PRELUDE TO TRAGEDY
There has been many controversial airplane crashes over the years that have gotten much media attention about the cause of the crash such as EgyptAir Flight 990 ([i] NTSB, 2002) and especially TWA Flight 800 ([ii] CNN, 2006). However, a crash that was more deadly than both of these prior incidents and at the same time much more controversial was Arrow Air Flight 1285. This crash has been long forgotten by many people despite still being the worst air disaster in both US military and Canadian aviation history. This crash had the unfortunate distinction of occurring only six weeks before the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which effectively knocked the Arrow Air tragedy out of the headlines and began its slow slide into obscurity.
The prelude to the Air Arrow tragedy began on the night of December 11, 1985, when 248 American soldiers mostly from the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division boarded Arrow Air Flight 1285 in Cairo, Egypt. This DC-8 aircraft has been chartered to fly the soldiers back to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky after completing their six month tour of duty as peacekeepers on the Egyptian/Israeli border. The peacekeeping detachment they had been part of was part of a 10 nation organization that had been established by an agreement the Israelis and Egyptians signed in August 1981 to ensure compliance of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by each side.
The aircraft that was bringing these soldiers home departed Cairo around 20:35 and was first headed to Cologne, Germany then to Gander, Canada on the island of Newfoundland before making its final stop at Ft. Campbell ([iii]Aviation Safety Network, 2004). The aircraft landed in Cologne at 01:21 where it was scheduled to change flight crews and refuel. An hour and half later the plane departed Cologne and arrived at Gander, Newfoundland on the morning of December 12, 1985 at 05:34 local time.
All the passengers on the Arrow Air flight were deplaned as the aircraft was refueled, trash and waste water was emptied, and food was catered on to the plane. After this was complete the soldiers were reboarded onto the plane. The Arrow Air flight took off from Gander’s runway 13 at approximately 0645 local time ([iv]Dept. of the Army, 1986). As the plane took off down the runway it had a hard time gaining altitude and never rose more than 1,000 feet before beginning to drop in altitude. The aircraft crossed over the Trans-Canada highway at a low altitude before further descending and ultimately crashing about 3,000 feet from the end of the runway (Aviation Safety Network, 2004).
Witnesses who saw the crash reported seeing a huge explosion when the plane crashed. Others that responded to the scene remember smaller explosions continuing to happen as the aircraft burned. Some remember even bullets cooking off in the fire when they responded to the scene (Filotas, Page 71).
RESPONDING TO TRAGEDY
Shortly after the Army learned about the tragic crash a crisis response cell was stood up at the Pentagon to respond to this tragedy. This cell would go on to organize and direct all actions associated with the crash. This cell organized transportation, airlifts, communications, as well as dispatching chaplains to notify the families of the deceased soldiers.
This crisis response cell also dispatched an advanced party to assist the Canadian authorities at the crash site and arrange for shipment of the remains back to the United States. The man that was picked by the Pentagon to lead this team was Major General John Crosby Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. General Crosby’s team was composed of a total of 10 people that included officers from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, a forensic photographer, legislative liaison, and personnel officers. A representative from the National Transportation Safety Board was also organized to meet up with the team at Gander.
This team according to the Army’s official history of the accident was credited for creating a quick rapport with the Canadian authorities and being able to get a Memorandum of Understanding signed with all the key players involved in the accident investigation such as the Canadian Aviation Safety Board the Department of Justice for the Province of Newfoundland, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the United States National Transportation Safety Board, and the United States Department of Defense (Dept. of the Army, 1986). Incredibly this MOU was drafted and signed by all the respective parties only two days after the accident. The memorandum authorized the Department of Defense transfer all remains to Dover AFB, where the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology would perform autopsies of the remains under the supervision of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board. The first remains would begin to be airlifted to Dover AFB on December 16th and by December 18th all the remains would arrive at Dover. The advanced team led by General Crosby would all return back to the US by December 21st.
THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS
The investigation of the crash began one day after the crash when it was determined there was no survivors that could be pulled from the wreckage. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) mapped out an area 350 meters long and 50 meters wide. Within this area they created grid squares and whenever remains or items were removed from the wreckage it was given a grid number to properly record where the item was found at in the wreckage (Dept. of the Army, 1986). The RCMP conducted all the recovery efforts and did not allow the team led by General Crosby access to the crash site until the MOU was signed. After the MOU was signed the team was allowed to assist in inventorying and tagging remains along with taking photographs of the crash site and wreckage.
When all the autopsies on the bodies were completed on December 21st it was determined that two bodies were still missing. A team once again led by General Crosby was dispatched to Gander to help find the remains. This team in conjunction with Canadian authorities began a search of the site again on January 11, 1986. The site was initially hampered by heavy snow fall, but unusually warm weather would melt the snow during this second recovery operation that greatly assisted the searchers. The search lasted for four weeks and turned up two complete remains, over 300 anatomical portions, approximately 100 health records, four and one-half tons of personal effects and unit equipment, and a hangar full of aircraft parts were uncovered during the second recovery mission, which was completed on 8 February (Dept. of the Army, 1986).
The RCMP maintained security of the site until Mid-May when it was determined that no other artifacts from the wreck could be found. The crash site was graded over which took about four days to complete. The grading was completed on May 15, 1986 and restoration of the area began.
THE CRASH SITE
The first firefighters responded to the crash scene within seven minutes and all were unanimous in their amazement of how little of the aircraft was left when they arrived. One of the first firefighters on the scene that day, Harvey Day was even quoted as saying that when he arrived at the site that he asked where the main wreckage of the plane was because he saw nothing left of the fuselage. There was in fact nothing left of the fuselage because when the plane crashed it exploded and blew apart the fuselage and wings into fragments (Filotas, Page 71).
The path the plane took to where it ultimately crashed could easily been measured due to the clipping of trees as the plane descended. The measurements of the trees indicated that the plane was descending at about a 20 degree angle before finally hitting the ground and exploding. However, something that shocked first responders that arrived at the scene was that there was bodies hanging from the trees that were burning ([v]TIME, 1992). The fact that bodies were hanging on fire in trees would later cause some to question if the plane exploded on impact or had in fact exploded in the air thus depositing those bodies in the trees?
The fact that the fuselage was blown apart was something else many investigators found to be odd about this crash. Typically with a crash that occurs just after take-off the hull will break apart, but it will not completely disintegrate like the Arrow Air flight did. Due to the keeping of some of the integrity of the fuselage it is actually considered common for survivors to be found in crashes that occur just after take-off. For example in 1974 a Boeing 747 from Lufthansa Airlines crashed after take-off from Nairobi, Kenya ([vi]ASN, 1974). After the crash the fuselage remained mostly intact and only 59 of the 156 passengers died with some of the passengers escaping the wreckage without injury.
There are many other examples of fuselages staying largely intact in the aftermath of a crash just after take-off, but probably the most telling example was a DC-8 military charter that crashed in 1970 in Anchorage, Alaska. The DC-8 is the same type of plane that crashed in Gander and the plane took off in a freezing drizzle which was once again conditions similar to Gander. The airplane crashed just after take-off and the fuselage did not disintegrate ([vii]ASN, 1970). Because of this only 43 occupants died and 186 of the servicemembers on the plane survived. Such an example makes you wonder, why did the Arrow Air DC-8 completely disintegrate after the crash?
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology conducted all the autopsies of the bodies at Dover AFB. The remains were all photographed and a team from the FBI fingerprinted all the bodies. The bodies were also all given both medical and dental X-rays along with a complete dental examination to help identify them. Additionally during the autopsies the bodies were given complete toxicology exams. The results from these exams would become one of the biggest controversies of the entire investigation. The results showed that about half the bodies of the deceased contained “significant” or “lethal” levels of hydrogen cyanide in their blood ([viii]New York Times, 1988).
