Report may end Tuskar crash missile theory

 

It took less than a minute to begin the 33-year mystery that families bereaved by the Tuskar Rock air disaster hope will come closer to being solved in the next few weeks.

Two minutes and 29 seconds to 11 o'clock on the bright Sunday morning of March 24th, 1968, Aer Lingus Flight 712, left air space monitored by Shannon air traffic control and switched over to their London counterparts.

"Change now to London Airways," the controller at Shannon instructed, adding the frequency, "131.2" and a polite "good-day".

Flight 712 repeated the frequency by way of confirmation and promptly informed the London controllers of its presence.

"Echo India Alfa Oscar Mike with you," announced Capt Barney O'Beirne at two minutes to 11, using code to denote the flight's call sign, EI-AOM.

At that moment London was receiving a transmission from another aircraft and there was no immediate response to Flight 712's call-in.

Before there was time to respond the word "finished" was clearly heard in London but it has never been established what the full sentence was or who it came from.

A second or two later came the final words anyone was to hear from Flight 712: "12,000 feet, descending, spinning rapidly."

Transmission was poor and London did not hear the Mayday or certainly not enough of it to alert them to the unfolding disaster.

It was up to another Aer Lingus aircraft, Flight 362 from Dublin to Bristol, to raise the alarm although there was a disbelieving calm in the manner in which the information was relayed.

"Did you just get that message on that aircraft descending from 5,000 feet (later established as 12,000 feet), spinning rapidly? Over," the captain asked London, almost casually.

"No, we didn't copy that. Would you say the message again?" came the reply.

"We just received a broken transmission. Aircraft spinning rapidly, going through 5,000 feet. I didn't get the call sign. It's go ahead."

London had interrupted. "Roger. We heard a transmission but we thought it was a breakthrough on the frequency." There was still clearly little sense of urgency.

"It may have been," agreed Flight 362, apparently doubting what had been heard.

On the ground, the relatives of the 61 passengers and crew who died when the St Phelim plunged into the sea close to Tuskar Rock off the Wexford coast displayed similar incredulity when the news was broken.

Aer Lingus had an enviable safety record, weather conditions were perfect and many had watched the plane take off from Cork Airport, turn east towards London and begin its steady ascent without a hint of trouble. It was inconceivable that it had suddenly fallen out of the sky.

Yet almost all the relatives accepted the official report of the air accident investigators in the Department of Transport and Power who found no definitive reason for the crash but concluded only that something had happened to cause the pilots to lose control of the plane.

That something was possibly the "presence of another aircraft or airborne object in the vicinity" which had either hit the St Phelim or come so close as to create turbulence or force the pilots to make a sudden turn away from it, sending the aircraft into a spin.

The Cold War was still icy at the time and the space race was at full speed. Suspicion pointed to a British test missile or drone plane.

Having held out this possibility, however, the investigators qualified it, stating: "There is no substantiating evidence of such a possibility, but it cannot be excluded for it is compatible with all of the presently available evidence." Britain also strenuously denied any involvement in the tragedy.

For the families the frustration at not knowing what happened came second to their still raw grief. But over the years, their dissatisfaction and disbelief simmered and finally came to a head in March 1998 at a 30th anniversary Mass for the victims at Ballyphehan Church in Cork city in the county which had been home to many of the 38 Irish victims.

For Jerome McCormack from Cobh, Co Cork, the ceremony was the starting point in his search for the truth about what happened to his brother, Neil, who perished on the plane when Jerome was still a teenager.

"I went to light a candle," Jerome recalls. "It was the first time I ever felt emotional about it. My legs started to shake and I could hardly light the candle. There were 61 candles around the altar and it just hit me very hard."

John Coughlan from Tipperary town had lost his sister, Mary, then a 21-year-old air hostess, who had been flying for only a month and had switched flights with a colleague who needed the day off.

The year following her death was a blur for him. Between the heartbreaking search and salvage operation and the traumatic investigation into the tragedy, John, a postal worker, was out on strike for months.

Again it was the 30th anniversary that proved the turning point. Mary's body, like that of Jerome's brother and 39 others, was never recovered and John had nowhere to lay flowers in her memory. "They found the other hostess, Anne Kelly, and we always wondered where Mary was. It didn't feel right, not having somewhere to go to remember her."

For some 200 other relatives, the anniversary also brought a reawakening of old pain and nagging questions. The Tuskar Tragedy Relatives Support Group was set up and after a year of lobbying, the Minister for Public Enterprise, Ms O'Rourke, initiated a joint British-Irish review of all files held in both countries relating to the crash.

The results, published in July 2000, found the original crash investigation report of 1970 had failed to disclose that some of the St Phelim's maintenance records were mysteriously missing. The report had also failed to enclose a list of defects discovered in the aircraft during routine maintenance as chronicled in the records that were available.

The 2000 review concluded the original investigation was unsatisfactory, not least because the unit which investigated the crash was the same unit which had given the St Phelim its safety clearance.

As a result of the review, the Minister appointed two international air accident investigators to carry out a fresh study of both the original investigation and any other available evidence. Adm Yves le Mercier was a retired French naval pilot and former head of the French Air Accident Investigation Branch while Colin Torkington was then vice-president of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Both had substantial experience of investigating air crashes around the world.

Ms O'Rourke asked for their report by November 2000. A year later, it arrived on her desk and sections of it have been in the hands of a select few for the past month or so. They are people and organisations directly named or commented upon in the report and they are being given time to study the extracts and to reply. Their comments must then be included in the appendix of the report.

The Department of Public Enterprise says the document will be published "towards the end of January".

The wait and somewhat elastic deadline has been endured with patience. "It has been frustrating. You get letters with a date and then a next date and a next date," says David O'Beirne, who was just 22 months old when his pilot father, Barney, died on the St Phelim.

From what is known of the investigators' efforts, it appears their work has indeed been thorough. Their report runs to several hundred pages and they have travelled extensively in Britain and Ireland, re-interviewing witnesses and uncovering a few new ones.

There is a feeling, however, that they have only been able to rule out possible causes for the crash, rather than pinpoint exactly what happened. If it puts the sinister missile theory to rest once and for all, though, that will be enough for many of the relatives.

"Without the plane, they don't have the evidence," says John Coughlan. In recent times John has gained comfort from the inclusion of his sister's name on a monument erected in Kilmore Quay by the LOST (Loved Ones of Sea Tragedies) organisation.

"I feel they have probably gone as far as they can," agrees Celine O'Donoghue from Cork, who lost her aunt and two young cousins in the crash and was instrumental in setting up the relatives' group.

"The ideal is that we go up to Dublin the day the report is out and they are able to say: 'Look, it's quite evident from looking at the material that A, B and C didn't happen but that D did and that's what caused the plane to crash.'

"But if they can even rule out A, B and C once and for all and say it was possibly D, then if we meet our relatives in another realm, at least we can say we did our best."

Jerome McCormack is unlikely to be going to Dublin to collect the report, however, as he has little faith in the investigation and believes only a sworn public inquiry will get to the bottom of the mystery.

"The first thing I asked the investigators when I met them was did they have power to compel witnesses and they said no. I don't think we're going to learn anything new unless people who have not come forward before or who have not told the full story before can be made do so."

Jerome has long believed that the disastrous salvage operation was deliberately botched to ensure the wreck of the St Phelim broke up as it was brought to the surface so that key parts and the bodies would be scattered and it would not be known if there was a fire on the plane, indicative of a missile strike, before it hit the water.