Series / Air Crash Investigation

Mayday, also known as Air Emergency and Air Disasters in the United States and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and Australia, is a Canadian documentary series about aircraft accidents and incidents.

Episodes usually start In Medias Res while the disaster is underway, following them with a sequence of the disaster and the following investigation, and at the end a re-enaction of how the disaster occurred and of how measures were taken to prevent the disaster from happening again.


This series provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot:
    • Deconstructed in the Tenerife special. Captain Van Zanten was KLM's most experienced and decorated pilot, and was regarded with such esteem that he served as KLM's spokesman and appeared in KLM's print adverts. It was this preceding reputation — as well as the fact that he was the pilot who had certified his first officer on the Tenerife flight — that probably factored into the crew's reluctance to stop him from impatiently taking off from the crowded, foggy airport, without permission from the tower. This resulted in the destruction of two jumbo jets, the loss of 500+ lives, and the worst aviation disaster in history. When KLM found out that one of their jets crashed in Tenerife, they tried to contact Captain Van Zanten to have him clean up the PR mess. They then realized that he was the pilot involved in the crash.
    • Other accidents like United Airlines Flight 173 and Flash Airlines Flight 604 also show how having an ace pilot can be a liability instead of an asset. Flight crews are trained to work together as a team, to prevent accidents like these.
    • Reconstructions happen in a few episodes, such as Captain Sullenberger and the Flight 1549 crew. Considering the panicky reactions we have seen from even the blameless flight crews so far in the series, the Danger Deadpan demeanor with which the 1549 pilots handled their situation is almost surreal.
    • The Captain of British Airways Flight 38 made a split second decision to reduce the flap setting when the jet suddenly lost engine thrust seconds before reaching the runway at Heathrow airport. Doing so reduced lift, which would almost certainly prevent a safe landing, however it would also reduce drag and allow the plane to clear a busy motorway. The counter-intuitive action allow the aircraft to make a semi-controlled crash on the airfield instead of stalling and dropping onto the highway.
  • Aesop Amnesia: Occasionally, there are lessons learned from one accident that aren't incorporated into procedures to prevent future accidents, which then leads to another accident, maybe worse than the last. An example of this are the two Fed-Ex MD-11 crashes. Land the plane too hard, and it might flip over. Despite this being hypothesized in the first non-fatal accident's investigation, it happened again a few years later, and this time the crew of the MD-11 were not as lucky.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • Count the number of times that they had episodes covering plane crashes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s where you can see cars from the 2000s. One particularly egregious case is the Pan Am Flight 103 episode, as the opening segment documenting a German police bust on two terrorists working for the PFLP that happened two months before the Lockerbie bombing shows 21st century cars.
    • In the episode about the Tenerife jumbo jet collision, which takes place in 1977, the air traffic controllers have, of all things, a modern personal computer in their office.
    • In many episodes, the passengers tend to be shown in generic modern clothes and hair rather than in obvious contemporary fashions. May be somewhat justified in that given that this is an ongoing show with a limited budget that requires many actors and extras, they would not only need to provide a lot of period clothing but also do many contemporary hairstyles/wigs.
    • A subtle one occurs in the Grand Canyon episode: in 1956, the controller uses a modern "taxi into position and hold" command. Moreover, the first officer repeats his command as he heard it; this was introduced after the Tenerife disaster. In the 1950s, the ATC commands were acknowledged with simply "OK" or "Roger".
      • A more obivous one in the same episode is where, despite it being 1956, the ATC tower has a functional computer monitor in the tower, siminar to the anachronism found in the Tenerife jumbo jet collision episode.
    • In the Garuda Flight 421 episode, during the waterborne evacuation, one of the cabin walls near the exit doors displays the Garuda Indonesia logo. However the logo displayed is incorrect, since it is the new one, distinguishable by its unique font. In 2002 (the year Flight 421 actually crashed), Garuda Indonesia were still using an older logo that was adopted in the mid 1980s, and only transferred to the new logo in 2009.
  • And I Must Scream: The flight attendant aboard Helios 522. Imagine waking up to find that everyone else is unconscious, or worse, dead. You stagger towards the cockpit, taking gasps of oxygen from your personal tank, hoping beyond hope that the pilots are still awake. They aren't. You see two fighter jets trying to communicate with you, but you can't talk to them; you don't know where to tune the radio. You try to pilot the giant 737 towards Athens, but can't. All you can do is wait, and slowly die from hypoxia, as the plane continues burning through the last of its fuel...
  • Artistic License Geography: In "Death of The President", Polish investigators have identification tags in dark red with a thin white horizontal stripe through the middle... which is the flag of Latvia. Polish is white-bright red.
  • Artistic License History: There was no Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) on BEA Flight 548, only the communications with air traffic control were recorded, so the cockpit chatter is entirely conjectural. Same for American Airlines 191 (where the CVR stopped working), Arrow Air 1285 (where the CVR turned out to be faulty and didn't record anything), the Grand Canyon disaster (where the aircraft did not have a CVR), Chalks Ocean Airways 101 (where CVR audio from multiple flights was jumbled together), Swissair Flight 111 (where the CVR transcript is confidential under Canadian law), and El Al 1862 (where the CVR was never recovered and believed to have been destroyed during the fire).
    • In any episode in which there was no CVR recording, or parts of it are missing, the reactions of the pilots are dramatized to be as accurate as the situation demands.
    • The episode covering Malaysian Flight 370 shows dramatizations of each of the theories regarding its disappearance. Since the black boxes have not been recovered (nor has the crash site itself been located) and the crash is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, all of the dramatizations are also conjectural.
    • In "Death of The President", it is said that about 20,000 Polish officers were executed in the Katyń Massacre. Actually, about 6,000 died in Katyń; 22,000 is the general number of Polish officers murdered by the NKVD at various sites in Russia in 1940-41.
  • Artistic License Physics: In the AA 587 episode, an overhead shots shows the A300 falling onto the suburban houses... which remain motionless in relation to the plane, meaning it is falling straight down, without any forward movement. This would be more or less correct if the aircraft had stalled (there would still likely be some forward motion anyway, except in a high altitude stall where the aircraft was already falling through several thousand feet, gradually losing its momentum in the process), but AA 587 did not.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: The opening exchange between the pilots of Northwest Airlink Flight 5719:
    Copilot: Do we get our own [hotel] room?
    (Beat)
    Pilot: No, you're gonna have the room with me. And it's only a single bed, so you'll just have to curl up at my feet. Of course you'll get your own room; you're under contract now.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Captain Stefan G. Rasmussen is lauded as a hero for performing the emergency landing of Scandinavian Airlines Flight 751 with no loss of life. But he is so deeply traumatized by the incident, and his "trust" in the aircraft is so badly shaken (as the crash was partly caused by a new safety feature that he was not aware of), that he chooses not to fly again.
    • Fight for Your Lfe: Though the crew of Fed Ex Flight 705 are able to stop Auburn Calloway from hijacking his plane, they are unable to return to duty because of the effects of the injuries they sustained during the struggle.
  • Caffeine Failure:
    • Because they lost so much sleep flying into Newark, the pilots of Colgan Air Flight 3407 don't get even slightly awakened by a cup of coffee in-universe.
    • Another in-universe example is the captain of Trans-Colorado Flight 2286; the coffee he drank before takeoff did nothing to ward off the effects of his cocaine withdrawal.
  • Call Back: There are instances where accidents that happened before the one being analyzed are referenced, either to show how a theory being analyzed had happened before or to explain something that had an influence on the current investigation.
  • Canada, Eh?: Mostly averted except once during the Nationair 2120 episode. As the aircraft was accelerating for takeoff, the captain asked the first officer "You're not leaning on the brakes, eh?" after one of the tires blew.
  • Captain Crash: Captain Lutz of Crossair Flight 3597 was almost literally this before his fatal accident, and yet his airline continued to let him fly.
  • Captain Obvious: Sometimes done in-universe. The glaring example occurs in the Air France 447 episode, when one of the investigators detailedly explains what a stall is and how the Airbus behave after stalling, using cutouts and diagrams. While the audience in front of the TVs may not know this, in-universe he explains this to a group of avation experts and aviation journalists who certainly know what an aerodynamic stall is...
    • One interviewee in the episode on PSA Flight 1771 stated that "it wouldn't take much knowledge or experience on a passenger's part to know that they were in deep, deep trouble."