The CASB investigators concluded that the high levels of hydrogen cyanide was the by product from the fire burning plastic materials in the cabin, but the investigators were not able to conclude if the fire happened before or after the crash. The soldiers had to be alive in order to breathe in the fumes which would mean a number of them were alive when the plane crashed to only die in the fire. CASB board members who pushed for further investigation of these results said that some of the bodies with high hydrogen cyanide blood levels were found to be severely dismembered which may be an indication that they died in during the crash and not due to the fire. If this was the case than these soldiers would have to have breathed in the fumes before the crash, which would indicate a fire occurred on the plane before impact (New York Times, 1988).
Even more interesting about these toxicology results was that the highest concentrations of the hydrogen cyanide was found in the bodies of soldiers in one particular area of the cabin indicating that if there was a fire before impact, that was where it began. The hydrogen cyanide was not found in the pilot or flight engineer.
CONTROVERSY OVER THE CASB REPORT
The CASB panel assigned to the Arrow Air crash was composed of nine members who were tasked to review all the results of the investigation and issue a final report on the cause of the crash. However, this board would be plagued throughout the investigation with much infighting between the two camps divided between the causes of the crash. One camp continued to promote the ice on the wings theory while the other group wanted to continue the investigation into an explosion causing the crash. In October, 1988 after much drama within the CASB panel, it issued its final report on the Arrow Air tragedy. This final report clearly showed the divide among the panel members because it issued two different reports, a majority report signed by five board members and a minority report signed by four board members (TIME, 1992). The majority report believed that ice on the wings caused the crash. Here is the synopsis from the majority report:
“The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact sequence of events which led to this accident. The Board believes, however, that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that, shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift which resulted in a stall at low altitude from which recovery was not possible. The most probable cause of the stall was determined to be ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing. Other possible factors such as a loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds may have compounded the effects of the contamination.” ([ix]Majority Report, 1988)
The Minority Report greatly differed with the findings of the majority by emphasizing that an explosion was the likely cause of the crash. Here is the summary from the Minority Report:
In our judgment, the wings of the Arrow Air DC-8 were not contaminated by ice – certainly not enough for ice contamination to be a factor in this accident. The aircraft’s trajectory and performance differed markedly from that which could plausibly result from ice contamination. The aircraft did not stall. Accordingly we cannot agree, indeed we categorically disagree with the majority findings.
The available evidence convincingly shows that the right outboard engine was producing little power before it contacted trees. The investigation of the other engines was inconclusive with regard to pre-impact status. We believe it is possible that the engines were also operating at reduced power. All four thrust reversers may have been deployed.
The evidence shows that the Arrow Air DC-8 suffered an on-board fire and a massive loss of power before it crashed. But, we could not establish a direct link between the fire and the loss of power. The line may have been associated with an in-flight detonation from an explosive or incendiary device. Consequential damage to the various systems precipitated the crash. ([x]Minority Report, November 1988)
These two very disparate reports on what caused the crash of Arrow Air 1285 only further added to the controversy surrounding this crash. The fact that the most experienced CASB members to include the panel’s only three aeronautical engineers sided with the minority opinion only further added to the whispers about a government cover up. The controversy became so great that a former Canadian Supreme Court Justice was appointed to review the results of the CASB report and determine if a new investigation should be opened. Justice Willard Estey determined that the evidence did not support ice on the wings causing the crash. However, Justice Estey recommended to not re-open the investigation into the crash for the sake of the families so they could finally have closure (TIME, 1992).
However, closure did not come for many of the family members of the deceased who over the years advocated for the Congressional representatives to investigate the causes of the crash. There was many points of dispute that the victims’ families wanted answers to ([xi]Tallon, 1992).
