What was Arrow Air Flight 1285 (1985)?

Introduction

Arrow Air Flight 1285R was a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 jetliner that operated as an international charter flight carrying US troops from Cairo, Egypt, to their home base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, via Cologne, West Germany, and Gander, Newfoundland.

Arrow Air Flight 1285R memorial in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

On the morning of Thursday 12 December 1985 shortly after takeoff from Gander en route to Fort Campbell, the aircraft stalled, crashed, and burned about half a mile from the runway, killing all 248 passengers and 8 crew members on board. As of 2021, it is the deadliest aviation accident to occur on Canadian soil and the second-deadliest of any accident involving a DC-8, behind the crash of Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 six years later.

The accident was investigated by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB), which determined that the probable cause of the crash was the aircraft’s unexpectedly high drag and reduced lift condition, most likely due to ice contamination on the wings’ leading edges and upper surfaces, as well as underestimated onboard weight. A minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, with one of these dissenting investigators later telling a United States congressional committee that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft. The dissenting report led to delays in changes to de-icing procedures, and a thin layer of ice caused the deadly crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363 in Canada in 1989.

In response to lack of confidence in accident investigations by the CASB, the Government of Canada shut the board down in 1990, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Flight History

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF, was chartered to carry US Army personnel, all but 12 members of the 101st Airborne Division, back to their base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They had completed a six-month deployment in the Sinai, in the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping mission. The DC-8 involved in the accident (registration N950JW) had been constructed in 1969, and had been leased to Arrow Air by its owner/parent company, International Air Leases.

The flight was made up of three legs, with refuelling stops in Cologne and Gander. The aircraft departed Cairo at 20:35 UTC on Wednesday 11 December 1985, and arrived at Cologne on Thursday 12 December 1985, at 01:21 UTC.

A new flight crew, consisting of Captain John Griffin and First Officer Joseph Connelly (both 45), and Flight Engineer Michael Fowler (48), boarded the aircraft before it departed for Gander at 02:50 UTC. The aircraft arrived at Gander International Airport at 09:04, where passengers departed the aircraft while the aircraft was refuelled. Witnesses reported that the flight engineer conducted an external inspection of the aircraft, after which the passengers re-boarded the aircraft.

The DC-8 began its take-off roll on runway 22 from the intersection of runway 13 at 10:15 UTC (06:45 NST). It rotated near taxiway A, 51 seconds after brake release, at an airspeed of about 167 KIAS. Witnesses reported the aircraft showed difficulty gaining altitude after rotation. Once airborne, the airspeed reached 172 KIAS before decreasing again, causing the DC-8 to descend. After crossing the Trans-Canada Highway, located about 900 feet (270 m) from the departure end of runway 22, at very low altitude, the aircraft’s pitch increased and it continued to descend.

Witnesses driving on the highway stated that they saw a bright glow emanating from the aircraft before it struck terrain just short of Gander Lake and crashed approximately 3,500 feet (1,100 m) beyond the departure end of the runway. Flight 1285R broke up, struck an unoccupied building and exploded; this started an intense fire fed by the large amount of fuel carried on board for the final leg of the flight. All 248 passengers and 8 crew perished.

Investigation

The CASB investigated the crash, and, under the signature of five of nine board members, found that during its approach toward Gander, precipitation conditions were favourable for the formation of ice on the aircraft’s wings. After landing, it continued to be exposed to “freezing and frozen precipitation capable of producing roughening on the wing upper surface” in addition to the freezing temperature. They also found that prior to takeoff the aircraft had not been de-iced. The board issued the following probable cause statement in its final 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.

Four (of nine) members of the CASB dissented, issuing a minority opinion asserting that there was no evidence presented proving that ice had been present on leading edges such as the wings, and the minority report speculated that “An in-flight fire that may have resulted from detonations of undetermined origin brought about catastrophic system failures.”

The report also noted the inadequacy of the data from the antiquated foil-tape flight data recorder, which recorded only airspeed, altitude, heading, and vertical acceleration forces. The plane also took off with a non-functioning cockpit area microphone. There were no steps on any of the standard checklists to test the functionality of the microphone, despite the existence of a button in the cockpit for that sole purpose. The defect went undetected for an indeterminate number of flights leading up to the accident flight, and thus the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) did not record any useful data.

Willard Estey, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, submitted a review of the CASB report in 1989, ruling that the available evidence did not support either conclusion. As a result, the Canadian public’s confidence in the CASB was undermined. The federal government responded by creating the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Aftermath

On the day of the crash, responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Jihad Organisation. The claim was dismissed by the Canadian and US governments soon after. According to United Press International, “Hours after the crash the Islamic Jihad – a Shiite Muslim extremist group – claimed it destroyed the plane to prove [its] ability to strike at the Americans anywhere.” Pentagon and Canadian government officials rejected the claim, made by an anonymous caller to a French news agency in Beirut.

All 256 people died – 248 US servicemen and 8 crew members. To date, the death toll still constitutes the deadliest plane crash in Canada, and the US Army’s single deadliest air crash in peacetime.

Of the 248 servicemen, all but twelve were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), most of whom were from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry; eleven were from other Forces Command units; and one was an agent from the Criminal Investigations Command (CID).

A memorial to the 256 victims at the crash site overlooks Gander Lake, and another memorial was erected at Fort Campbell. There is also a Memorial Park in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, just north of Fort Campbell. As of 2018, the scar from the crash is still visible from the ground and by satellite.

In 1991, Les Filotas, the CASB board member who told a United States congressional committee that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft, published his exhaustive argument for the minority opinion that a possible in-flight explosion doomed the aircraft.

The dissenting report led to delays in changes to de-icing procedures, and a thin layer of ice caused the deadly crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363 in Canada in 1989. In response to lack of confidence in accident investigations by the CASB, the government of Canada shut down the board in 1990, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

The television documentary series Mayday featured the Flight 1285R crash and investigation in a season 11 episode titled “Split Decision”, which included interviews with accident investigators and a dramatic recreation of the accident.

The television series Unsolved Mysteries ran a season 5 episode about the Flight 1285R crash on 05 May 1993 which heavily implied that the crash occurred due to a detonation, fire, or explosion on board the craft. The episode also implied a connection to the Iran-Contra affair.

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