That dark day in Gander

As soldiers headed home for Christmas, something went horribly wrong

Steve Bartlett
Published on December 4, 2010
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