CANADA

Autopsy of an air crash

BRUCE WALLACE May 23 1988
CANADA

Autopsy of an air crash

BRUCE WALLACE May 23 1988

Autopsy of an air crash

One fellow pilot remembers Capt. John Griffin as “a superior individual” who had “strong and forceful feelings about the perils of failing to de-ice airplanes when required.” Last week in Ottawa, three of Griffin’s colleagues and his widow, Theresa, repeated those general sentiments to a closed-door meeting of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board. In its December, 1987, draft report on the causes of the December, 1985, crash of

an Arrow Air DC-8 jet that killed all of the 248 U.S. servicemen and eight civilian crew members aboard—including Griffin—the CASB concluded that it was the pilot’s failure to have ice removed from the plane’s wings that was the major reason for its fatal plunge to earth 20 seconds after takeoff in Gander, Nfld. But Griffin’s family and associates disagreed. Said Capt. Lee Levenson, a pilot and family friend who challenged the board’s conclusions: “To intimate that Griffin was careless about ice got me right in the throat. They are trying to stick the dead man with the blame.”

Levenson’s contention that ice was not the cause of Canada’s worst aviation disaster was just one element in the controversy stirred by the draft report. Some of the harshest criticism of the 100-page document—and of the

core team of investigators who reached those conclusions—came from within the CASB. Last December five of the 10 appointed members on the CASB refused to endorse the draft report’s conclusions. Since then, several members have charged privately that the safety board’s investigators omitted significant evidence, cancelled important laboratory work and altered some facts to fit the theory that negligence by the pilot and crew caused the crash. Said one board director who asked not to be named: “Since the beginning of the investigation, the staff has been intent on proving the ice theory and they have tailored their investigation to arrive at that result.”

More criticism was expected this week when executives from Arrow Air Inc., the Miami-based charter operator of the ill-fated DC-8, appear before the board. So far, the airline has paid out more than $120 million to families of the victims, and 20 lawsuits are still pending in U.S. Federal Court. Although the airline believes the draft report’s conclusions appear to exonerate the carrier from responsibility, Arrow vice-president Harry o Weisberg said that the z airline will demand to Q know why autopsy re2 ports were excluded from the report. Weisberg claims that the medical evidence found that some of the passengers died from inhaling hydrogen cyanide—a poison released when upholstery and other cabinet materials catch fire on airplanes. Airline officials say that such evidence suggests that the aircraft was on fire—possibly from an explosion caused by military ammunition or flares carried on the plane—before it hit the ground. Said Weisberg: “The report is inaccurate and does not disclose all the evidence. We want to know the truth.” Meanwhile, safety board investigators insisted that their findings met all international standards for aircrash investigation. Said the CASB’s Investigator-in-Charge Peter Boag, who headed the investigation into the crash: “I take great exception to suggestions that we built a case to fit a scenario. That is not the way we do

our business.” But CASB staff members said that they are prevented by law from responding to specific complaints until the final report is made public. The final report, which incorporates the responses of the interested parties to the draft report, is not expected to be made public for at least several months.

In fact, CASB officials said that the Gander crash investigation was the most extensive and exhaustive ever conducted in Canada. Thirtythree investigators worked to gather evidence at the crash site, and investigators spent 16 months analysing data and running computerized simulations to try to determine the cause of the crash. Said Thomas Hinton, CASB’s director of investigations: “We were dealing with an aircraft that had been, virtually, totally destroyed.” He added that the scarcity of evidence “makes it more likely that people will disagree on the cause.”

But some CASB directors insisted that within days of the crash several investigators had made up their minds that ice was the cause. In their still-unpublished draft report—a copy of which was seen by Maclean ’s—investigators contend that the light, early-morning rain in the near-freezing temperatures at Gander caused the ice to form on the wings. The report concludes that icecoupled with the possibility that the plane’s load may have made it heavier than the pilot realized—probably caused the DC-8 to stall and then crash.

Griffin’s fellow pilots rejected suggestions that the crew would have been negligent in assuring that the plane was ice-free. Other critics claimed that the CASB investigators failed to take into account testimony from four ground-service workers who reported that they saw no ice on the aircraft.

As well, several board members questioned some of the investigators’ actions. Of particular concern: the cancellation of a laboratory project dealing with the condition of the plane’s No. 4 engine, which had a history of overheating. Sources close to the investigation said that even CASB field investigators were angry when, after painstakingly reassembling what was left of the DC-8’s fuselage on an airport hangar floor at Gander, the pieces were bulldozed into a pile.

Those actions drew criticism from members of Griffin’s family and others

who dispute the ice theory. Said Capt. Richard Moore, who has joined Levenson in protesting against the draft report: “The report is a campaign to denigrate the professionalism of the crew.” Griffin’s defenders proposed a different explanation of the crash. Said Levenson: “We believe that the No. 4 engine inadvertently went into reverse. And if that is so, the problem with the DC-8s is

a time bomb waiting to go off.”

Meanwhile, some Ottawa officials say that the credibility of the four-year-old CASB may have been seriously damaged. Officials in the office of Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard, who are forbidden by law from interfering in the board’s affairs, said that they are frustrated by the mounting controversy. Admitted Hinton: “There is no doubt that all this public debate hurts us.” Others close to the investigation say that only a judicial inquiry into how the investigation was conducted will ever uncover the reasons for the Gander

crash. Said Jerry Rusinowitz, an expert on DC-8S who helped Levenson prepare his Ottawa presentation: “Nobody concerned with air safety likes to see an accident attributed to an ‘undetermined’ cause. But ‘undetermined’ is better than a phantom cause.”

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa with

WILLIAM LOWTHER