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According to Wikipedia, the reason for the crash was that:

adhesive tape had been accidentally left over some or all of the static ports (on the underside of the fuselage) after the aircraft was cleaned and polished

Can this still happen with modern aircraft?

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    $\begingroup$ Mentour pilot has an accident reconstruction based on NTSB (or equivalent agency) findings for Malaysian Airlines Flight 134, which took off with pitot tubes covered whre he does a pretty nice explanation of the whole system for laymen - youtube.com/watch?v=f80WwpNuaxg (the titles and intros are a bit over the top, but the content is top notch) - it is not precisely about static ports, but very related. $\endgroup$
    – mishan
    May 12 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ OP, one way to understand this: the duct tape was literally covering the EYES (!!!!!) of the robot that is the overall aircraft. The aircraft had utterly no clue WTF was going on; most of its senses had been blindfolded. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    May 14 at 19:48

3 Answers 3

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Yes, this can happen on all aircraft.

The static ports on the aircraft were covered with tape for cleaning, and then not removed. This resulted in contradictory flight data (mainly airspeed and altitude) being fed to the pilots, including that relayed from ATC. Similar actions in modern aircraft would have a similar effect. More modern aircraft have specially designed covers that are used instead of tape, making it less likely they will be left on.

In theory the presence of a measure of speed that did not rely on pressure sensors (such as INS or GPS) might provide some degree of protection, as might an altitude measure that did not rely on the plane's sensors, but it is not guaranteed even with those that the pilots could have figured out how to get reliable airspeed or altitude figures in the circumstances.

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    $\begingroup$ Though even the 757 in the accident had radar altimeter, the crew didn't know which instrument to trust. I agree that even with GPS it would take some fast thinking on part of the pilots to figure out the situation. Fortunately modern maintenance procedures use bright-colored protective caps instead of pieces of tape :) $\endgroup$
    – jpa
    May 12 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ @jpa The maintenance procedures at the time required bright coloured tape. It just wasn't used. The maintenance worker responsible was found guilty of negligent homicide. $\endgroup$ May 12 at 12:59
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The risk has been mitigated, but the potential will always remain... consider the "Swiss Cheese Model".

If:

  • The cleaning crew working on the aircraft "bent the rules" and chose to use duct tape perhaps because the proper covers were not readily available, with the reasoning that the worker who applied it will remember to remove it before returning the aircraft to service.

  • There is a shift change before the work is completed, so the incoming crew is unaware of the duct tape and does not need to do any work in the affected area of the aircraft.

  • The aircraft is returned to service after nightfall and there is poor lighting where it is parked; the flight crew happens to be running late and so is in a rush to complete the pre-flight.

Then, there will be a repeat of the thing that should never happen again.

At each step, there is an opportunity to prevent or catch and correct an issue so it won't propagate, and only small things at each step can make the difference between non-event and disaster.

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I'd perhaps make this a comment but it's too long.
This is a "hopefully) useful addition to the other answers.
This is an example of Anthony X's "Swiss Cheese Model".

A large proportion of major disasters require 3 to 5 "impossible" things to happen to allow them to occur. (Sometimes just bizarre, unusual or wholly unexpected).

A classic example is the Air NZ Flight TE901" loss of a DC10 on Mt Erebus in Antarctica
(on Novermber 28, 1979).

  • The original route WAS over the mountain.
  • A transposition error in data entry took all flights up McMurdo Sound
    so this became the "known route".
  • On the day before the flight someone did a routine course recalculation and noted an insignificant error.
    They entered the updated data - maybe moving the course a tiny fraction of a degree off where it "should have been".
  • But, this change overwrote the original transposition error and put the aircraft back over, and so into, the mountain.
  • There was a "whiteout" (this is Antarctica!)
  • And the captain assumed the course was low-level safe, as it always had been previously.
  • It wasn't.
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