The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 departed Cairo, Egypt at 20:35 Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday, December 11, 1985. The flight was the first of three legs, scheduled for refueling stops in Cologne and Gander International Airport, then on to a final destination at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the “Screaming Eagles” of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division.
This was Arrow Air Flight 1285, an international charter flight returning with 248 military personnel, following a six-month deployment in the Sinai, part of a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission, overseeing terms of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Passengers departed the aircraft while refueling in Newfoundland, as the flight engineer conducted his external inspection. Then came the new air crew of eight, after which passengers re-boarded the aircraft. Arrow Air Flight 1285 achieved flight velocity at 10:15 on December 12, 167 KIAS (“Knots-Indicated Air Speed”) and accelerating.
There was no way to know. 256 passengers and crew, had only seconds to live.
Airspeed reached 172 KIAS and then began to drop, the aircraft crossing the Trans-Canada Highway some 900-feet from the runway and beginning to descend. Witnesses on the highway below reported seeing a bright light, emanating from inside of the aircraft. Seconds later, flight 1285 crashed some 3,500-feet from departure, breaking apart and striking an unoccupied building near Gander lake, before bursting into flames.
Of the 248 servicemen, all but twelve were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), mostly from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry. Eleven others were from other Forces Command units. One was an agent with the Criminal Investigations Command (CID). It was the deadliest accident to occur on Canadian soil, the United States Army’s single deadliest air crash in peacetime. There were no survivors.
Hours later, an anonymous caller phoned a French news agency in Beirut, claiming responsibility for the crash on behalf of Islamic Jihad, a wing of Ḥizbu ‘llāh, (literally “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon. 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.”
Canadian and Pentagon government authorities dismissed the claim.
The nine-member Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) investigated the crash and issued a report, over the signature of five members:
“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”.
The report went on to criticize the antiquated foil-tape Flight Data Recorder as inadequate, as well as a non-functioning cockpit-area microphone. No one would ever know what flight 1285 sounded like, in those final seconds.
The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.
There were changes in de-icing procedures, but little confidence in the CASB’s official report. The Canadian government disbanded the board five years later, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
A memorial was erected at the crash site overlooking Gander Lake, a “Silent Witness”, designed by Kentucky artist, Steve Shields. A stone memorial was erected at Fort Campbell, the Gander Memorial bearing the names of the 248, slain. The scar on the ground is easily seen from the ground as well as from satellite, and remains there, to this day.
Feature image, top of page: “Silent Witness” by Kentucky artist Steve Shields. Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Gander Lake, with a DC-8 taking off in the background. H/T wikipedia
Canadian teenager Janice Johnson wanted to find a way to honor the fallen from flight 1285. “I wanted these Families to know that we as Canadians cared.”
Johnson (now Nikkel) came up with $20 earned from babysitting, and a letter to the Toronto Star. Nikkel’s letter sparked an international campaign, resulting in 256 Canadian sugar maple trees in 1986, a living memorial to the fallen soldiers and crew, of flight 1285.
What a Canadian could have told you and Kentucky had to learn the hard way, is that 20-ft. spacing isn’t enough room, for a grove of sugar maples.
Thirty-two years later, the Gander Memorial grove is crowded and tangled and, sadly, no longer viable. The old memorial closed this year, to be replaced in April 2019, if the schedule holds. You can read about it in the Fort Campbell Courier, if you’d like to know more.