Arrow Air Crash

by Frank Tibbo

On December 12, 1985, a terrible tragedy occurred in Gander. There have been many aircraft crashes in Gander since aviation first spawned its first flight here in 1938, but nothing like the Arrow Air. The Commonwealth Graves Cemetery located near the approach end of Runway 04 contains evidence of the many crashes during the war.

Prior to 1985, civilian aircraft crashes – notably Sabena OOCBG on September 18, 1946, that killed 26 passengers and Czech OK523 on September 5, 1967, that killed 35 – had caused a considerable number of deaths. On December 12, 1985, an aircraft crashed killing more people than all the previous crashes that had occurred over the previous 47 years combined.

What is singularly peculiar and tragic about the Arrow crash is that every person on board was killed. The two largest crashes prior to this – the Sabena in a landing phase and the Czech in a taking off phase – had survivors. The main difference between the Czech and the Arrow Air – both crashing on take-off – is the terrain. The Czech landed in boggy ground, which certainly saved some lives. Also, the Czech struck the railway track, which aided in its breakup when it landed in the bog, causing many to be thrown out.

There has been more written and said about the Arrow Air crash than about most aviation disasters. It is an understatement to say that there remains a difference of opinion as to the cause of the crash. Four of the nine-member Canadian Transportation Safety Board disagreed with the official report and filed a Dissenting Opinion.

The plane was a DC-8 with a crew of eight, and it was carrying 248 peace-keeping U.S. military personnel home to the United States from the Sinai Desert.

From the "Civil Aviation Occurrence" report:

"The aircraft was on an international charter flight from Cairo, Egypt to Fort Campbell, U.S.A. with planned stops at Cologne, Germany and Gander, Newfoundland. During take-off from Gander, the aircraft crashed and burned approximately one-half mile off the departure end of runway 22. All 256 passengers and crew sustained fatal injuries."

On December 3, 1986, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board reported that the possible causes of the crash were reduced to four: wing icing, overweight, low take-off speed, and trouble in one engine.

Let's examine each of these four causes in reverse order of listing.

Trouble in One Engine. Engineers determined that a partial loss of power had occurred in number four engine. The loss of power would not in itself be sufficient to cause the crash. It may have been the reason that the aircraft was seen to veer to the right and crashed to the right of the flight path.

Overweight and Low Take-off Speed. I have combined these two because they really belong together. The crew made an error of 14,000 pounds when calculating the take-off weight. The aircraft was not overweight; however, the weight determines the appropriate take-off speed. This error would have caused the pilot to take-off at a speed lower than optimal. This in itself would not be sufficient to cause the aircraft to crash.

Wing Icing. What most people, including a lot of pilots, do NOT realize is that as little as .8 mm of ice on a wing's upper surface can cut lift by as much as 25 percent on some jets. To put this in perspective, you have to know just how thin .8 mm is. That clear, stretchy plastic transparent material we use to wrap around food is thicker! It should be quite understandable that the human eye can NOT detect that thickness of ice spread over a wing.

The Dissenting Opinion signed by four members of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board states: "Ice contamination was not a factor in this accident." An RCAF officer who was called to respond to the accident reported that before he could drive to the airport: "I had to spend a significant amount of time scraping the ice off my car."

Of course, it must be acknowledged that the ice on this car may have accumulated at times which may not have affected the Arrow Air. The Dissenting Opinion also states that "Fire broke out on board while the aircraft was in flight, possibly due to a detonation in a cargo compartment."

A study of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board Occurrence Report by Chairman Ken Thorneycroft and four members of the Board and the Dissenting Opinion of the other four members of the Board make it easy to be confused about the reason for the crash.

There was so much controversy about the crash that the government commissioned Judge Estey to conduct an enquiry. On July 21, 1989, the Estey Report was released. It said that there is not a shred of evidence that indicates ice was the controlling factor in the crash and says that the true cause may never be known.

I tend to agree with the Safety Board's majority report. It seems that the most significant reason for the crash was the wing icing. The icing in itself may not have been enough to cause the disaster; however, when it is combined with the mistake in take-off weight, low take-off speed, the trouble in number four engine, less than ideal runway condition, and a very light wind, it probably was enough to tip the scales towards disaster.


submitted by F. Tibbo

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