Nearly four years after 248 American soldiers died in a fiery plane crash in Gander, Newfoundland, the cause of the disaster remains shrouded in mystery and controversy. Was wing icing the cause of the crash, as the much-disputed official story goes? Or was the chartered DC-8 sabotaged, before it took off in Cairo, by an Iran-backed terrorist organization that claimed credit for the tragedy two days later?
And if it was sabotaged, was it an act of retaliation because the White House, in the course of its infamous arms-for-hostage dealings, had sold Iran a planeload of missiles it could not use?
Because of these unanswered questions, the Dec. 12, 1985, crash continues to have political fallout in both Canada and the United States. In Canada, Liberal Party critics have charged the Conservative Mulroney government with a coverup, saying it has accepted the wing-icing theory at the behest of Washington. And in the United States, the families of the victims, frustrated with the lack of answers, have turned to Congress, where Rep Robin Tallon (D-S.C.) is trying to drum up support for an official inquiry.
Tallon criticized what he called “the almost callous indifference shown by federal agencies that should have been involved in this investigation and should be responding to the families of 248 of our service personnel.”
The official investigation into the cause of the crash was handled by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, which split 5-4. The majority, in a report finally issued last December, found the probable cause was ice on the wings. The minority rejected the ice theory and complained that alternative scenarios – including sabotage – were superficially examined. The flight recorders, which had previously been disabled, provided no clues.
A US Army team scoured the crash site and reportedly requested it be bulldozed (it was not). The FBI conducted its own inquiry, which remains largely classified. The results of these investigations remain a mystery.
Flight originated in Cairo
If the true cause of the crash is ever to be found, the search must begin in Cairo, where, on the night of Dec. 11, 1985, the 248 members of the 101st Airborne Division began the first leg of their long flight home for Christmas after 6 months of peacekeeping duty in the Sinai desert.
According to an FBI interview with Capt. Arthur Schoppaul, who piloted the Arrow Air DC-8 from Cairo to Cologne, West Germany, security in Cairo was lax. Egyptian guards disappeared from their posts for an hour at a time, and a fight broke out among the baggage handlers. A power loss left the DC-8 in darkness for 30 minutes while its cargo doors remained open.
Security in Cologne was hardly any better. When Capt. Schoppaul left the plane, he found a cargo door open, its light on and no guards posted outside the aircraft. Schoppaul was relieved in Cologne by Capt. John Griffin, who took off for Gander 90 minutes after the plane landed.
The DC-8 arrived in Gander shortly after 5:30 a.m. local time, Dec. 12, following an uneventful flight across the Atlantic. Seventy minutes later, it headed down the runway on the final leg of its journey to Fort Campbell, Ky. It rose from the tarmac, but climbed only 60 feet off the ground before stalling as it crossed the Trans-Canada Highway. The plane struck treetops 25 seconds after takeoff.
Much of the DC-8 was consumed in a fireball. The carnage was so gruesome that, according to a report issued in June by the Canadian health minister, rescue workers have since suffered from “post-traumatic stress disorder,” an array of psychosomatic symptoms more commonly associated with combat.
The Canadian Aviation Safety Board held public hearings in April 1986. A draft report of the findings, along with the conclusion that wing icing was the likely cause, was presented to the 10-member board in early 1987.
The icing theory so split the board that one member resigned in protest later that year, reducing its number to nine. The chairman resigned and was replaced. It was only at the end of last year that a 100-page final report, which supports the staff’s wing-icing theory, was issued by a five-member majority. A minority report was also issued and signed by the four dissenting members.
Little evidence of icing
The majority view places probable blame on the deceased Capt. Griffin, who did not order the wings de-iced. A sandpaperlike ice layer can increase a plane’s drag so that it is unable to take off. The CASB majority concluded that “the failure of the aircraft to accelerate following liftoff” and “its failure to achieve a sustained climb … exemplify the known effects of ice-contaminated wings.”
However, the question remains whether there was any significant icing.
The majority noted that there had been a small patch of ice on a corner of the copilot’s windshield, “which confirms that ice accumulated on the accident aircraft during its approach” to Gander, but “the precise amount, type, and location of any ice adhering to the surfaces during the takeoff could not be determined.”
During part of the time the DC-8 was on the ground, slight freezing drizzle was observed. However, Gander ground crew members responsible for de-icing the DC-8 reported there was no evidence of any ice. Of four other planes that took off or landed around the same time of day, two were not de-iced. The captain of a Boeing 737 that landed shortly before the fatal takeoff reported no ice following an inspection.