    • In the United 173 episode, after the investigators hear on the CVR that the plane exhausted all fuel, one of the guys states: "The engines didn't have any fuel!" Ya think, buddy?...
  • Celebrity Paradox: A weird example of this trope comes from the Canadian broadcasts of "Racing the Storm" and "Grand Canyon Disaster" where the Canadian narrator for Air Crash Investigation plays the first officer of American Airlines Flight 1420 and the Captain of TWA Flight 2. It can be a little weird having the narrator narrate the episode and immediately afterwards the first officer/captain played by the narrator talking and almost sounding exactly alike.
  • Chekhov's Gun
    • "Who's At The Controls": The captain slightly bumps his control column while turning to speak to the flight engineer. It caused the descent leading to a crash.
    • "Cockpit Chaos": One of the shots is of a tripped circuit breaker. Later we find out that caused an alarm not to sound and contributed to the crash.
    • "Heathrow Crash Landing": Just before landing the plane hits a turbulence and the autothrottle increases speed, which both pilots comment on. This actually triggered the whole incident.
    • "Who's In Control": The pilots are constantly bugged by a faulty radio altimeter, which, as it turns out, was a direct cause of the crash.
    • "Fire In The Hold": The company materials that are loaded onto a plane are given some attention. Not without reason, it turns out later.
    • "Caution To The Wind": When an aircraft is accelerating down the runway, cockpit instruments are shown. One of the indicators is moved to the extremely left position. Later it turns out this was a warning to the crew something is not right, but was ignored.
    • "Death Of The President": The pilot resetting his baro altimeter and the navigator reading altitude from the radio altimeter seem right; later we found those were both serious errors.
    • "Ocean Landing": The narration at the start of the episode informs viewers that Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 will be making a series of short hops across Africa with just enough fuel to get to their first stop, where they intend to take on more. Cue three hijackers storming the flight deck, demanding to be flown to Australia, and refusing to believe the captain when he tells them that they don't have nearly enough fuel aboard.
    • "Fatal Transmission": As the pilots on a commuter plane are coming in to land, they hear a transmission that has some interference mixed in. It later turns out this interference led the pilots to think another plane was waiting, when it was in fact taking off.
    • "Fatal Delivery": The captain's tuning of the radio to Bahrain area control after takeoff from Dubai is given special attention. When the cockpit of UPS 6 becomes filled with smoke from a cargo hold fire, the copilot is unable to see the radio controls, preventing him from tuning to the Dubai frequency and forcing him to use a long chain of radio relays to communicate, contributing to the eventual crash.
    • "Deadly Detail": We are explicitly told that the pilots deployed their flaps and slats before landing. That shouldn't be noteworthy, as it's what all pilots are supposed to do before landing a plane. (Though the crash of Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 involved the flaps and slats not being fully extended.) As it turns out, that was relevant information: the fuel tank was punctured by a bolt that got loose as the slats were deployed.
    • "Afghan Nightmare": A close-up of the plane as it approaches a stall reveals that only two parts of the landing gear have retracted. This is a sign that the hydraulics have failed, having been breached by an improperly secured MRAP vehicle in the cargo hold.
    • "Explosive Proof": In the cabin, the lights are constantly flickering on and off. It's later found that the wiring was in a horrid state, which turned out to be a cause of the accident.
    • In both "Cockpit Chaos" and "Fatal Delay", if one knows just where to look, it's clear that the flaps are fully retracted as the plane tries to take off.
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • The captain of the "Gimli Glider" happened to be an experienced glider pilot and pulled off some gliding maneuvers to land the plane after it ran out of fuel.
    • One of the pilots on FedEx Flight 705 used to fly jet fighters in the Navy, and used his instincts from that area to maneuver the plane to keep hijacker Auburn Calloway off-balance.
    • Flight instructor Dennis E. Fitch offered his services to the crew of the crippled United Airlines Flight 232, which had lost the use of all flight controls due to an engine explosion severing the hydraulic systems. He had previously studied the case of Japan Air Flight 123 that had also lost all of its primary flight controls and devised strategies of using engine thrust as an alternate means of control.
  • Clip Show: The "Science of Disaster" episodes can be counted as this, as it's usually half a recap of air disasters centering around a theme (ATC, bad weather, pilot errors, deferred maintenance, hidden defects, etc.) and half an explanation about the theme itself and how to prevent similar disasters in the future.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The captain of American Airlines Flight 965 uses the F-word several times after losing track of where the plane is going.
  • Crying Wolf:
    • On Aeroperu Flight 603, pieces of duct tape covering the plane's static ports caused the flight instruments and onboard computer to behave erratically, causing contradictory alarms to sound off in the cockpit all at once. So when the pilots heard the ground proximity warning system ("TOO LOW TERRAIN") they assumed it was another malfunction. It wasn't. The GPWS was one of the few things actually working.
    • On Northwest Airlines Flight 255, the MD-80's takeoff configuration warning constantly went off when taxiing, so pilots often pulled a circuit breaker to silence it. This time, the plane's flaps really were configured improperly.
    • In the PSA Flight 182 midair collision, Lindbergh Field's new radar system attempted to detect possible mid-air collisions, but constantly malfunctioned, indicating an imminent collision when there was none. When the plane crossed into the path of a Cessna, the alarm sounded again, but the controllers assumed it was another malfunction.
    • The 2010 Polish Tu-154 crash. The crew, surprisingly, ignores the "PULL UP" command from the TAWS systems; as the investigators found out, the pilots frequently landed on a small military or ex-military airports and the TAWS always went off note , so they gradually learned to ignore the alerts during approach and landing. This time it was a fatal error.
  • Cryptically Unhelpful Answer: In the Tenerife special. When the Pan American crew ask for clarification on which exit to take, the ATC simply responds, "The third one." This doesn't help the crew, since they don't know if that means the third exit from the start of the runway or the third one from their current position.
  • Culture Clash:
    • Since so many of the accidents involved American aircraft (mainly from Boeing or McDonnell Douglas) and/or an aircraft component that gets major attention from investigators is American-made (such as a flight recorder), then American investigators were often sent to assist investigations. These investigators often ran into problems in countries where the police force or military have greater powers over the investigation, or countries with an Obstructive Bureaucrat or two. Sometimes, they were more cooperative, like the in-flight breakup of China Airlines Flight 611.
    • Brought to the fore in the EgyptAir and SilkAir investigations, both of which were most likely acts of mass murder-suicide committed by the pilots. The disasters occurred in Egypt and Indonesia respectively, and since both countries are predominantly Muslim and have serious taboos about suicide, it is hinted that their investigators were pressured into blaming other causes.
  • Curse Cut Short: The captain of Delta 191 shouts out "Hang onto the son of a—!" before the scene switches to a shot of the plane closing in on the ground.
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!:
    • The pilots of COPA Flight 201 flipped the gyro switch the wrong way when the captain's altitude indicator malfunctioned because the controls didn't match those of the simulator they were trained in.
    • The pilots of Spanair Flight 5022 skipped the final flap check on their checklist by reciting the final items from memory.
    • In the hurried takeoff preparations, the pilots of Air Florida Flight 90 leave the engine deicing off, as they always did in the warm Florida climate. In the Washington snowstorm, this proves fatal.
    • The first officer of the Lokomotiv Yaroslav Yak-42 plane had his foot on the brake because he was more accustomed to the Yak-40, which has a different design for the brake pedal (in the Yak-40 one has to press the top part of the pedal to engage brakes; in the Yak-42 the pedal can be pressed anywhere along its length).
  • Danger Deadpan:
  • Also the crew of British Airways Flight 9:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Captain Alfred C. Haynes on United Airlines Flight 232 while getting ready to land without functioning flight controls.
    Sioux City Approach: You're cleared to land on any runway.
    Haynes: You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?
  • One first-responder to an especially grizzly crash of an airliner onto a suburb recounted that in his mind's eye he sees everything in muted brown shades (which his councillor told him was a coping mechanism). Shots from his perspective are rendered in sepia tones.
  • Determinator: The crew of FedEx Flight 705 in "Fight For Your Life", and how they kept Auburn Calloway from succeeding in his goals. Let us count the ways:
    • James Tucker, an ex-Navy pilot who not only flew the plane with a hole in his skull and half of his body suffering paralysis, but did extreme aerial maneuvers with said jumbo cargo plane (including insane barrel rolls, sharp turns, and a dive so steep that the plane nearly went supersonic) to throw the attempted hijacker off-balance as the man fought with the two other crew members in the galley, eventually trading places with David Sanders to restrain Calloway. With half of his body paralyzed and a hole in his skull.