POINTS OF DISPUTE
The Dismissing of Evidence – One of the CASB’s top engineers who had specialized training in forensic science, Mr. John Garstang was dispatched to the Gander crash scene the same day of the crash. Mr. Garstang would later go on to play a key role in finding the fragment of the suitcase at the crash scene of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that proved that the crash was a case of terrorism. With an expert like Garstang on the scene, the CASB tasked him to inventory wreckage found at the scene. One of the pieces of wreckage he recovered was a piece of composite material from the cargo liner. This piece of wreckage had soot and burn marks on it along with small puncture holes. The piece was recovered in an area where the ground was not burned indicating that the crash explosion was likely not the cause of the burn marks on the fragment. The piece was later tested for explosive residue which none was found. However, the residue could have been removed due to the wreckage lying out in the snow and frozen rain all day. Additionally if an advanced explosive such as Semtex was used, it leaves no traceable residue. Semtex was the explosive responsible for bringing down Pan Am Flight 103.
However, despite the suspicious burn marks and puncture holes, in the final report the chief investigator for the CASB, Peter Boag did not include Garstang’s full description of this piece of wreckage that may indicate an explosive went off on the plane before it crashed. Garstang is quoted in Les Filotas’ book about the crash that, “To this day, I do not have a good feeling about what caused those holes.”
Another air crash expert Irving Pinkel in May 1986 also examined the wreckage from the crash to look for any possible clues of an explosion. Irving first made his name serving on the NASA team in 1967 that investigated the cause of the fire that killed NASA’s top astronaut team. He would later go on to help investigate the cause of the Apollo 13 explosion that nearly killed that astronaut team as well. When Pinkel arrived at Gandar he was retired from NASA and working as an independent crash investigator. The insurance company for Arrow Air, Associated Aviation Underwriters wanted an independent expert to investigate the crash and hired Pinkel. The crash site had been cleaned up by May 1986, but all the wreckage from the crash was still being held inside a hangar at the Gander Airport. Pinkel while examining a piece of fuselage wreckage noticed that a hole in the wreckage about a foot in diameter had outward curls at its edges indicating an explosion. Pinkel observed that the hole likely had to have come before the plane impacted on the ground because the fuselage would have crumbled upon hitting the ground thus preventing such a hole from forming. Pinkel found more evidence of a possible explosion before impact, but ultimately the CASB’s Peter Boag dismissed his findings by saying the hole was created during impact (Filonas, Page 93).
Ignoring Witnesses – Besides ignoring the evidence presented by two notable crash experts, the CASB also ignored witness statements that supported the theory that an explosion went off inside the plane. Many witness statements were taken during the course of the investigation, but I would have to say that the statements from two truck drivers who were on the Trans-Canada Highway when the Arrow Air flight passed over the highway at a low altitude are probably the most interesting. The two truckers each in two different trucks both reported seeing flames coming from the lower right section of the aircraft. Other witnesses also came forward to say they saw possible flames from the aircraft while it was still in the air ([xii]Filotas, Page 4). Despite all these witness reports of a possible explosion, both the White House and Canadian officials discounted any possibility of an internal explosion or hostile action as the cause of the accident.
Probably the strangest aspect in regards to witness statements during the investigation was the fact that no one bothered to interview the ground crews that loaded baggage and serviced the aircraft in both Cairo and Cologne ([xiii]Global Security, 1989). The fact that these interviews were never conducted was further proof to many skeptics later on that the CASB never seriously considered terrorism as a possible rationale for why the plane crashed.
Ignoring Evidence of No Icing – The CASB’s official report blamed icing on Arrow Air Flight 1285’s wings for the cause of the accident. However, the CASB ignored witness statements such as from Royal Canadian Mounted Police helicopter operator Don Turner who arrived at the airport 35 minutes after the crash. He prepared his helicopter to take off and search for survivors and while doing so he said it was drizzling outside, but it did not create any ice on his helicopter. He was able to take off without de-icing. Later on in the day the conditions would deteriorate and the RCMP pilots who responded to the scene said they had to about every 10 minutes return to the airport for de-icing. The official weather observer at the Gander Airport also testified that during the hour and fifteen minutes that the Arrow Air DC-8 spent on the ground at Gander, no freezing rain was falling (Filotas, Page 97). Additionally other airplanes that took off before Arrow Air Flight 1285 did not de-ice and they did not crash (Global Security, 1989).
