An act of sabotage?

Quarter century after Arrow Air crash, conspiracy theories still abound

Steve Bartlett
Published on December 4, 2010

Rick Gibbons took an interesting call shortly after Arrow Air Flight 1285 went down a few hundred feet from the Trans-Canada Highway in Gander.

He was working in London, England for Canadian Press/Broadcast News at the time.

The caller remained anonymous.

“He spoke with what I would describe as a Middle Eastern accent,” recalls Gibbons, now publisher and CEO of the Ottawa Sun.

“He claimed there was intelligence traffic floating around various embassies — he wouldn’t be any more specific — suggesting that the plane had been taken down by an act of terror; a bomb had been on board.”

Gibbons told The Telegram he didn’t put much stock in the conversation. It was anonymous and without substance or a way to really follow it up. The news agency made some attempts though.

The possibility that the crash resulted from a terrorist bomb is one of the many theories about the cause of the Arrow Air disaster.

In fact, it’s been widely reported that a Muslim extremist group claimed responsibility hours after 256 people were killed in the tragedy, American peacekeepers and crew.

Although the official cause is thought to be icing on the wings, many doubts have led to the terrorism theories.

Questions have been raised about a range of potential factors, including baggage handling in Cairo, the bulldozing of the crash site, the toxicology reports of the deceased soldiers, the health issues rescue workers faced afterwards, and a possible connection to the Iran-contra scandal.

Gibbons says it’s no surprise such theories arose after the crash, but he’s never heard anything to refute the Canadian Aviation Safety Board’s finding

Les Filotas was one of the dissenting members of that board when it reached that conclusion.

While he believes there was an onboard fire, he doesn’t go so far as to say it resulted from terrorism.

“I don’t know,” said Filotas, who authored the 1991 book “Improbable Cause.” “I know there was something dreadful that went on in the airplane. It was a major malfunction, and I think it must have been an explosion because there’s so many different things that went simultaneously wrong.”

Filotas said that while sabotage is a potential cause, so is the possibility that some soldiers were bringing explosives home from the Middle East and a device detonated.

There are other potential causes, he said, but exactly what caused the fire that led to the crash is speculation.

According to Filotas, there was huge political pressure to get the investigation finished quickly.

That push, he suggested, could have resulted from Ottawa’s efforts to reach a free trade deal with the United States.

Or, he says, the demands could have resulted from the feds’ desire not to have a second bomb discussed in the wake of the Air India crash just six months before.

There’s an absence of solid answers, Filotas stressed.

“I’ve always had the feeling that some people know a lot more,” he said.

He also wonders why the U.S. had “this incredible lack of curiosity” about the disaster in the days and years that followed.

And it puzzles him that the memoir of Caspar Weinberger, the U.S. defence secretary at the time of the crash, makes no reference to Gander.

It’s equally quizzical that then-president Ronald Reagan’s memoirs make little reference to the disaster, despite the significant loss of military personnel.

Curious about Reagan’s knowledge of the Gander crash, Filotas filed a Freedom of Information request with the Ronald Reagan Library in 2007.

He said it took almost three years to get a reply that there were more than 600 pages of documents relevant to his request.

He hasn’t had the opportunity to view the material.

Filotas suggested the Arrow Air tragedy was quickly overshadowed in the U.S. by the Challenger space shuttle accident the following month, on Jan. 28, 1986.

“All of the aviation reporters quickly switched over to that one,” he said.

The lack of answers over the years hasn’t tormented him, he says, though he admits, “it’s never been completely out of my mind.”

 Twitter: @bartlett_steve