    • David Sanders, who was also an ex-Navy pilot, was also hit in the head with a hammer and suffered gashes to his head (requiring doctors to sew his right ear back into place), and not only managed to land the extremely weighed-down aircraft successfully, but pulled off sharp turns normally near-impossible with said plane to land it...with his glasses missing and blood flowing into his eyes...manually.
    • Andrew Peterson, the crew's flight engineer, who also got hit in the head multiple times with a hammer and had his temporal artery severed, but managed to fight back despite massive blood loss, eventually helping to beat the shit out of and restrain the would-be hijacker. Also, he was thorough enough in his pre-flight check that he noticed that the cockpit recorder had been shut off by the hijacker in an attempt to cover his tracks beforehand. Twice.
  • Disaster Dominoes: It's basically one long sequence of these. For example, "Crash of the Century", which covers the Tenerife runway collision between two Boeing 747s, has the dominoes from lack of ground radar, an overloaded airport (the result of the two planes being diverted from their destination by a bombing at that airport), bad communication, foggy weather and a captain too eager to take off.
  • Disney Death: The fact that most of the survivors of Air China Flight 129 were seated in the rear of the airplane could easily lead the viewer to assume that the entire flight crew was killed. But it turns out the captain was the sole survivor of the flight crew.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Auburn Calloway wanted to hijack a FedEx DC-10 and crash it for insurance fraud because he was laid off from his job.
    • Gameel Al-Batouti may have slammed his aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean for supposedly being outed for harassing female Egyptair employees.
    • David Burke killed everyone on a plane because he had been fired for theft and his ex-manager refused to help him get rehired by the company.
  • Distant Prologue: The China Airlines Flight 611 episode starts with the tailstrike accident in 1980 that eventually led to the plane's breakup in 2002.
  • Discussed in the case of Crossair Flight 498. Interviews and narrator dialogue make mention of the captain's emotional difficulties as a commuter pilot in a distant country whose native languages were beyond his knowledge or unusable outside his job requirements, and it's briefly hinted that he deliberately took one of his tranquilizer pills shortly before the flight; however, the traces found in his system weren't able to support this theory.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Discussed in an interview in the episode covering the death of Dag Hammarskjold:
    Bob Macintosh: Certain people believed that it was just not possible that Dag Hammarskjold was killed in a common accident; it had to be something more.
  • Drugs Are Bad:
    • Double subverted and played for drama. The first officer of Trans-Colorado Airlines Flight 2286 was briefly suspected of being drunk before the crash, but toxicology tests showed he was not drinking before the flight. But the captain failed to notice the mistakes made by his first officer; further tests revealed he had been using cocaine the night before and was suffering from withdrawal.
    • Implied with the captain of Crossair Flight 498; traces of a tranquilizer medication were found in his system, but there was no definitive answer as to whether this had an effect on his flying.
  • Drunk Driver: Subverted. A passenger on Trans-Colorado Airlines Flight 2286 thought she smelled alcohol on the first officer, and a background check turned up evidence of the first officer having a history with alcohol; but lab tests revealed that he had not been drinking before the flight.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Exploited. The hijackers of Air France 8969 decide to spare the Algerian passengers from being killed in their plot to blow up the Eiffel Tower, and order the Algerian passengers to de-board; the Algerians refuse to leave, a move that saves the lives of those who weren't executed in Algeria.
  • Everybody Lives: A major accident from which there are no fatalities is shown about once or twice a season. It's not as uncommon as one might think. The fact that 309 people were able to evacuate from Air France Flight 358 (Season 4) before it was consumed by fire was all the more remarkable considering that similar accidents involving fire like British Airtours Flight 28M (Season 9) and Air Canada Flight 797 (Season 4), resulted in fatality rates of about 50%. The show on Flight 28M explains how safety improvements made after that event made such an improvement possible.
  • Evil Gloating: David Burke wrote a taunting note on an airsickness bag, which investigators assumed was given to Ray Thomson shortly before shooting him and sending the plane into the ground.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: What else would a show called "Air Crash Investigation" be about?
  • Failed a Spot Check: Many of the accidents happen because of the flight crew not paying attention to something they should.
    • "Flying Blind": Aeroperu Flight 603 crashes because no one notices a piece of duct tape covering the plane's static port.
    • "Fatal Distraction": The pilots of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 focused on a burned-out light and fail to monitor their altitude, causing the plane to literally fly into the Everglades.
    • "Ghost Plane": A technician inspecting the Boeing 737 that would fly as Helios Airways 522 forgets to switch back the cabin pressurization panel from manual to automatic. The pilots don't notice the position of the selector switch even when another ground technician tells them to check it. In this case it's a Justified Trope as the pilots' faculties are already being affected by hypoxia. Eventually the whole flight crew and passengers succumb to the lack of oxygen and the plane crashes.
    • "Dead Tired": The flight crew of Colgan Air Flight 3407 overlooked their airspeed and allow their plane to slow to the point of stalling.
    • "Lost In Translation": The pilots of Crossair Flight 498, unfamiliar with the western style of attitude indicatorsnote , don't realize their plane is banking dangerously to the right, causing it to nosedive into the ground.
    • In "Blow Out", a ground crew technician attempted to match the replacement screws by eye, rather than checking them from the inventory. Working in the dark, he failed to notice that the screws were one size too small for the windscreen they were to be fitted into, causing the seal to fail on the next morning's flight.
    • "Focused On Failure": Similar to "Fatal Distraction", the captain of United Airlines Flight 173 to Portland was so focused on a landing gear light problem that he missed both what his fuel gauge and his flight engineer was telling him. The plane ran out of fuel while holding over Portland, although he managed to steer it to a landing in a wooded area with a loss of only ten lives. Later interviews with him would reveal that he thought he had enough fuel left.
    • "Catastrophe At O'Hare": When the investigator interviews the ATC controller who witnessed Flight 191's takeoff and crash, he is surprised when the controller tells him that an engine fell off the aircraft during the takeoff roll. A large General Electric jet engine lying in plain view just by the runway should not be too difficult to spot...
    • "Deadly Delay": The co-pilot of Spanair Flight 5022 recites the checklist from memory instead of reading it from the manual. He forgets the "flaps" three times, resulting in the accident.
    • The crew of Korean Air 007 chats with another Korean Air jet that is supposedly nearby, whose crew reports completely different wind conditions that those KAL 007 experiences. Since such dramatic change over a small distance is impossible at that altitude, this should alert the crew that they're somewhere they should not be.
  • Finagle's Law: "Eye of the Storm": After an engine on a Hurricane Hunter catches fire, an investigation reveals it was caused by a faulty fuel sensor, which fed too much fuel to the engine causing the fire. The investigator notes it could have failed at any point in the flight, but just happened to occur in the worst part of the hurricane on a mission that required them to fly much lower than usual. Then one of their prop de-icing boots comes loose and threatens to damage the engine.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: The passengers and crew of British Airways Flight 9 started their own club after their strange and nightmarish ordeal.
  • Foregone Conclusion: If someone who was on the plane is interviewed, they survived whatever ordeal happened in the episode.
  • Foreign Cuss Word:
    • In "Pilot vs. Plane", the pilot of Air France Flight 296 audibly shouts "Merde!" right before he crashes his plane into a forest.
  • The first officer of Lauda Air Flight 004 lets out a hushed cry of "Sheiße" when the reverser isolation valve warning starts flashing.
  • From Bad to Worse:
    • "Runaway Train", about the San Bernardino train disaster. First, a runaway freight train derailed at a bend in the tracks and crashes into a residential neighborhood, killing nine people. Then, about two weeks later, the gas pipeline alongside the tracks ruptured from damage received during cleanup.
    • "Attack Over Baghdad", about a DHL cargo plane that was hit with a surface-to-air missile by Iraqi insurgents. The crew managed to safely land the plane...only to learn that they may have landed in a mine field.
    • Once again, "Crash of the Century." First a terrorist bomb closed the airport in Las Palmas, forcing all inbound traffic to be relocated to Los Rodeos airport on Tenerife, which was not equipped to handle this many planes, including two Boeing 747s (one Pan Am, one KLM). The airport got so crowded in fact that the only way to leave was to taxi down the sole runway and then do a 180 degree turn (called a backtaxi) and take off. Then as Las Palmas reopened a fog dropped in on Los Rodeos, causing the weather conditions to deteriorate rapidly. Then the ATC crew had to get two 747s out of the airport. The Pan Am got lost in the fog and couldn't find the exit to leave the runway, and the KLM was piloted by an impatient captain who was trying to complete his flight before his duty time limits are up. The KLM was starting to take off while the Pan Am was still trying to get off the runway. And the rest, as they say, is history.
