That dark day in Gander

Steve Bartlett
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As soldiers headed home for Christmas, something went horribly wrong

The remains of passengers of a DC-8 that crashed in Gander rest in a makeshift morgue at the airport hanger on Dec. 12, 1985. — File photo by The Canadian Press

After a peacekeeping stint in the Sinai Desert, Gander was a stop closer to home for a couple of hundred U.S. troops.

Their chartered DC-8 touched down in the central Newfoundland town around 5:30 in the morning. It had already been a lengthy trek. They had departed Cairo many hours before and had stopped in Germany for a crew change along the way.

But in a few hours, the members of the 101st Airborne Division would be back at their base in Fort Campbell, Ky. — home, and in time for the holidays, to boot.

As Arrow Air Flight 1285 was being refuelled and resupplied, the members of the Screaming Eagles — as the division is known — walked around the terminal at YQX.

Reportedly, they were supposed to look like American tourists for security reasons. They had been ordered to wear button-down shirts, with no jeans.

Some shopped. Others, including Sgt. Richard Nichols, called home.

He wasn’t scheduled to be on the flight and wanted to let his wife know he was closer than expected.

“He called me and said, ‘Guess where I’m at?’ I said, ‘Sinai.’ He said, ‘No, I’m in Gander.’

“I kinda of freaked out because you know how you want your house to be beautifully clean. … It’s five in the morning when he was calling me,” recalls Nichols’ widow, Amy Gallo of Clarksville, Tenn.

The flight engineer did an external inspection and the passengers got back on board.

The runway had been treated because of earlier freezing rain.

The engines started and the plane taxied to Runway 22 for takeoff at 6:45 a.m., more than 45 minutes before sunrise.

“Witnesses ... reported that the aircraft gained little altitude after rotation and began to descend,” reads a 1988 Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) report.

Sixty-one seconds after liftoff, Flight 1285 stalled as it crossed the Trans-Canada Highway, about 900 feet from the end of Runway 22.

The plane was flying very low and three separate people travelling along the TCH saw a bright orange glow.

“Two of the witnesses testified that the glow was bright enough to illuminate the interior of the truck cabs they were driving,” the CASB report says.

“The third attributed the glow to the reflection of the runway approach lighting on the aircraft.”

The descent continued and, 70 seconds into the flight, the plane’s tail hit treetops about 3,000 feet from the runway.

The impact destroyed the DC-8 and the wreckage came to rest three seconds later.

The 248 soldiers and eight crew members were dead.

“Those not killed outright were cremated by a huge fireball that vaporized and melted a large portion of the DC-8,” a 1988 Ottawa Citizen probe found.

The CASB wasn’t able to determine the exact events that led to the crash.

However, it believed the evidence supported the conclusion that Arrow Air Flight 1285 experienced “an increase in drag and reduction in lift” shortly after take-off, that a stall at low altitude resulted, and recovery wasn’t possible.

The board said ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing was the most probable cause of the stall.

It added that other factors may have compounded the effects of the ice, including a loss of thrust from an engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds.

The CASB’s conclusion didn’t go over well at the time, and many people still don’t buy it.

“I don’t agree with it, and I know it’s not right,” Gallo told The Telegram Wednesday.

“But there’s nothing you can do to change that, so that’s not a fight that needs to be fought if you can’t win it in the first place.”

Twitter: @bartlett_steve

—with files from Post Media

Organizations: The Beacon, Arrow Air

Geographic location: Gander, United States

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Recent comments

  • frank moore
    May 17, 2012 - 01:40

    i was an aircraft electrician in this unit that had returned home the week before. i had just spent several months with these troops at south camp, i was at campbell army airfield waiting on there return that terrible morning. i wll never forget the shock and sadnss of that morning and every one after that. my roomate and friend pfc. greg owens was on board. i think of him and always wonder why? IWILL ALWAYS LOVE AND MISS ALL OF THEM. rip greg. your are truely a hero!!! god bless.

    • Judy Corbett
      May 08, 2014 - 22:21

      Frank, Hi, my is Judy Corbett and was hoping you could help me. I was 8 yrs old when the plane crashed. I remember being so excited that my friend was coming home! My grandmother took in a young man who was sleeping in his car. She took him and he became a part of our family! We all loved him dearly! His name was Thomas "Tommy" Martin and he was from Louisville, Ky. He had called my grandma and said he was coming home. My family found out about the crash by seeing it on TV. We never got any news, or information, since we were not real " family". I can see my grandma's face, he was her son, and she didn't know if he was on the plane or not! We have no pictures of him, and I can not find any on line. Long story short, did you know Tommy, or could you point me in the direction of someone who did?

  • Janice Fried
    December 12, 2010 - 14:32

    I was the crew who was replaced in Germany. My friend and I were going to stay on board, but thought scheduling would not allow us to trade with 2 others on the new crew. When we returned from breakfast at the hotel, our FO informed us of the crash and that there were no survivors. To the day, I can still see the servicemen I served that night! God bless them. I'm sorry.

  • Rob
    December 11, 2010 - 19:37

    I remember exactly where I was when my sister tracked me down to tell me Rodger's plane had crashed, I dident believe her, unfortunatly I was wrong, I did not know alot about world politics back then but records dont get sealed for 70 years for nothing, I haven't made it all the way through Improbable Cause yet but I did catch the end of a segment on the crash on an episode of unsolved mysteries, A LOT of things really made me mad on 9/11 but one thing that really pissed me off was all remaining air traffic was routed to Gander and the news made the comment that nothing had ever happend to put Gander on the map, how soon some forget, I miss you every day Rodger, and I talk to my son about you almost every day, I love you brother, always have, always will

  • Sharon Wilson
    December 11, 2010 - 16:50

    My son Spec 4th class Rodger L. Wilson was on this flight. I appreciate the comments. I won't be around on the 70th year when the records are allowed to be truely read and realized. I only hope someone will finally get to the truth. Our world was forever recked. Tomorrow will be the 25th anniversary of this crash. I would have much rather celebrated his 25th anniversary or the birth of his children or my great grand children.

  • Margaret R. Harris
    December 05, 2010 - 19:50

    My parents and I were on Oxford Street in London, England that evening, Dec. 12, 1985. We walked past a newsstand, and saw a huge headline reading "254 dead in air crash" or something of that nature. My Dad bought the paper, and started reading it on the Tube as we were going back to our hotel. There in the subway, he said, "Oh my God, that plane crash happened in GANDER!!!" The next morning, Friday the 13th, we flew home, into Gander. Driving out of the town to head east on the TCH, we could see the police and military lining the highway about every 50 feet, keeping the traffic moving and preventing anyone from stopping or going to the crash site. I remember seeing the runway lights broken where they cross the highway just east of Gander. It was a horrible, terrible tragedy, and even seeing what we did - very little - is something I will never forget.

  • kate
    December 05, 2010 - 16:49

    i remember that day as if it was yesterday. I was a second year nursing student. My best friend and next door room mate heard the news the same time as i did. We were both getting ready for our day at the hsc, as students. Her father was an air traffic controller at Gander at the time. she freaked out. Understandably.She couldn't get through to home, and we had to get to work/school.It was not a good day. My heart goes out to all the families of the victims. I visited the site a couple of years ago.It is truly amazing. God bless.