While the possibility of an explosion was being discounted by government officials from nearly the onset of the investigation, information was being leaked to the media as early as two days after the crash that ice on the wings was the cause of the crash. The head crash investigator at the scene confirmed the media speculation that ice on the wings was a possible cause of the crash even though the witness statements from the ground crew said they saw no ice on the wings of the aircraft (Filotas, Page 8). Ultimately twenty witnesses would come forward and say that there was no icing on the wings of the Arrow Air DC-8. Despite all the evidence that points to ice not being the cause of the Arrow Air crash, to this day icing of the plane’s wings remains the official explanation for the crash.
The Iran-Contra Connection - With many questions remaining about the cause of the crash, the revelation in 1989 that Arrow Air was being used by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North to smuggle weapons and ammunition ([xiv]TIME, 1992) caused even more people to question the officially findings of the CASB investigation. Another revelation was that 20 Special Forces soldiers trained for counter-terrorism missions were on the plane. Much speculation has surrounded these soldiers being on the plane because many have wondered why these soldiers would be part of a peacekeeping team on the Egyptian Sinai? Some have speculated that these soldiers may have been returning to Ft. Campbell after conducting a covert operation that a foreign government may have retaliated against by bombing the plane. This belief is only further enhanced by the fact that the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, a armed wing of Hezbollah, immediately after the crash took credit for bombing it (Filotas, Page 5). The Arrow Air crash came on the anniversary of the 1983 terrorist attacks in Kuwait where Islamic Jihad bombed nearly simultaneously six targets within the country, with the French and American embassies being among the targets. Members of Hezbollah as well as the Iraqi al Dawa Party were later implicated and jailed for the attacks.
Others have speculated that the Special Forces soldiers may have been escorting weapons on the plane that Colonel Oliver North had coordinated to have moved to the Contras in Central America. To this day no one has been able to adequately explain why the Special Operations soldiers were on the plane. To add further suspicion to whether the plane was carrying contraband weapons was that the US Army has never released the cargo manifest of the plane (Global Security 1989). This is significant because of the eyewitness testimony from Arrow Air’s Chief of European Operations, Julius Graber who sat in the jump seat of the Cairo to Cologne portion of the flight. Graber specifically remembers the cargo hold filled with large wooden boxes that prevented 41 soldiers’ bags from being loaded. The unit commander refused to remove the boxes and just said they were sensitive military equipment. Graber told him that Arrow Air’s contract was to move all the soldiers and their bags and that anything else was secondary cargo that could be diverted on to another flight. The unit commander continued to refuse to remove the boxes and instead 41 bags from the soldiers were left behind. If weapons and ammunition were inside those wooden boxes it would explain the amount of secondary explosions and the sounds of bullets cooking off that first responders saw and heard at the crash site.
The fact that the US Army Chief of Staff, General John A. Wickham arrived at the scene two days after the crash has only further added to the speculation that soldiers or equipment on the plane were involved in a clandestine operation of some kind (Filotas, Page 75). Officially General Wickham flew to Gander to tour the crash site and the temporary morgue that was set up before flying off back to Washington, DC later on that day. (Note: ROK Drop readers may recall General Wickham’s involvement with the Gwangju Massacre.) However, many critics of the CASB findings point out that it is suspicious that the man who had recently stood up a Technology Management Office to oversee all US Army black ops missions was at the crash site.
There are many more points of dispute that the organization the families of the victims’ stood up called, “Families for Truth About Gander” wanted Congress to seek answers to, but listed above are the major points of contention. Congress did eventually respond in 1990 with a 103 members of the House of Representatives sending a letter to then President George Bush to reopen the investigation into the crash. President Bush never responded to the letter from the House of Representatives. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice held a two-day hearing on the crash in December 1990 and nothing became of this as well. The fact that so many people in the government wanted to forget what is to this day the worst military air disaster in history is quite odd. Just think more soldiers were lost in the Gander crash than the total number of US soldiers killed in Grenada, Panama, and the first Gulf War combined. The friendly fire death of former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman drew more Congressional interest ([xv]McClatchy, 2008) than the suspicious deaths of 248 American soldiers in the Arrow Air crash.