  • Ghost Ship: Or rather, ghost planes:
    • Helios Airways Flight 522 lost contact with air-traffic controllers and was intercepted by Greek fighter jets, which found that everyone on the plane except a male flight attendant was unconscious. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed. It was determined that an incorrect setting on the cabin pressurization panel caused the pilots and passengers to succumb to hypoxia.
  • Glasses Pull: A few investigators in the re-enactments have removed their glasses after confronting a major shocker in an investigation.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Gameel al-Batouti, the pilot suspected of deliberately crashing EgyptAir Flight 990, was portrayed as a smoker.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: A number of times an action by the pilots or ground crew results in this.
    • "Deadly Solution": The captain pulls two circuit breakers to silence an annoying alert and everything goes hell in a handbasket almost instantly.
    • "Deadly Detour": A change of flight plan to get the passengers an opportunity to see a luxury ship closer ends in a fatal midair collision.
    • "Fatal Transmission": A rookie pilot steps in the conversation between two planes, trying to clear the confusion, and as a result causes the fatal misunderstanding leading to a runway collision.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!:
    • Downplayed in "28 Seconds to Survive", the pilots of Santa Barbara Airlines Flight 518 use words that are somewhat milder than the CVR transcript.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: The captain of Northwest Airlink Flight 5719 had this in spades. He took out his frustration about a company policy requiring pilots to relocate by flying aggressively, and he continuously chewed out fellow crew members, one of whom claimed to have actually been physically struck by the captain.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: When the bomb goes off aboard Philippine Airlines Flight 434, the attendants try to help the passenger under whose seat the bomb was located... and realize the lower half of his body is missing.
    • Handicapped Badass: The Captain of TACA Flight 110 was missing an eye but still managed to land his crippled plane. On a levee no less.
    • Nikki Lauda, former three-time Formula1 world champion, survived a horror crash at the Nurburgring in 1976 that badly burned his face, all but destroyed one of his ears and seared his lungs with toxic combustion products that nearly killed him. As mentioned in the episode concerning his airline it's mentioned that he was back on the race track a mere six weeks after his near-fatal crash. He also absolutely refused to be whitewashed by Boeing when the true cause of the Lauda Air crash started to become apparent, and held their metaphorical feet in the fire until they admitted culpability and updated the design of the 767 trust reversers to ensure the same accident couldn't be repeated. He also went to extraordinary lengths to keep Lauda Air in business in spite of the loss of a quarter of its fleet with the loss of the 767, and stated that he would have immediately resigned had it been found that his airline was in any way at fault.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The burning oxygen generators in the fire test for the ValuJet 592 investigation produce a horrific metallic wailing sound that disturbs even the investigators.
  • Heroic Bystander: Lenny Skutnik, an employee at the Congressional Budget Office, who dove into icy cold water to rescue one of the survivors of Air Florida 90, and was honored by President Ronald Reagan at the State of the Union address, seen in "Disaster on the Potomac".
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Arland D. Williams Jr., one of the most famous Real Life examples of the trope, survived the initial crash of Air Florida Flight 90 but insisted on passing over the rescue line to other passengers. His body being entangled with the wreckage, he sinks below the icy Potomac and drowns.
  • Famous photojournalist Mohamed Amin spent his last moments trying to rally passengers against the hijackers of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961. He is killed when the plane is ditched in the Indian Ocean.
  • Folk music legend Stan Rogers was last seen alive trying to help other passengers out of Air Canada Flight 797 while fire engulfed the cabin, as recounted in the episode "Fire Flight".
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The crew of FedEx Flight 705 were able to use Auburn Calloway's own weapons against him.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: Invoked in "Fight to the Death"-Captain Stanley Key's autopsy revealed he was suffering from heart disease, leading investigators to suspect he may have suffering from an incipient heart attack during the flight.
  • Hope Spot: Air Canada Flight 797 managed to safely land after a severe on-board fire, and it seemed that the passengers would all make it off the plane... until the plane's doors were opened and a flashover occurred, which incinerated the interior and killed 23 people.
  • How We Got Here:
    • The episode on Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 starts with a family witnessing the plane nosedive into the woods and carrying out a fruitless search for survivors, after which the scene switches to two hours earlier.
    • This happens again with TANS Peru Flight 204: survivors scramble out of the wrecked remains of the aircraft and watch as fire consumes their would-be tomb, after which the scene switches to one hour earlier, when they were boarding the flight.
    • The episode focusing on US Air Flight 1493 starts with the post-crash fire, then goes back 15 minutes to the 737's approach to Los Angeles International Airport.
  • Idiot Ball: Exemplified in some of the pilot error cases.
    • The crew of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 become so distracted by a minor problem with the landing gear that they fail to check where and how low they are flying. United Airlines Flight 173 suffers the same fate, and for the same reason, though the latter actually ran out of fuel.
    • The captain of Aeroflot Flight 593 decides to show off the brand new Airbus A310 by letting his teenaged son take the controls of an aircraft that neither he nor his crew are familiar with themselves. The teenager pulls the yoke to the left, disengaging the autopilot. He continues to pull on the yoke, making the plane enter a dive. The actual crew don't notice what's happening until it's too late.
    • The pilots and the ground crew in the "Gimli Glider" incident both fail to double-check whether the plane's fuel supply has been measured by pounds or kilograms.
    • The hijackers of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 read in the in-flight magazine that the plane can fly to Australia, and do not believe the captain when he says the plane does not have enough fuel to get there. When the plane has to be ditched, not only do the hijackers not sit and fasten their seatbelts, but one of them takes the co-pilot's seat and wrestles with the controls while the captain is trying to ditch without loss of life. Not surprisingly, none of the hijackers survive.
  • Impact Silhouette: In a mid-air collision where one of the planes is reconstructed, the outline of the other plane involved (or at least a part of the other plane) can be seen on the side of the reconstructed fuselage.
  • Improbable Piloting Skills: Many episodes have pilots managing to keep their planes from crashing despite overwhelming odds.
  • Infant Immortality: Played with in many episodes:
    • "Alarming Silence": The sole survivor of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 is a 4-year-old girl.
    • "Lost": A 4-year-old girl was among the 4 survivors of American Airlines Flight 965. (Her brother survived the impact, but died in the hospital.)
    • "Operation Babylift": All the infants aboard the C-5 Galaxy were seated in the cabin, which saved their lives when the plane crashed.
    • For many episodes, the trope is largely averted.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: The captains of Japan Airlines Flight 123, Korean Air Flight 007 and Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 are all portrayed by Japanese-Canadian actor Denis Akiyama.
  • It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The root cause of some of the disasters caused by pilot error.
    • "Kid in the Cockpit" concerned a famous Russian case where a senior airline pilot allowed his teenaged son to take the controls of a brand new Airbus A310. The teen inadvertently disabled the plane's autopilot and the flight crew, unfamiliar with the state-of-the-art aircraft, failed to bring it back under control. Tragic hilarity ensued. An especially needless tragedy given that the investigators found that everything would have been fine if they had just let go of the control column.
    • "Deadly Detour" detailed Proteus Airlines Flight 706 deviating from their assigned route because a passenger wanted to fly over a famous French ocean liner, the SS France. There were a number of private planes swarming toward the ship, and when the pilots decided to do a 360 around the ship after canceling Instrument Flight Rules and going to Visual Flight Rules, a collision with one of the other sightseeing planes was bound to occur.
    • The captain of Indonesia Air Asia Flight 8501 got fed up with a recurring alarm concerning the rudder travel limiter unit, so he used a trick a ground mechanic had shown him and pulled the breakers on the flight computer. This directly led to the plane going out of control and crashing.
  • It's Probably Nothing: Said by a passenger on British Airtours Flight 28M before the reason for the aborted takeoff becomes apparent.
  • Its Pronounced Tropay: The British narrator pronounces the word "debris" as "DAY-bree".
  • Just Plane Wrong: Several examples, surprisingly enough:
    • One example is in the episode "Bomb on Board", which recycles the same clip for taking off and landing with the thrust reversers deployed.