This spring, the conclusion that icing was responsible for the crash was dismissed because of insufficient evidence after a review by Transport Canada, the equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administration. Then in July, William Estley, a retired Canadian Supreme Court justice, completed a “judicial review” and found the CASB unjustified in its use of the term “probable cause” in reference to ice.
The same month, Harold F. Marthinsen, director of the Accident Investigation Department of the US Air Line Pilots Association, wrote a critical letter to the Canadian safety board’s director. Marthinsen charged that data used in a computer simulation, which had persuaded CASB staff that the flight path reflected wing icing, were “simply manufactured” from an arbitrary reading of accelerometer data.
If icing was not the cause, then what was? In a recent phone conversation, retired Canadian Air Force Brig. Gen. Roger LaCroix, who is the CASB member who resigned in protest, posed the prospect of an engine-related problem. He expressed the view that “there was a catastrophic failure of a system, such as number four thrust reversal. I suspect that this was brought about either by fire or an explosion.”
The CASB minority, which LaCroix would have joined, complained that investigators paid little attention to such possibilities and concentrated on building its case for icing.
Remarkably, autopsy reports revealing elevated blood cyanide levels in some of the crash victims became known to the CASB only after the Canadian press uncovered them. Inhalation of cyanide indicates onboard fire. Its presence in the blood of even decapitated victims suggests a fire prior to the crash. Minority member Les Filotas, an aeronautical engineer, noted in a phone interview that the draft report he saw in 1987 neglected to mention such medical evidence.
In fact, witnesses, including an airport car-rental agent and two truck drivers whose vehicles were nearly struck by the DC-8, reported seeing the plane on fire prior to impact. And the truck drivers claimed there was no engine noise.
Indications of fire or sabotage should have been especially alarming in light of phone calls from purported members of the Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility for the disaster. After all, the Tehran-supported group had already been connected to numerous terrorist acts, including suicide bombings of US embassies in Lebanon and Kuwait, and of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, as well as the hijacking of a TWA 747 and the kidnapping and murder of American hostages.
Nonetheless, the Islamic Jihad’s claim of responsibility was rejected outright by Washington and the CASB staff.
Intriguingly, a possible explanation for such reluctance to acknowledge the possibility of terrorism is that the DC-8 went down during a particularly sensitive period in the arms-for-hostage dealings with Iran.
That fall, the National Security Council arranged the first shipment of Hawk missiles from Israel to Iran. On Nov. 24, 1985, eighteen missiles arrived in Tehran. However, the recipients discovered that the misssiles [sic], contrary to what they had been promised, could shoot down neither Soviet reconnaissance planes no Iraqi bombers. The Iranians were livid.
When George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger argued against more shipments, Oliver North argued forcefully in favor. In a stark Dec. 4, 1985, message to national security adviser Adm. John Poindexter, North warned about the fate of the hostages: “None of us have any illusion about the cast of characters we are dealing with on the other side … If we do not at least make one more try at this point, we stand a good chance of condemning some or all to death and a renewed wave of Islamic Jihad terrorism.”
Five days later, North added:
“US reversal now in midstream could ignite Iranian fire – hostages would be our minimum losses.”
Three days later, disaster struck in Gander.
Link appears a tenuous one
While it is tempting to connect the crash to the breakdown in negotiations with Iran, the likelihood of such a link is small, at least according to Gary Sick, the NSC’s Iran specialist from 1976 to 1981 and the author of “All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.”
Sick noted in a recent conversation that when Pan Am Flight 103 went down last December over Lockerbie, Scotland, five months had elapsed since the presumed provocation – the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a missile fired from the USS Vincennes. He finds it improbable that a similar bombing, in this case of a military charter, could have been arranged in considerably less time.
Thus, despite the ample opportunity to sabotage the DC-8 in Cairo or Cologne, terrorism remains a long-shot explanation, and the search for a more plausible one goes on.
The CASB’s Les Filotas says he would like to see his board officially disown the icing theory. However, he will encounter resistance from the members of the original majority.
Meanwhile, the case remains agonizingly open for the victims’ families. Asked recently when she foresaw putting the death of her son behind her, Zona Phillips, cofounder of Families for the Truth about Gander, replied, “This is one plane crash that is just not going to go away. We’ve got to have some questions answered before we can put this matter to rest.”