What causes a head crash?

A head crash is one of the most catastrophic failures that can occur in a hard disk drive (HDD). It happens when the read/write head of the HDD makes forceful contact with the disk platters, resulting in potential data loss and drive failure. Understanding what causes head crashes is important for preventing them and mitigating data loss.

What is a Head Crash?

A head crash occurs when the read/write head inside an HDD makes forceful contact with the platter surface, which can damage the thin magnetic film coating on the platter. This usually renders the affected area of the platter unusable and can cause complete drive failure if the damage is severe enough.

The read/write heads fly incredibly close to the disk surface, often just a few nanometers away, while suspended on an air bearing generated by the spinning platters. If the head touches down onto the platter surface, it can destroy the data stored in that area and leave behind debris that causes further head crashes. This makes head crashes highly destructive failures.

Causes of Head Crashes

There are several potential causes of head crashes:

Physical Shock/Vibration

Sudden physical shocks or vibrations can cause the heads to slam into the platter surface. Dropping an HDD or banging the computer housing the drive can provide enough mechanical force for this to occur. Vibration from sources like loud speakers, motors, and transportation can also cause the head to lose proper fly height and crash.

Power Failure

The spinning platters inside an HDD generate the air bearing that keeps the heads floating just above the surface. If power is unexpectedly cut to the drive, the platters will immediately stop spinning. This causes the heads to come crashing down onto the platters below.

Contaminants Inside the Drive

Dust, smoke particles, or other contaminants inside the HDD enclosure can lead to head crashes in a couple ways. They can interfere with the head’s ability to fly at the proper height above the platters. They can also get caught between the head and platter, causing direct contact. Poor drive manufacturing or assembly may allow contaminants to enter the drive.

Degraded Lubricant Layer

The platter surfaces in HDDs are coated with a microscopic layer of lubricant. This helps prevent damage if incidental contact occurs between the head and platter. Over time, this lubricant layer can degrade, especially in areas of the platter that are heavily accessed and written to. Loss of lubricant protection makes a head crash more likely during even minor head contact.

Thermal Expansion

As components inside an HDD heat up during operation, thermal expansion causes subtle changes in the spacing and alignment between heads and platters. If the heads drift too low from thermal effects, they can make contact with the platter surface and crash. Quick temperature changes contribute more to this problem.

Head Wear or Defects

The read/write head is an extremely delicate component and errors in its manufacturing or excessive wear over time can lead to head crashes. A weakened or malformed head is more likely to make contact with the platter. Debris buildup on the head over time can also cause it to occasionally scrape the platter surface, leading to a crash.

Platter Damage or Defects

Imperfections, bumps, or uneven surfaces on the platter can allow the head to contact the platter more easily. While manufacturers try to keep platters as smooth as possible, subtle defects or damage to their surfaces can occur over time with heavy drive use and contribute to potential head crashes.

Poor Drive Handling

Rough handling of an HDD, such as dropping, bumping, or shaking the drive while operating can knock the heads off track. This increases the chances of a head crash. Sudden movement of a drive during seeks can also lead to contact between the heads and platters. Careful and proper handling of HDDs reduces risks.

Weakened Head Suspension

The read/write heads are mounted on suspensions that keep them positioned over the platters. These suspensions can weaken or become damaged over time. A compromised suspension may allow a head to sway into the platter surface when shocked or vibrated.

Preventing Head Crashes

While head crashes will always remain an unavoidable risk with HDDs, there are ways to mitigate and reduce their likelihood:

– Handle drives gently and avoid physical shocks, drops, and vibrations.
– Use shock absorbers and padded mounting in computers/external enclosures.
– Ensure clean power to minimize voltage spikes that could stop platter rotation.
– Keep systems well ventilated to limit thermal issues.
– Perform periodic backups so data can be restored if a crash occurs.
– Scan drives for reallocated sectors indicating surface defects.
– Replace older HDDs that may have more component wear.
– Use enterprise-class drives designed for higher reliability.
– Switch to solid-state drives (SSDs) which are not prone to head crashes.

Dealing with Head Crashes

If a head crash occurs, the ultimate data recovery steps will depend on the severity of the failure:

– For minor crashes affecting a small platter region, the drive may continue working with reallocated bad sectors.
– If the drive is still partially operational, recover critical data immediately before degradation worsens.
– Turn off the drive to prevent further head scarring or platter damage from seeks.
– Very severe crashes with complete drive failure will require specialist data recovery service.
– In some cases, the platters may need to be transplanted into a working drive for recovery.
– Replacement of the drive is suggested over long-term continued use after major crashes.


Head crashes represent one of the most serious failure modes for hard disk drives. They occur when the read/write heads make forceful contact with the platter surface, potentially scraping off the thin magnetic data layer. Many factors can contribute to a head crash, including physical shock, contaminants, thermal issues, component wear, and platter defects. While random head crashes will still occur, proper drive handling and maintenance best practices can significantly reduce their likelihood. Recent innovations like SSDs eliminate head crashes, but HDDs continue providing large storage capacities economically. Understanding what causes head crashes helps optimize the safe use of HDD technology.