    • "Crash of the Century": Another episode about the Tenerife disaster, which involved a collision between two 747s, Pan Am and KLM, introduces the KLM plane with a shot of it in flight...with winglets, identifying it as a 747-400, which at the time of the disaster (1977) would not be put into production for another 11 years. It's possible that they may not have been able to find a Boeing 747-200 that could be re-dressed as a KLM plane.
    • In one episode, it is clear that the people making the show believe that any twinjet in an American Airlines livery must be an A300. Averted in the episode about the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, which actually was an A300.
      • However, in the same episode the plane simply pitches downward when the vertical stabilizer separates. In Real Life, losing the vertical stabilizer causes uncontrollable movements in the yaw axis. This part is especially baffling since the episode on the Uberlingen disaster correctly portrayed the effects of vertical stabilizer separation.
    • In the episode "Behind Closed Doors", in the part about American Airlines Flight 96, they used a clip of an MD-11 taking off to show Flight 96's take off. Flight 96 was a DC-10.
    • In "Fire on Board", which was about Swissair Flight 111, when the narrator mentions the first officer shutting down the number two engine, a shot of the right-wing engine shutting down is shown. In reality, on the MD-11 and other trijets, the middle engine is designated as number two.
    • In "Death At Narita", when discussing autothrottle control, the MD-11 is shown to have four throttle levers, even though it has only three engines. In the shots showing the pilot controlling the thrust manually, the number of levers is correct.
      • Subverted in another part of the episode. The crash site shows remnants of cabin windows in the wreckage, which seems unusual, considering that the crash was a cargo plane. Actually, the plane was originally built as a passenger plane, which was then converted into a cargo plane when it was bought by FedEx.
    • In the TAM 3054 episode, when the A320 cruises towards its destination, the thrust levers in the cockpit are in the full forward position (maximum thrust). Such setting is used when the plane is fastly accelerating; in cruise flight, at a stable airspeed, the levers would be anywhere between 1/2 and 3/4 forward position, never fully forward.
    • In the Tenerife disaster episode, Captain Van Zanten scolds his first officer for reviewing his approach plate at a latter stage of their flight. Actually, the crew (especially the pilot flying, the copilot in this instance) is expected to refer to their approach plates and procedures during the approach and landing; flying an approach without referring to the approach plate is considered a gross negligence.
    • A common example in the series is Just ATC Wrong. In real life, a flight passes through several different controllers (Ground Control is responsible for the taxiways, Tower Control clears the flight for take-off, Approach & Terminal Control handles the ATC of a climbing aircraft within the airport's radar coverage, then various Area Control Centers handle the aircraft as it cruises from one area to another); in the series it's common to have one controller handling all the flight. A glaring example is in the Kegworth crash episode, where a bearded controller with a bespectacled colleague clears the flight to takeoff from Heathrow, then, when the crew declares an engine fire, the very same controller with the same colleague handles their emergency descent, even though they are now in the area of an entirely different airport, East Midlands.
    • Also, a controller who lost a plane is immediately replaced by a colleague, as he's now too distressed to ensure a safe handling of his duties. This is correctly presented in the US 1549 episode, but in others (TACA 110 for example), a controller who had a plane under his control disappear from radar is still at his post.
    • In the El Al 1862 episode, when the Master Warning light comes on, one can see a "Sidestick Priority" label just next to it. A sidestick is an Airbus feature (except A300/310); El Al 1862 was a 747. (El Al has 100% Boeing fleet.)
  • Killed Mid-Sentence:
    • The cockpit voice recorder of Air India 182 ends during a discussion amongst the cockpit crew about customs seals.
    • Enforced in the episode on TWA 800; after the fuel tank ruptured and the CVR stopped working, the re-enactment in the cockpit has the pilots conscious just long enough for the captain to get the attention of the flight engineer before being consumed by fire as the nose breaks off.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: A tour guide whose group was on Air China Flight 129 had to return to a hotel to retrieve his passport; while the group made it onto the plane, the entire group ended up seated toward the rear of the plane. As explained by the narrator, this mistake proved to work in his favor when the plane crashed; he and most of his tour group were among those who survived.
  • Literal Metaphor: The people aboard Air Moorea Flight 1121 were literally hanging by a thread. Lampshaded in-universe by one of the investigators.
  • Loads and Loads of Loading: The flight data recorder from TAM 402. Lampshaded in-universe by the Brazilian investigator. Justified, as the device was a solid state recorder which, at the time of the accident, was not very common.
  • Loophole Abuse: How David Burke smuggled a gun on board PSA Flight 1771 to take revenge on the boss who fired him and the airline. At the time airline cabin crew could circumvent the X-ray machines as nobody thought to consider that the airline's own employees could be a security risk. Burke was actually an ex-employee but the airline hadn't removed his credentials when he was fired. Not surprisingly, ever since the incident, cabin crew and pilots go through the same security checks as passengers do and all ID badges are immediately removed when an employee leaves or is fired.
  • Lost in Transmission: This is a critical cause of the Tenerife disaster. Critical warning messages from the ATC and the Pan American plane end up cancelling each other out, and neither is heard by the KLM plane. To make things worse, the KLM crew had announced they were taking off, and the ATC initially responds, "Okay-" before the interference occurs. This reinforces the KLM crew's belief that they had been given takeoff clearance.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: In cases where there's almost nothing left of the airplane, any recovered human remains are extremely fragmented, assuming they haven't been buried deep underground or completely burned to ashes.
  • MacGyvering: In the Varig Flight 254 episode, when the aircraft crashes in the jungle, the crew know that the black boxes emit locating signals when submerged by water, but they have too little water. Thus, the captain urinates over the black boxes, and it actually works.
    • In an event similar to the Japan Air 123 incident, United Airlines Flight 232 also loses all flight controls due to an engine explosion, but both pilots and a flight instructor who just happened to be on board managed to bring the plane in for a crash landing in which a majority of the passengers and crew survived.
  • Mid Air Collision: There's also runway collisions (e.g. "Crash of the Century").
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Zig-zagged between episodes. Some episodes go out of the way to make the audience cry at the loss of life; others focus solely on the investigation into the accident. And there are episodes that occupy the middle ground between the two.
  • Misplaced a Decimal Point: What brought down Varig Flight 254 and killed 13 people.
  • Mood Whiplash: The pilots of Atlantic Airways Flight 670 are quite jovial and relaxed during the flight and approach to Stord Airport. But shortly after touchdown, they quickly fall into panic.
    Copilot: (after touchdown) ...and spoilers.
    (Captain activates the spoiler lever)
    (Beat)
    (Spoiler alert)
    Copilot: No spoilers!
    Pilot: Full brakes!
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • The air traffic controller in "Deadly Crossroads" has this reaction when he realizes he's just caused two planes to collide.
    • After landing British Airways Flight 9, the crew pores over the flight records thinking they made a near-catastrophic mistake. Fortunately for them, they are not at fault.
    • The captain of Flight 8501 just after he pulled two circuit breakers to silence a nuisant alarm and the plane instantly started going out of control.
  • Nave Newcomer: Chad Erickson, the newly hired first officer of Northwest Airlink Flight 5719, was scared stiff by his overly aggressive captain, which led him to not make the necessary altitude callouts on approach due to his fear of angering his captain. He was also thrown in a loop by the captain deviating from the established approach path in an effort to combat icy conditions, and being berated, humiliated and talked down to did not help one bit.
    • A number of times, the less-experienced co-pilots diagnose the emergency correctly, but either do not intervene out of respect for their captains, are turned down by them or are intimidated one way or another: Flash 604, Birgenair 301, TANS Peru 204, West Caribbean 708, First Air 6560, Crossair 3597 and Korean Air 801 and 8509.
  • Naked in Mink: Implied in one scene of the EgyptAir 990 episode, where the relief first officer, who's wearing a robe, calls two girls across the courtyard, who look out the window and are stated to see him exposing himself to them.
  • Nepotism: The captain of TACA Flight 110 is the airline owner's son. When the crisis unfolds, he proves to be an excellent pilot and a skilled commander. (Also, he is getting along real well with his crew before they get into trouble.)
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: In the crash of United Express Flight 5925, the Cherokee pilot's muddled attempt to explain the King Air's takeoff causes the two aircraft to collide.
  • No Name Given: The pilots of Proteus Airlines Flight 706 are never once referred to by name, either during their introduction or during the credits.