The official cause of the crash, ice on the wings, is obviously incorrect and this was even substantiated by the Canadian judge that was tasked to review the case. There are many theories in regards to the Canadian authorities helping the Pentagon cover up the cause of the crash due to weapons being on the plane that were part of the Iran-Contra scheme set up by Oliver North. Remember this crash happened a year before Iran –Contra was publicly uncovered; if weapons were found to be on the plane it would have unraveled the entire arms for hostage deal that Oliver North had going. This would give the Pentagon good reason to want to cover up anything that could be related back to the Iran-Contra affair.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there was an Iran-Contra connection to Arrow Air 1285 and that the crash may have been caused by an explosion, but I don’t think the Pentagon manipulated the investigation. The Pentagon may have just had the good fortune of taking advantage of incompetent investigators. I think that the Canadian authorities became fixated on the ice on the wings theory and never took seriously any of the witness statements and evidence that was contrary to that conclusion. This all goes against the three attributes all good crash investigators should share ([xvi] Wood & Sweginnis, 2006):
- They are not afraid to be wrong. They will accept facts that are contrary to their present theory
- They readily admit that they don’t know everything. When they need help, they seek help.
- They listen to the other investigators. They don’t necessarily believe them, but they listen to them.
Once criticism of the investigators happened months after the crash, these investigators that supported the ice on the wings theory possibly just out of stubbornness and wanting to save face refused to admit that their conclusion was flawed.
Due to the incompetent investigation Arrow Air 1285 will remain one of the most mysterious airplane crashes in aviation history, which will only continue the frustration of the families of the 256 victims of this deadly airplane crash. That is the continuing tragedy of Arrow Air Flight 1285.
(Note: This is a paper I wrote in one my college classes for my Masters in Aeronautical Science that I thought you all may find of interest.)
[i] EgyptAir Flight 990, (21 March 2002), National Transportation Safety Board, retrieved June 25, 2009,
[ii] Ben Burstein, (17 July 2006), “Town Still Mourns 10 Years After TWA 800”, CNN, retrieved June 25, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/07/12/twa.montoursville/index.html
[iii] Aviation Safety Network, (26 January 2004), retrieved June 25, 2009, http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19851212-0
[iv] Dept. of the Army Historical Summary: Tragedy at Gander, (1986), retrieved June 25, 2009, http://www.history.army.mil/books/DAHSUM/1986/appA.htm
[v] Roy Rowan, (27 April 1992), TIME, retrieved 14 July 2009, http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1992_cr/h920430-gander.htm
[vi] Aviation Safety Network, retrieved July 14, 2009, http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19741120-0
[vii] Aviation Safety Network, retrieved July 14, 2009, http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19701127-1
[viii] John F. Burns, (01 May 1988) “Canada Safety Panel Split Over ’85 Gander Crash”, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/01/world/canada-safety-panel-split-over-85-gander-crash.html?scp=6&sq=newfoundland%20gander&st=cse
[ix] CASB Majority Report, (28 October 1988), retrieved June 25, 2009, http://www.sandford.org/gandercrash/investigations/majority_report/html/_i.shtml
[x] CASB Minority Report, (14 November 1988), retrieved June 25, 2009, http://www.sandford.org/gandercrash/investigations/minority_report/html/_1.shtml
[xi] Honorable Robin Tallon, Introduction of Legislation to Establish A Commission to Investigate the Gander Plane Crash, ( 30 April 1992), retrieved July 14, 2009, http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1992_cr/h920430-gander.htm
[xii] Les Filotas,(2006), Improbable Cause, BookSurge
[xiii] Crash Remains A Mystery to Canadian and American Public, (1989), Global Security, retrieved July 7, 2009, http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/congress/1989_cr/h890720-gander.htm
[xiv] Roy Rowan (27 April 1992), Gander Different Crash Same Questions, TIME, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,975391,00.html
[xvi] Richard H. Wood & Robert W. Sweginnis, (2006) , Aircraft Accident Investigation, Endeavor Books