1985 Gander, NL Air Crash

Shortly before Christmas 1985, on December 12, a chartered Arrow Air DC-8 (Flight 1285) took off from Gander Airport, NL, after a planned service stop to refuel and restock catering supplies. The airport had been built in 1938 as it was ideally situated along the Great Circle Route. For a time being the only operative airport in the Maritimes and, in circa 1940, it was also the largest airport in the world. It served as a military base for both Canadians and Americans during World War II. 

 “Silent Witness” Memorial Statue at Gander Lake, NL

The plane was en route back from Egypt with 248 members of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army, returning to Fort Campbell, Kentucky after a peacekeeping mission with the Multinational Force and Observers. The plane had left Cairo, Egypt, stopped in Köln, Germany in the early morning without incident, before finally arriving in Gander. Upon landing in Newfoundland a complete crew change took place. The new flight crew was experienced and had been working together since Dec 1. The flight engineer was observed to make a visual inspection of the exterior of the plane before taking off again.

At around 6:45 local time, the plane took off from Gander, headed for Fort Campbell. But the plane crashed about 300 metres beyond the runway. While the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) was unable to determine the exact sequence of events that led to the crash, the official investigation deduced it likely experienced increased drag and a reduction in lift, causing it to stall at a low altitude and creating a situation from which recovery was not possible. All 256 on board were killed in the disaster either from the impact itself or the resulting explosion, making it the deadliest plane crash in Canadian history.

While the official report states that the evidence points to a build-up of ice on the wings, there was a dissenting minority of four CASB board members who believed there had been a fire on board; that, they suggested, had been possibly caused by an incendiary device. The same day as the crash an extremist group, the Islamic Jihad Organization, claimed responsibility for the incident. Although this was deftly dismissed as propaganda by the Canadian and United States intelligence agencies, it has nonetheless fueled conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy, perpetuated in pop culture, such as on an episode of the TV show Mayday, more than two decades later. 

The combination of this fateful crash and the crash of Air Ontario flight 1363 in Ontario in 1989 heavily contributed to the dissolution of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board and the creation of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. 

Sources

Beer, Greg. Andre Barro. Bernard Vaillot. 2011. “Split Decision,” Mayday. Aired August 26, 2011. Directed by James Hyslop. 

Canadian Aviation Safety Board. 1988. “CASB Majority Report,” Gander: The Untold Story. Compiled by Jamie Sandford. Accessed April 30, 2021.

Canadian Aviation Safety Board. 1988. “CASB Minority Report,” Gander: The Untold Story. Compiled by Jamie Sandford. Accessed April 30, 2021.

Fly Gander. “Our History,” Gander Airport. Accessed May 9, 2021.

Higgins, Jenny. 2007. “Gander,” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site. Additional Research by Sarah Doran. Accessed May 9, 2021.

Pitt, Janet E.M. Robert D. Pitt. 2013. “Gander,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed May 5, 2021.

Ranter, Harrow. “12-DEC-1985,” Aviation Safety Network. Accessed May 5, 2021.

Team Mighty. 2020. The worst single-day loss for the 101st Airborne was a plane crash in Canada,” We Are The Mighty. Accessed May 5, 2021.

Unknown. 1985. “258 killed in Gander plane crash,” The Citizen. Accessed April 30, 2021.

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