Statistics and Plane Magnets

I don’t want to sound like I’m being insensitive, or trivializing last week’s amazing plane crash on the Hudson River, but the question really has to be asked: what’s with the Hudson, anyway? Why is it such a plane magnet? Or, for extra credit, let’s challenge that assumption – is the Hudson the plane-magnet it, at first glance, seems to be?

I know, I know – it’s a big body of water near some of the busiest airports, and airspace, in the world. But planes and helicopters are always crashing in the Hudson. A quick look through Google News’ archives comes up with the following:

October & November, 1986: two helicopters
September 1988: light plane
November 1981: helicopter
November 1985: light planes collide over the river
July 1993: pilot of out-of-control blimp aims for river, misses
August 1991: light plane
July 1997: light plane
December 1998: helicopter
December 1976: two separate light plane crashes
October 1952: light plane
May 1953: light plane
June 1941: seaplane hits boat, crashes
October 1958: helicopter
November 1945: military aircraft (bomber?)
December 1965: plane crashes on George Washington Bridge
April 1972: helicopter
March 1953: helicopter
May 1968: military airplane
June 1968: helicopter
May, 1940: light plane
December 1976: two light planes collide over river
October 1947: airliner
January 2006: light plane
March 1995: light plane
November 1996: light plane

…and you get the idea.

For comparison, here’s what I can find for crashes in the Mississippi River, the longest body of water in the continental United States:

February 1944: airliner (near Memphis, TN)
August 1992: helicopter (near Saint Louis, MO)
April 2003: light plane (near Saint Louis, MO)
July, 1997: light plane (Saint Paul, MN)
August 1990: light plane (Saint Paul, MN)
August 2000: light plane (near Saint Louis, MO)
December, 2004: light plane (near Saint Louis, MO)

I’m sure there were others, but expect most of them were only of “local interest” at the time, if that, and not so well preserved for history. To be fair, the Mississippi River might not be a fair comparison – it’s not adjacent to all that many large airports, after all. To come close to the Hudson’s tally of planes and helicopters, some searching suggests you’d have to turn to Lake Michigan – August 1965, June 2007, April 1960, June 1950, April 1985, February 2001, November 1957, April 2000, July 2006, July 1997, December 2004, among countless others – or the San Francisco Bay:

December 1986
February 1945
April 1953
April 1956
January 1947
September 1951
August 1954
December 1960
February 1963
August 2007
January 1992
January 2003
July 1988
December 1956
…among, undoubtedly, others.

What strikes me as analytically interesting is that 15 of the 28 crashes into the Hudson River that I could find happened between October and March, as did 8 of the 14 San Francisco Bay crashes – roughly half, suggesting a more-or-less random distribution, as you’d expect. By contrast, half the Mississippi River crashes I came across happened in July or August, and eight of the first eleven crashes into Lake Michigan I found happened between April and September, both of which trends – if supported by larger, more complete data sets – I would consider statistically significant.

So, is the Hudson a plane magnet? It kind of seems that way, but not necessarily without cause. More interesting – and deserving of analysis by someone with more time on their hands – is why the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan only “attract” airplanes and helicopters in warmer months.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on January 19th, 2009| Comments Off on Statistics and Plane Magnets

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