Arrow Air Flight 1285 was a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF jetliner, registered N950JW, which operated as an international charter flight carrying U.S. troops from Cairo, Egypt, to their home base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, via Cologne, West Germany and Gander, Newfoundland.
On the morning of Thursday, 12 December 1985, shortly after takeoff from Gander en route to Fort Campbell, the aircraft stalled, crashed, and burned about half a mile from the runway, killing all 248 passengers and 8 crew members on board. To date, it retains the highest death toll of any aviation accident on Canadian soil and the second-highest of any accident involving a DC-8, behind the crash of Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 six years later.
The accident was investigated by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB), which determined the probable cause of the crash was the aircraft's unexpectedly high drag and reduced lift condition, most likely due to ice contamination on the wings' leading edges and upper surfaces, as well as underestimated onboard weight. A minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact.
An Arrow Air DC-8-63CF, identical to the one that crashed.
The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF, was chartered to carry U.S. service personnel, all members of the 101st Airborne Division, United States Army, from a six-month deployment in the Sinai, where they had served in the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping mission, back to their base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The DC-8 involved in the accident had been constructed in 1969, and had been leased to Arrow Air by its owner, International Air Leases. The flight was made up of three legs, the first between Cairo and Cologne, the second between Cologne and Gander, and the third between Gander and Fort Campbell. The aircraft departed Cairo at 2035 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and arrived at Cologne on 12 December 1985, at 0121 GMT. A new flight crew (consisting of Captain John Griffin and First Officer John Connolly, both 45, and Flight Engineer Michael "Mike" Fowler, 48) boarded the aircraft before it departed for Gander at 0250 GMT. The aircraft arrived at Gander International Airport at 0904, where passengers departed the aircraft while the aircraft was refueled. Witnesses reported the flight engineer conducted an external inspection of the aircraft, after which the passengers re-boarded the aircraft.
The DC-8 began its take-off roll on runway 22 from the intersection of runway 13 at 10:15 UTC (06:45 NST). It rotated near taxiway A, 51 seconds after brake release, at an airspeed of about 167 KIAS. Witnesses reported the aircraft showed difficulty gaining altitude after rotation. Airborne, the airspeed reached 172 KIAS and began to decrease again, causing the DC-8 to descend. After crossing the Trans-Canada Highway, located about 900 feet (270 m) from the departure end of runway 22, at a very low altitude, the aircraft's pitch increased and it continued to descend. Witnesses driving on the highway stated that they saw a bright glow emanating from the aircraft before it struck terrain just short of Gander Lake and crashed approximately 900 feet (270 m) feet beyond the departure end of the runway. The aircraft's right wing struck a tree and exploded before the rest of the aircraft pitched nose-down while rolled to the right. The aircraft then struck an unoccupied building, and exploded, starting a fire which increased in severity due to the large amount of fuel on board for the final leg of the flight. All 248 passengers and eight crew aboard the aircraft perished.
The Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) investigated the crash, and, under the signature of five of nine board members, found that during its approach toward Gander, precipitation conditions were favorable for the formation of ice on the aircraft's wings. After landing, it continued to be exposed to "freezing and frozen precipitation capable of producing roughening on the wing upper surface" in addition to the freezing temperature. They also found that prior to takeoff the aircraft had not been de-iced. The Board issued the following Probable Cause statement in its final report:
The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact sequence of events which led to this accident. The Board believes, however, that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that, shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift which resulted in a stall at low altitude from which recovery was not possible. The most probable cause of the stall was determined to be ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing. Other possible factors such as a loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds may have compounded the effects of the contamination.
Four members of the CASB dissented, issuing a minority opinion asserting that there was no evidence presented proving that ice had been present on leading edges such as the wings, and the minority report speculated that:
An in-flight fire that may have resulted from detonations of undetermined origin brought about catastrophic system failures.
The one piece of evidence that could have shown which one is correct was the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR). However, this device was defective and failed to record anything. Also, the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) was an older model that only recorded 4 parameters. It was scheduled to be replaced a few weeks later.
Willard Estey, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, submitted a review of the CASB report in 1989, ruling that the available evidence did not support either conclusion. As a result the Canadian public's confidence in the CASB was undermined. The federal government responded by creating the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
The "Silent Witness" Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Gander Lake, with a DC-8 taking off in the background
Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Ft. Campbell
Interpretive sign at Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Gander Lake
Caskets being carried in for a memorial service at Dover AFB on 16 December 1985
On the day of the crash, responsibility was claimed by Islamic Jihad, a wing of Hezbollah.
The claim was dismissed by the Canadian and U.S. governments soon afterward. According to United Press International "Hours after the crash the Islamic Jihad – a Shiite Muslim extremist group – claimed it destroyed the plane to prove [its] ability to strike at the Americans anywhere." Pentagon and Canadian government officials rejected the claim, made by an anonymous caller to a French news agency in Beirut.
256 people died, including 248 U.S. servicemen and eight crew members. As of 2009, that death toll constituted the deadliest plane crash in Canada, and the United States Army's single deadliest air crash in peacetime.
Of the 248 servicemen, all but 12 were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), most of whom were from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry; eleven were from other Forces Command units; and one was an agent from the Criminal Investigations Command (CID).
A memorial to the 256 victims at the crash site overlooks Gander Lake, and another memorial was erected at Fort Campbell. There is also a Memorial Park in Hopkinsville, KY, just north of Fort Campbell. The trees that were knocked down by the plane and fireball are still missing, and the scar from the crash is still very visible, and can be seen on the ground and in satellite pictures.
In 1991, Les Filotas, one of the four CASB board members who dissented in the final report, published an exhaustive argument for the minority opinion that a possible in-flight explosion doomed the aircraft.