  • Noodle Incident: It's never established how the captain of Trans-Colorado 2286 was able to get an aircraft in and out of an airport in just 7 minutes.
  • No One Could Survive That!:
    • "Gimli Glider" was about a Boeing 767 that ran out of fuel over Canada because of improper calculations involving pounds vs kilograms. The pilot managed to miraculously pull off a dead stick landing that couldn't be replicated by any subsequent pilot that attempted the scenario in a simulator. The pilots in the simulated flight always ended up crashing the plane.
    • "Falling from the Sky" concerns a British jumbo jet that saw all four of its engines fail after accidentally flying into a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia. After managing to restart the engines, the flight crew managed to land the plane despite the windscreen having been sandblasted opaque, relying entirely on instruments.
    • "Blow Out" concerns a captain who was partially sucked out of his own cockpit thanks to faulty maintenance of the windscreen, his body subsequently subjected to a freezing 500mph slipstream over 17,000 feet above England. Despite overwhelming physical odds, the captain survived the ordeal with only frostbite and a few bone fractures. And he continues to fly.
    • Japan Airlines 123 lost its vertical stabilizer and the hydraulic systems that powered its flight controls, and the flight crew managed to keep it flying for a whopping 32 minutes afterwards. Four passengers from the rear of the plane survived the crashnote  although tragically the flight crew didn't survive. When recreating the accident in simulators, not only was it impossible to produce an outcome where the plane could've landed safely, but no one kept it in the air as long as the real crew did.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: This tends to be a common trend in re-enactments, particularly when portraying Scandinavians and New Zealanders.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: There are times when the audience can guess at the rules introduced following an investigation to prevent future accidents.
  • Official Presidential Transport: "Death of the President" deals with the crash of the Tu-154 carrying the president of Poland, as well as a former president and several other officials.
  • Oh, Crap!: Expressed by various pilots, passengers, and/or air traffic controllers just before the bad stuff goes down.
    • Perhaps seen most effectively in "Crash of the Century", which covers the Tenerife disaster. The First Officer of the Pan-Am flight is positively horrified as he sees the KLM jumbo barreling down the runway towards his plane, as is the Dutch captain seeing the Pan-Am plane directly in front of him.
      Captain Grubbs: "God damn, that son of a bitch is coming STRAIGHT AT US!"
    • In "Head On Collision", a rail passenger with a view of the track in front of him realized that his passenger train is about to collide with a freight train head-on.
    • In "Deadly Crossroads", when the pilots of the Bashkirian Airlines flight realize that the DHL plane is heading straight for them, they panic and desperately try to climb. Unfortunately, it's too late.
    • In a similar vein, in "Sight Unseen", the Kazakh pilots push their aircraft to full power upon realizing that they've descended too far. In a truly sorrowful twist of fate, had they not realized that they were too far below their assigned altitude, and kept descending, they would have descended below the Saudi jet and it would have been a near miss rather than a fatal collision.
    • In "Air France 447: Vanished", the captain has this reaction when he realizes that his co-pilots' diverging inputs to the side-stick controls are leading the plane into a stall.
    • In "Breakup Over Texas" Shift Inspector Anderson has it during his interrogation, when he realizes his actions have Gone Horribly Wrong and caused the fatal crash.
    • In "The Final Blow", the A-320 pilots get a very nasty surprise when, in the middle of what they think is a landing approach, they emerge from a cloud bank and there's suddenly a forested mountain right in front of them, with barely enough time to say a single word before impact.
    • The captain of AirAsia Flight 8501, when the pulling of two circuit breakers resulted instantly in the plane going out of control.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Some of the actors playing multiple and/or recurring roles in the reenactments fall into this as the series progresses.
    • Inverted with Jorge Molina, the actor who played the first officer of Birgenair Flight 301, the lead investigator into TANS Peru Flight 204, and the captain of Spanair Flight 5022.
    • Played straight with the actor playing BEA investigator Alain Bouillard.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Implied if not stated outright in many if not almost every accident with fatalities.
    • Definitely true with United 811, which was investigated by the parents of victim Lee Campbell.
    • Exaggerated with the Uberlingen mid-air collision, where most of the passengers were children.
  • Outside Ride: The captain of British Airways Flight 5390 went through this when a blown-out windshield got him sucked out of the cockpit and pinned to the fuselage.
  • Painting the Medium: In an interview with expert Jeff Wise, the camera zooms in on his face as he explains that "[the] ability [of the crew of Singapore Airlines Flight 006] to deal with multiple streams of information is becoming narrower and narrower".
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: David Burke's airsickness bag note contained the word "ironical".
  • Personal Effects Reveal: As to be expected from a disaster docudrama series.
    • The wreck of Arrow Air Flight 1285 yielded T-shirts saying "I survived Gander, Newfoundland". Irony at its finest.
    • A notable inversion is in the case of Northwest Airlink Flight 5719. A singed wallet is found in what's left of the airplane with a woman's photo inside; it's later revealed to have belonged to the first officer.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • In "Deadly Delay" miscommunications about Avianca Flight 52's fuel status led to it being kept in a holding pattern instead of given immediate clearance to land.note 
    • American Airlines Flight 965 was a similar case, just with reversed roles. The air traffic controller in Cali, Colombia cleared the crew to fly "direct" to Cali, which the pilots interpreted to mean "without flying over any other waypoints", even though the controller meant "without delay". After continuous requests to report reaching the first skipped waypointnote , coupled with confusion over "Rozo"note , the pilots ended up flying off course and crashing into a mountain.
    • An uncoordinated flight crew in "Fatal Focus" led to Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 landing hard and crashing in Yogyakarta.
    • A confusion between oxygen generators and oxygen canisters helped doom ValuJet 592.
    • Poor communication between mechanics led to a missing row of screws going unnoticed by everyone present, which led to the leading edge on the horizontal stabilizer to break off Continental Express Flight 2574, killing 14 people.
    • A double one occurs in the AirAsia 8501 episode. The captain mistakenly tells his copilot to "pull down" - you either pull up or push down the nose - so the first officer pulls the stick back, resulting in a fatal stall. Earlier, when the captain was preparing for a different flight, he had the very same problem as on the fatal Flight 8501 - the rudder travel limiter failure alert - this time on the ground. The mechanic used the proper procedure to turn it off, but when the alarm returned, he pulled two circuit breakers to calm it down permanently. The captain asked if he can do the same and the mechanic agreed - not realizing (and the captain not specified that) he means in flight, which instantly resulted in autopilot switching off and the aircraft banking, leading to the fatal crash.
    • The Tenerife disaster may as well be called "The Poor Communication Kills crash." When the captain of the KLM aircraft hears "stand by for takeoff," he interprets to mean "you are cleared for takeoff." Since he can't see the Pan Am jet that's still on the runway, guess what he decides to do next? This is why current regulations only allow ATC to say "takeoff" when clearing an aircraft for takeoff or cancelling an aircraft's takeoff clearance, otherwise they must use the term "departure" instead.
  • Pop Culture Osmosis: The episode "Massacre Over the Mediterranean" ultimately agrees with the conclusion of the third and final technical investigation, which determined that a bomb brought down Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870. However, conspiracy theories about a NATO missile had become so widespread in Italy that the government and the public refused to consider these findings.
  • Power Walk: The crew of Reeve Aleutian Flight 8 after successfully landing the plane.
  • Precision F-Strike: The first officer of DHL 611 mere seconds before colliding with Bashkirian Airlines 2937 over Uberlingen.
  • Properly Paranoid: The first officer of American Eagle Flight 4184 was said to have predicted his own fate on account of the problematic design of the ATR aircraft's de-icing system.
    • Sometimes, passengers can tell when disaster is imminent, such as Joe Stiley on Air Florida Flight 90 and Michael Quinlan on Garuda Indonesia Flight 200, and take a brace position before impact.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Happens in a handful of interviews:
    • The nephew of Egypt Air 990's relief first officer: "This! Is! A simple! Plane! Crash!"
    • Journalist Paul Eddy: "...if an Airworthiness Directive had been issued as it should have been after Windsor, Paris. Would not. Have happened; it was an entirely. Avoidable. Accident."
    • Aviation expert David Learmount: "Frank Taylor's team didn't. Reach. Any. Conclusions. Except... ones which were based on hard. Physical. Evidence."
  • Readings Are Off the Scale:
    • In the fire-test for the oxygen generators in the ValuJet 592 episode, the resulting inferno becomes so hot it ends up exceeding the facilities measuring equipment and in fact almost destroyed the facility itself as well.
