupled with pressure from a delayed departure led to the aircraft impacting a mountain minutes after lift-off.
Air France Flight 296 June 26, 1988 Crashed into trees while performing a flyover for an airshow at Mulhouse-Habsheim Airport.
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.
Independent Air Flight 1851 February 8, 1989 Descended on approach below cleared altitude following miscommunication between the crew and a trainee air traffic controller.
Flying Tiger Line Flight 66 February 19, 1989 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.
Surinam Airways Flight 764 June 7, 1989 Captain knowingly initiated the wrong type of approach that relied on faulty ground equipment.
Indian Airlines Flight 605 February 14, 1990 Crashed short of the runway during final approach to Bangalore.
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. Lack of proper crew resource management has been identified as contributing cause.
Royal Air Force Tornado ZA392 January 17, 1991 Tornado GR1 crashed into the ground 16 km (9.9 mi) after delivering a JP233 munition.
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, 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.
SAM Colombia Flight 501 May 19, 1993 Crashed near Mt. Panamo Frontino.
Asiana Airlines Flight 733 July 26, 1993 While approaching in bad weather, a Boeing 737-500 crashed into a mountain near Mokpo, South Korea.
Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 June 5, 1995 A landing gear malfunction led to loss of situational awareness and descent below minimum safe altitude. Questions were raised about whether improper painting may have prevented the ground proximity warning system from functioning correctly.
American Airlines Flight 1572 November 12, 1995 Failure to update an altimeter setting and control the plane's descent led to impact with trees short of the runway.
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.
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 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. The fatigued crew were following outdated flight maps, while ATC 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.
Cebu Pacific Flight 387 February 2, 1998 A DC-9-32, registered RP-C1507, crashed on the slopes of Mount Sumagaya in Claveria, Misamis Oriental.
Kenya Airways Flight 431 January 30, 2000 Impacted ocean after takeoff from Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport. 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. It is also currently the deadliest air disaster in the Philippines.
Gulf Air Flight 072 August 23, 2000 An Airbus A320 crashed in Persian Gulf, while approaching the Bahrain International Airport, due to combination of pilot error (spatial disorientation) and systemic organizational factors.
Crossair Flight 3597 November 24, 2001 Flight from Berlin to Zurich that crashed during its landing approach.
Air China Flight 129 April 15, 2002 Crew failed to execute a timely missed approach.
Kam Air Flight 904 February 3, 2005 No official cause has been determined, although the plane flew into the area's worst snowstorm in five years.
2005 Loganair Islander accident March 15, 2005 Pilot continued descent past minimum altitude for procedure turn. Factors included fatigue, workload, lack of recent flying time, and possible disorientation, distraction, or subtle incapacitation.
2006 Slovak Air Force Antonov An-24 crash January 19, 2006 Aircraft strayed from the planned course and descended below the MDA prior to impact.
Armavia Flight 967 May 3, 2006 Bad weather, spatial disorientation, and loss of situational awareness coupled with failure to follow communications procedures between ATC, the ground meteorologist, and the crew led to improper flight inputs and impact with the Black Sea.
Atlasjet Flight 4203 November 30, 2007 While no official cause could be determined, investigators have theorized that the pilot suffered spatial disorientation before impact with a mountain.
Santa Bárbara Airlines Flight 518 February 21, 2008 The pilots took off without conducting the mandatory pre-flight procedures and used an unauthorized departure route, which led to impact with a mountainside within minutes of departure.
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).
First Air Flight 6560 August 20, 2011 An internal Canadian charter flight from Yellowknife Airport, Northwest Territories, to Resolute Bay Airport, Nunavut that 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.
Royal Norwegian Air Force C-130J March 15, 2012 Crashed into Kebnekaise, Sweden en route to Kiruna Airport.
Bhoja Air Flight 213 April 20, 2012 Microburst induced windshear countered by inappropriate pilot response. It was crashed in a field near Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Pakistan
Mount Salak Sukhoi Superjet 100 crash May 9, 2012 Aircraft crashed while on a demonstration flight. The pilots had intentionally turned off the terrain warning system and were speaking to potential customers when the impact occurred.

See also

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