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Just Plane Tragic

The following is a list of some of the more notorious air travel tragedies we've seen, from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.

Wreckage of Baron von Richthofen's Fokker triplane.


When: 1918

Where: Vaux-sur-Somme, France

The bane of Allied aircraft, Manfred “the Red Baron” von Richthofen was a flying ace credited with at least 80 air-combat victories during World War I. But he who lives by the warplane will likely die by the warplane. Richthofen’s luck ran out with a single bullet fired from the ground. It pierced his heart and lungs, but he was still able to land his plane. According to the Australian soldiers who arrived on the scene, his last word before he died was “Kaputt!”


When: 1935

Where: Near Point Barrow, Alaska

“I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers,” was how humorist Will Rogers usually began his comedy routines. In the early 1900s, Rogers was the Jon Stewart of his day, making people laugh with off-the-cuff topical humor about the news, world leaders, politicians, gangsters, and masters of industry. He appeared in 71 movies, wrote more than 4,000 newspaper columns, and was a beloved performer on stage and radio. He even wrote his own epitaph—“ I never met a man I didn’t like”— and on August 15, 1935, got the chance to use it. While flying through Alaska on a plane piloted by Wiley Post (the first aviator to fly around the world solo), an engine failed. The plane plowed into a shallow lagoon. Both men died.


When: 1937

Where: Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

Amelia Earhart was a rebel from the start. Growing up in the early 1900s, she climbed trees, hunted rats, and made a point to defy the gender restrictions of her time. She flew her first plane in 1921, and when she was recruited in 1928 to join a team flying across the Atlantic Ocean, making her the first woman to complete that flight, she jumped at the chance.

Nine years later, she took on another challenge: being the first woman to fly around the world. It was a huge undertaking, 29,000 miles in all, but she set off from Miami on June 1, 1937. Twenty-eight days later, she and her navigator Fred Noonan landed in New Guinea with just 7,000 miles left to go. They never made it to their next stop: Howland Island, a tiny bit of land in the giant Pacific Ocean. Amid bad weather and low fuel, Earhart’s plane disappeared over the ocean. A rescue effort launched by the U.S. Coast Guard was the largest in history, but after more than two weeks of scouring the open ocean, the government called off the search, declaring that Earhart, Noonan, and their plane had been lost.

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance became one of the biggest mysteries in history, and professional and amateur archaeologists spent the next 70 years searching for her plane. Finally, in May 2013, an aircraft preservation group announced that it had sonar images of the ocean floor showing what it believed to be the remains of Earhart’s plane. The location: About 1,800 miles south of Hawaii, near Nikumaroro, a small island in the western Pacific that’s nearly 350 miles from Howland Island.


When: 1968

Where: Near Kirzhach, Russia

In 1961, Soviet fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin was selected for a trip to outer space, mainly because at 5'1", he could fit into the cramped cockpit of the tiny Vostolk 1 spacecraft. (Also, he was already an accomplished flyer and military man.) On April 12, he made the trip, becoming the first human to orbit Earth. That successful flight made him famous, and as a Soviet space hero, his country banned him from participating in future space flights because they feared a plunge in public morale if he died. So Gagarin went back to the Soviet air force. That proved to be a fatal mistake. In 1968, during refresher training in a MiG, he and his flight instructor entered a spin and crashed. Both men died.


When: 1972

Where: The border of Chile and Argentina

A scene from the 1993 film Alive.

In October 1972, the plane carrying the Old Christians rugby team from Uruguay crashed in the Andes Mountains en route to a match in Chile. Twenty-five of the 45 people on board survived the crash… and then were stranded in the freezing mountain wilderness for 10 weeks before help arrived. Another eight people died from starvation and cold. While on the mountain, after exploring all other alternatives and nearing starving, the survivors reluctantly succumbed to cannibalism, eating the frozen bodies of the people who had died. Their story was immortalized in the 1993 movie, Alive.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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