    • In "Fight for Your Life", during a dive, the plane's air speed indicator maxed out.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The captain of BEA Flight 548 chews out a younger pilot for supporting an approaching strike shortly before boarding his flight to Brussels, which investigators considered to be a possible factor in the eventual crash of the flight.
  • Retired Badass: Some of the pilots have pasts in various air forces.
  • Retirony:
    • The pilots of Partnair Flight 394 were both a few months from retirement.
    • Subverted with David Cronin of United Airlines 811, who was also close to retirement, but survived.
    • Possibly invoked by the relief first officer of EgyptAir Flight 990, who was only months from retirement but on the verge of being terminated on return to Cairo.
    • Inverted with the junior flight attendant of American Eagle Flight 4184, who was killed on her first day on the job.
  • Sanity Slippage: With the new residence policy for the pilots of Northwest Airlink, the captain of Flight 5719 grows increasingly aggravated and prone to outbursts, both verbally and even physically, which proves to be his undoing when his first officer is too intimidated to provide the altitude callouts for the approach into Hibbing.
  • Scare Chord: Discordant strings, horns, and pianos, such as the music ten minutes into "Under Pressure".
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The difficulties faced by pilots landing at Congonhas Airport led the captain of TAM Airlines Flight 3054 to carry out an outdated landing procedure out of fear of not coming to a quick enough stop with the current procedure. With the stresses piled on top of him, he ended up making the same mistake that led to the old procedure being abandoned in the first place.
  • Senseless Violins: Auburn Calloway used a guitar case to get his weapons onto FedEx Flight 705.
  • Sentimental Music Cue: It usually plays this trope straight at emotional scenes (victim funerals, photos of the plane wreckages, the last few seconds when there's no hope, the first few seconds after the crash, etc).
  • Serendipitous Survival: In some accidents, passengers change seats during the flight, which ends up saving their lives when the plane crashes.
    • Cerritos resident Teresa Estrada leaves for the grocery store, and returns to find her house destroyed by Aeromexico Flight 498 and her oldest son being the only survivor.
    • Also happens with two flight attendants on West Caribbean Airways 708, who had to stay in Panama City because there were too many passengers on board.
    • Deconstructed with Crossair Flight 3597; several passengers never showed up for the flight, causing a delay that ended up contributing to the accident taking place, as the pilots were not able to reach Zurich before the intended runway was shut down for the night.
      • Reconstructed in the same episode; because there were so many empty seats on the plane, some passengers were able to change seats, which proved to be a lifesaver when the plane crashed.
    • With Air China Flight 129, a tour guide leaving his passport and baggage at the airport saves nearly his entire tour group, since they got shifted to the back, where the most survivors were found.
    • In the Tenerife airport disaster, one passenger chooses to stay behind at Tenerife instead of continuing on to Las Palmas because she lives in Tenerife anyway and wants to see her boyfriend; going to Las Palmas and then back would just be impractical and tiring given how badly the flight had been delayed due to a terrorist attack at her final destination. Despite being warned by a flight attendant that declining to re-board is against regulations, she decides to sneak out anyway when it came time to board. She ended up being the only passenger of KLM Flight 4805 to survive.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: A recurring interviewee on the show, aviation expert John Nance, has a tendency to use complex words when he speaks; this is most evident in his interview in the episode on Turkish Airlines Flight 1951.
  • Shaped Like Itself: A surviving stewardess from Air Ontario Flight 1363 described the takeoff as "slow and sluggish like a slow, sluggish person running up a hill".
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The darkest example imaginable in "Out of Control". Almost 2/3rd of the episode featured the frantic efforts of the crew of Japan Airlines Flight 123 to control their 747 after an explosive decompression. Their efforts were doomed from the start. The rear pressure bulkhead, improperly repaired years ago, had destroyed itself and taken the entire vertical stabilizer with it. A crash was inevitable, and when it happened it killed the vast majority of 524 passengers and crew. To make matters worse, rescuers failed to arrive in time, causing all but four of those who survived the initial impact to die from injuries and exposure, making a total of 520 casualties.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Defied in the Concorde episode: "The return fare costs more than 9,000 dollars."
      • The same shout-out is numerically downplayed in the TAM 402 episode during the safety cable test: "Then, at over 900 pounds of force,... [cable breaks] ...it can take no more."
    • Another downplayed shout-out in the TAM 402 episode is when investigators examine the flap setting: "Mark it down; eight degrees."
  • Shown Their Work: In "Deadly Crossroads", the Bashkirian pilots are shown looking toward their right side for the DHL, which is actually approaching from the left. In the uncensored version (you can see it in the censored version too, it's just less clear), it is clearly seen that all the heads in the cockpit turn when a flight crew member yells "There on the left!" The reason for this (which wasn't said in the episode) was that Peter Nielsen (the controller) had actually reported the position of the DHL mistakenly at the Bashkirian's 2 o'clock position when in reality it was at their 10 o'clock. It was probably omitted to keep the sympathy level for Nielsen higher among the viewers, as if him getting murdered by Vitaly Kaloyev, who was hailed as a hero in his hometown, wasn't enough.
  • Skewed Priorities: The investigation of the Tenerife crash discovered that the air traffic controllers were listening to a soccer match on the radio and may not have been paying full attention to what was going on. In fact, they had it turned up so loud that the sounds of the game can be heard on the transmissions from both planes.
  • Smash to Black: Used in a few episodes, most notably 9/11: The Pentagon Attack with a shot of the passenger cabin just before impact.
  • Snipe Hunt: It is suggested that SilkAir Flight 185's captain may have found an excuse to get his first officer out of the cockpit, then locked him out, disabled the flight recorders, and intentionally crashed his plane.
    • Implied in an almost identical playout with Germanwings Flight 9525. The first officer suggests that the captain take a bathroom break, which the captain proceeds to do. As soon as the cockpit door is sealed behind the captain, so is the plane's fate.
  • Sound-Effect Bleep: Noticeable in "Flying On Empty".
  • Spexico: The Tenerife control tower guy speaks Spanish with a Mexican accent.
  • Stern Teacher: The Northwest Airlink 5719 captain is very demanding in regard to his first officers, and does not tolerate any mistakes or omissions, no matter how small. In and of itself, this is not bad - after all, there was a number of episodes showing how the tolerance of minor errors and complacency in a pilot's performance ended up in a tragedy (Crossair 3597 for example) - but in combination with extreme Hair-Trigger Temper this ends up fatal.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The copilot of British Airways Flight 38, all hands down.
    Captain Peter Burkill: [Is the aircraft/approach] Stable?
    First Officer John Coward: Well, sort of. I can't get any power from the engines.
    and later:
    First Officer: Looks like we have a double engine failure. note 
  • The BA38 crew, however, can't hold a candle to the crew of British Airways Flight 9.
    Captain Eric Moody: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.
  • It's more about the emotions. BA38 officer, despite the extreme severity of the situation, sounds at best mildly annoyed about his plane's lack of proper response.
  • Stopped Clock:
    • The clock stopped when the ferry sank in Express Samina.
    • The watches in the cargo hold of South African Airways Flight 295 stopped when the plane crashed.note 
    • The watches worn by the people on Dag Hammarskjold's flight to Ndola stopped when the plane crashed.
  • Stupid Crooks: The hijackers of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 in "Ocean Landing", who thought their aircraft could make the trip to Australia since they read it in the in-flight magazines, and refused to believe the captain when he said they didn't have enough fuel.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: In "Alarming Silence," documenting Northwest Airlines Flight 255, one pilot demonstrated how to disable the MD-80's takeoff warning system by pulling a circuit breaker, without looking, though he claimed he'd never done it himself.
    • Possibly averted in that the circuit breaker was mentioned to have been used routinely by a number of pilots, and was therefore covered in oil from fingerprints, making the breaker distinguishable by touch.
  • Take a Third Option: The captain of Air Canada Flight 143 ends up in a difficult spot approaching Gimli after the plane runs out of fuel. He's too high to make the runway, and diving toward the threshold would make the plane too fast to stop on the runway safely; at the same time, he doesn't have enough altitude to be able to make a 360-degree turn and land on the runway. He ends up putting the plane into a sideslip to get the plane down faster without increasing the plane's speed, and it works.
  • This Cannot Be!: Said by the captain of Aeromexico 498 after the collision with the Piper Cherokee.
