A tangled web

Reports on Gander crash caused major ruckus

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on December 6, 2010
An RCMP officer examines the wreckage of an Arrow Air DC-8 jetliner Dec. 13, 1985 — the day after it crashed outside Gander, killing 256 people on board.
File photo from The Canadian Press archive — Ottawa Citizen-Lynn Ball

SPECIAL REPORT

Arrow Air — 25 years later

The conclusion that Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashed because of ice on the wings caused a major rift within the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB).

News stories from the time indicate just how divided the board was.

“Two factions of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board feuded openly at a news conference called to release the board’s findings, each accusing the other of distorting or ignoring key evidence in the Gander crash,” The New York Times reported on Dec. 8, 1988.

Five of the board’s members supported ice as the probable cause.

The other four believed an in-flight fire, which may have resulted from detonations, brought the plane down. The group did a report of its own, titled “Dissenting Opinion.”

Les Filotas was in the minority, and 25 years after the Gander crash, he’s still not buying the icing theory.

“I know what happened, but why it happened is pure guessing,” said Filotas, who released “Improbable Cause,” a book in which he documented what led to the conflicting reports.

The infighting within the CASB prompted Ottawa to ask a former Supreme Court judge to see if a new investigation into the Gander crash should be launched.

Justice Willard Estey deemed there was no need for another probe, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the families of the fallen soldiers.

He also said the ice theory couldn’t be proven.

Even though the crash is one of the largest single-day losses of life in American military history, the U.S. did not launch a full public investigation into Flight 1285.

There was a two-day hearing in December 1990 by the House Judiciary and Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice.

According to a 1992 Time magazine report, that “ended without a call for action, despite surprising revelations of FBI apathy.”

The magazine reported that the subcommittee found an FBI forensics team had flown to Newfoundland after the crash and waited for whatever conclusions “Canadian authorities saw fit to share with them.”

The agents reportedly returned home after 36 hours and accepted the conclusion that terrorism wasn’t involved.

“The FBI claimed the Canadians did not allow its agents to visit the crash site or participate in the investigation,” Time reported.

The magazine story noted that a U.S. Army official who arrived at Gander hours after the crash was quoted by Arrow Air’s maintenance chief as wanting “to bulldoze the site immediately.”

The official, Maj. Gen. John Crosby, denied making the comment.

Time also reported a White House spokesperson as saying there was “no evidence of sabotage or an explosion in flight.”

Days after the magazine story appeared in April 1992, there was an unsuccessful attempt to establish a commission to investigate the crash.

Filotas, in a follow-up email to his interview with The Telegram, said American military and civil authorities stood by in silence as the Canadian investigation disintegrated into chaos.

He also suggests there is slender hope for new information on the crash. American records on Arrow Air are reportedly sealed.

Ottawa reorganized the CASB after Estey’s finding. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has handled crash investigations since 1990.

 

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @bartlett_steve