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Controller Remembers Mysterious Crash

by Frank Tibbo (Gander Beacon Aviation Column)

The weather was good (ceiling 2,600 feet, visibility 15 miles, no precipitation), the aircraft was practically new (built in April 1967 and flown only 766 hours), the weight and balance had been calculated correctly, there was no conflicting traffic, the runway was clear, the crew was qualified, the engines worked fine, but the aircraft crashed.

Why?

We'll never know.

The official accident report: "Probable Cause: Undetermined."

The aircraft took off Gander's Runway 14 (now Runway 13), at 0510 Greenwich Mean Time (2:40 a.m. local time) on Sept. 5, 1967, flew for 32 seconds in which it climbed to approximately 125 feet at the end of the runway and made a shallow descent. Impact occurred at 4,000 feet beyond the end of the runway with the aircraft nose-down about six degrees with the wings level.

The multibillion dollar aircraft was an Ilyushin IL-18D (turboprop) operated by Czechoslovakia State Airlines. Of the 69 passengers and crew, 32 died immediately and three later — 34 survived. Some of the survivors were saved because of Austin Garrett, who flew a helicopter for several hours evacuating the injured. In recognition of what he did that night, he was made an Officer of the British Empire, awarded the Centennial Medal, and had a Gander street named in his honor.

It may seem that after 43 years, the memory of this horrific event would fade. But the lone tower controller on duty that night remembers it all too well. Jack Pinsent came to work at midnight.

"Working 12-8 alone. Arrived on shift for a long night with a good book to fight the boredom. Czech arrived. On the tarmac waiting for departure. Issued taxi instructions and take off clearance. Called ACC (Area Control Centre) with departure time after airborne. My last words to the aircraft were to call Gander Centre on 119.7. I still remember the moment of impact. I was standing looking out at the aircraft's nav lights ensuring he was up and flying before I flipped off the runway lights. The last words spoken from me were, "Contact Gander Centre 119.7, goodnight" and the aircraft replied 'Roger, 119.7 Goodnight." Instantly, as he said 'Goodnight,' there was brilliant light as he seemed to explode. It was quite obvious that the crew was not aware they were about to crash.

"Complete shock and bewilderment. I came to my senses, hit the crash alarm, called the ACC to advise of the crash as well as the crash crew. The firehall doors seemed to open as I was giving the crash location.

"Called hospital. Phone call from Keith Lacey in Allied Aviation. I told him I was real busy and would get back to him. Hung up and called him right back. I forgot Allied was next on my crash call list. Hospital (Nurse Sully) called asking if we needed more medical help. Replied 'negative. Didn't think anyone survived.' Big mistake.

"Crash crew called in, saying we have survivors, send more doctors and morphine. Called hospital back and repeated the message. Called Millard Ganong (Chief Controller, Tower) at home for help. He arrived within minutes. EPA Helicopter, with Austin Garrett, called for departure clearance to the ramp to pick up medical people and supplies for the crash site.

"I think about calling CNR to stop the west bound train in Gambo because of the crash. The train arrived every night around 0400. A missing item in our crash procedures — the aircraft had destroyed a section of the railway. Austin is starting his ferry rescue bringing injured survivors from crash site to terminal ramp. Ambulances ferried them to hospital. EPA was on approach. Given R22 to avoid rescue area. FT (Frank Tibbo) on radar. Issued landing clearance. Real busy. Herb Johnson from Universal Helicopters calls wanting to help. Helicopter had no nav lights and it was still pitch dark. Called Garrett for his opinion. He said no sweat as far he was concerned. I told Herb, air regs be dammed — aircraft prohibited to fly at night without navigation lights. Told him what Austin was doing and to keep out of his flight path, and I would pass traffic as often as possible.

"Herb patrolled the perimeter of the crash area looking for wandering survivors. Spotted quite a few. Dangerous flying because of telephone cables along railway tracks. Passed traffic to both as the two helicopters flew within a two-mile area in the dark, the only light coming from the burning wreckage.

"Press started to call the tower looking for information. A janitor asked if he could hide away up with me in the tower. He said he was throwing up from looking at the survivors as they came in. By daylight most of survivors rescued. Then started to ferry bodies to a make shift morgue in Hanger 21. FT came up to the tower at shift end and asked me if I wanted to go flying with him to have a look at crash scene. I did.

"Gander Flying Club aircraft was parked adjacent to hanger being used as a temporary morgue — spooky! After airborne, we had a good look at all the carnage below. I used Frank's movie camera to take what is, as far as I know, the only footage in existence of the aircraft as it was still burning. We didn't stay up too long because there were aircraft coming from everywhere with press and hospital assistance. Went home later from the busiest night of my life. My wife was about to face the busiest day of her life. She was an emergency nurse at the hospital.

As I remember, JP."


As published in the Gander Beacon and written by Frank Tibbo


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