  • Title Drop: Some episodes have the episode title spoken by either the narrator, in a re-enactment, or (very rarely) in an interview. Zig-zagged, as episode titles vary by region.
  • Too Clever by Half: Captain Falitz in "Killer Attitude" makes it clear that he thinks he knows everything in terms of procedure, reprimanding the first officer for minor mistakes. This backfires when he goes for an unorthodox landing approach, without fully explaining to the first officer what's going on. The first officer isn't sure what's expected of him, so he doesn't say anything for fear of angering the captain. This ends in a fatal crash when the captain descends too quickly.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • The hijackers in "Ocean Landing". Not only do they demand a destination based solely on information found in the airline's in-flight magazine, they repeatedly overrule the captain's warnings that they'll run out of fuel, and when they do one of them gets in the copilot's seat when they're seconds from a crash landing and starts wrestling with the controls while the captain's trying to get them down in one piece. None of the hijackers survived.
    • The pilots involved in the 2008 Mexico City LearJet Crash qualify. As the investigators find out, both falsified their flight records and certifications, ending up flying a sophisticated jet they had little idea how to control, performing a complex approach in heavy traffic. The crash was inevitable.
    • In the same vein as the Mexico City crash, the crew of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane falsified their flight records (which consisted of flying a similar yet different plane while only being permitted to fly a older type) and ended up behind the controls of a plane they had little experience with just so they could have the privilege of transporting their favorite hockey team. Also, the first officer was hiding a neurological condition that would have disqualified him from flying. They died too.
    • Adam Air, ValuJet, and Manx2 each went to insanely dangerous lengths to cut corners at the expense of flight safety. All three of these airlines were sold off and/or liquidated after their respective disastersnote .
  • Trailers Always Spoil: In the Birgenair 301 episode, the crash sequence is played in an especially dramatic way, with the narrator stating that "the fate of the flight depends on the crew getting their answers right". This could have worked - many viewers watch the show without checking the info on the presented accident first and could not know whether the plane crashed or not - if not for the opening sequence, where an aviation expert states that "this was the first major crash of a 757". note 
  • Translation Convention: In-cockpit discussion and passenger dialog is in English, even when it's not the persons' first language. Lampshaded in Season 12 episode "Death of the President". The cockpit crew has to use Russian in radio communication with the military airport (in civilian airline communication, English is the official language), and the first words are spoken in Russian. Then there's a moment of radio static and the language changes to English.
    • The investigators examining a crash also talk and write all their notes in English, even when English is not their native language.
  • Turbine Blender: In the episode on United Airlines Flight 811, it's mentioned that human remains were found in the right inboard engine.
  • Ultimate Job Security: Captain Lutz was allowed to stay with Crossair despite multiple foul-ups on the job simply because they needed all the manpower they could get.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The captain of BEA Flight 548 accuses a junior pilot of being such during his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to him just before boarding his flight to Brussels.
  • Understatement:
    • The captain of British Airways Flight 9 certainly qualifies.
    Eric Moody: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.
    • Flight Attendant Deborah Neil, aboard Pacific Southwest Airlines 1771:
    Neil: (opens cockpit) We have a problem! (is shot in head)
  • Unluckily Lucky: Conversed when episodes touch on the subject of crash survival. Although crash survivors managed to make it out alive, they still had the misfortune of being in an accident in the first place.
  • The Unreveal: In some cases:
    • It is known that South African Airways Flight 295, the subject of "Fanning the Flames", was brought down by an on-board fire. But whether it was accidental or the result of Apartheid Era espionage remains unknown.
    • Subverted with "Death and Denial", about Egypt-Air Flight 990. The episode presents the case that the plane was deliberately brought down by the First Officer, and that the Egyptian government's official explanation of mechanical failure was made because of suicide being extremely taboo in Arab culture. Therefore, the cause of the crash is known, yet cannot be officially determined because of the differing politics and social mores between the U.S. and Egypt.
    • Subverted again with "Pushed to the Limit", about SilkAir Flight 185. Like in "Death and Denial", this episode presents the case that the plane was deliberately brought down by a crew member (this time, the Captain), and that the Indonesian government's official explanation of mechanical failure was made because the entire Boeing 737 line, at the time of the incident, had been dealing with a mechanical issue with the rudder's control unit that had previously caused the crash of two other 737s (which themselves were profiled in the episode "Hidden Dangers"). Again, known cause of crash, no official determination. This explanation was offered because of a similar suicide taboo due to Indonesia's large Muslim population.
    • Averted like a ton of bricks in "Murder in the Alps" about the Germanwings 9525 crash. Evidence pointed to the crash being caused deliberately by the copilot; this time, no one attempted to challenge this conclusion. Only after this accident (the only one out of five total crashes suspected to be cases of pilot suicide to be undisputed as a pilot suicide) were recommendations passed to mandate the presence of at least two crew members on the flight deck at all times during the flight.
    • "Massacre Over The Mediterranean"; the original report concludes that Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 was shot down by a missile fired from an unknown second plane. Soon after, two of the investigators withdraw their names from the report. A few years later, another inquiry produces a second report which determines that the first conclusion was wrongly based on an assumption that there was a hole in the side of the plane near the front. The third and more complete investigation shows compelling forensic evidence for a bomb placed under the wash basin in the rear toilet, however the report is ignored by Italian authorities still pursuing the missile theory. The episode seems to side with the bomb theory, ending with the conclusion that the Italian legal system is not the best system for investigating crashes.
    • With the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 unresolved at the time of airing, the episode about this flight puts forth the theory that the plane was intentionally flown off-course (and that the Captain was in the best position to do so) but doesn't definitively say who did it.
    • "Deadly Silence": While the investigators know that the crash was caused by the plane losing cabin pressure, they are unable to determine how the depressurization happened, as the plane had no flight data recorder and the wreckage was too fragmented to provide any clues.
    • Discussed in "Explosive Proof" about TWA 800; although the NTSB concluded that the accident was a fuel tank explosion, some continue to believe that the plane was shot down.
  • Unusual Euphemism: One of the racers at the abandoned Gimli air base cries out "Holy crow!" when he sees Air Canada 143 barreling down toward the racing strip.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: In the Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision, the radio operator of Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907 notices that the flight is below its assigned altitude and tells the captain to climb just moments before the collision. Had the Kazakh plane not climbed, they would've passed harmlessly under the Saudi plane
  • What a Piece of Junk: What the captain of Santa Barbara Airlines Flight 518 says of his plane as he and his copilot are taxiing to the runway. True to the trope, the massive equipment malfunction that sent it into a mountain was caused by the pilots' rushed startup; all they had to do was wait 28 more seconds than they did before moving, and there would've been no problems with the flight.
  • Wilhelm Scream: One is heard in the Proteus Airlines 706 episode.
    • Another is heard in the Northwest Airlink 5719 episode.
    • Yet another is heard in the Comair 3272 episode.
    • Several are heard in the TWA 800 episode.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: The American version of "Death of the President" makes a fundamental error regarding the comparison of altitudes achieved by the aircraft, claiming that 300 feet (the aircraft's minimum descent altitude for the trial approach) is "more than 10 times [the] height" of 36 feet (the height of the first tree clipped by the aircraft). The obvious math error is obvious.
    • Other than that, the trope is as good as averted (or at most downplayed) throughout the series.
  • You Answered Your Own Question: Inverted in the TAM 402 episode. The Brazilian investigator's first reaction to seeing the FDR's evidence of a reverser deploying in flight is "This shouldn't even be possible!". Later, when he looks into why the pilots were confused by the aircraft's safety system to prevent a deployed reverser from causing a crash, he discovers that the extreme unlikelihood of a reverser deploying in flight led to the associated training being deemed unnecessary by the manufacturer.
  • You Can Panic Now: The deadly fire on British Airtours Flight 28M showed how aircraft cabins and flight crew need to facilitate an evacuation in under 90 seconds even in the face of "dysfunctional behaviour in totality" on the part of the passengers. To replicate the effects of a fire in evacuation studies, passengers were offered money if they were the first ones off.
  • You Have Got to Be Kidding Me!: The Northwest Airlink 5719 captain's reaction to the airline's new residence policy.
    • Imagine what it must have been like for the pilots of TWA 800. They were waiting for a missing passenger whose bags were in the cargo hold, and after an hour, they get a message from the tower that the missing passenger was on board the whole time. Their reaction fell under this trope.

Alternative Title(s): Mayday, Air Emergency

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/AirCrashInvestigation