When the men of the 101st Airborne unit boarded Flight 1285 on the evening of December 11th, they though that they’d be home just in time for Christmas. But it was not to be.
On that fateful day, many men lost their lives, but what really brought down Flight 1285 has never been conclusively determined…
On December 11th, 1985, the 101st Airborne unit of the U.S. Army were finally leaving Cairo, Egypt. They had been on a six-month tour of duty in Sinai and were going home. The US Army had chartered an Arrow Air DC-8 airplane to take the weary soldiers back to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The 248 soldiers were restless but excited. Their mission in Sinai had been a peacekeeping one and it wasn’t an easy region of the world to be stationed in. After stopping briefly in Germany, they landed at Gander Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. They needed to refuel once again, but shortly after takeoff, the unthinkable happened….
The plane crashed on the morning of Thursday, December 12th, 1985. The aircraft stalled right after takeoff and lost altitude. It plummeted to the ground, crashing into a field about half a mile from the runway and igniting upon impact. All 256 people, 248 passengers, and 8 crew members, were killed in the crash.
Almost immediately following the crash, a terrorist organization known as the Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the incident. The organization of extremist Shiite Muslims claimed that the reason they destroyed the plane was to prove that they could strike at Americans anywhere. Despite the likelihood, the U.S. Army and Canadian officials quickly dismissed the possibility of terrorist involvement. But then, what caused the crash?
Two hundred fifty-six people died in the Gander crash: 248 U.S. servicemen and eight crew members. As of December 2015, the incident has the highest death toll of any aviation accident on Canadian soil in history. It is also the second-highest of any accident involving a DC-8.
The Initial Theory
The Canadian Aviation Safety Board initially investigated the crash. Shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift, which resulted in a stall at low altitude. At this height the result was inevitable, the plane would crash. Though they seemed unable to determine the exact sequence of events which led to the accident, they concluded what might have been responsible. Despite the Canadian government’s investigation, however, it seemed that some people were not convinced that Ice was the true culprit…
Four of the safety board’s nine members publicly disagreed, with the ice hypothesis. They were certain that the crash had been caused by some kind of explosion. The plane’s wreckage suggested an explosion inside the aircraft and further investigation indicated that a small explosion had disabled the control system. But what caused that explosion in the first place?
The four dissenting board members studied the crash extensively. Something seemed highly irregular. Usually, in takeoff crashes like Flight 1285s, large sections of the plane will remain intact. In these cases, many passengers can survive. At Gander, however, the wreckage was extremely fragmented. Bits of the plane had been spread out and no one survived at all. Was this indeed what the Islamic terrorists had claimed, sabotage?
Initially, the US Government indicated that the only thing on the plane were the soldiers and their meager belongings. But eyewitness reports from the Cairo airport contradict that claim. Apparently, several large wooden boxes were loaded onto the airplane. Rescue workers at the Gander crash site, corroborate these claims. Their reports indicate five, large, wooden crates loaded with missile-like tubes and ammunition cases in a cordoned off area of the plane.
Rescue workers also claim to have seen an unusual pile of wreckage burning out of control around the crash site. Firefighters tried in vain to put the blaze out with water, but within minutes the fire would flare back up. They kept at it for hours, trying to cool the burning pile down before they could remove what was causing the persistent flames. What could have burnt so hot and so long in the cold, Canadian airport? Was the plane in fact carrying explosives itself?
The U.S. Government, of course, disagreed with the theory of explosives on the plane. Many believe the boxes contained some type of classified weapons. Before the investigation could be completed, however, the U.S. Government sealed its records of the crash. Though several government agencies, including the Department of Defense and the National Transportation Safety Board, deny that any such records exist.
Within weeks of the incident, several rescue workers began to complain of health problems. Over 30 people described some sort of malady associated with their time spent at the Gander crash site. When doctors examined them, they found the symptoms to be suspiciously similar to those who are experiencing radiation poisoning. The symptoms ranged from liver problems to heart palpitations, nausea, dizziness, and just general illnesses. What was making them sick?
Much More Serious
Harvey Day, a rescue worker at Gander, was experiencing the symptoms of radiation sickness following his time there. “My Doctor called me and said ‘Harvey, how much do you drink?’ I said, ‘I don’t drink. Why?’ He said, ‘You’ve got a liver that is equivalent to somebody who’s been drinking excessively for 20 years or more.’ His liver had been utterly destroyed by whatever had been in those crates.
Despite all of the accounts of mysterious radiation poisoning and ever-burning fires at the crash site, the U.S. Government continues to dismiss the theory that some sort of experimental weapon was being transported along with the soldiers on Flight 1285. The rationalization for such behavior is simple, a cover-up of this nature would have proved very embarrassing to the Reagan administration at the time. The evidence of such a cover-up is pretty clear…
According to the dissenting Canadian board members, U.S. government investigators behaved very strangely when they first appeared at the Gander crash site. The crash site itself was bulldozed within three months, which was a very unusual move. In addition, though it is common practice for downed airplanes to be reassembled following a crash, authorities quickly buried the Gander wreckage in a dump. The U.S. Army stated that the bulldozing and burying was done in an effort to discourage souvenir hunters.
Several other coincidences added to the damning evidence of a United States cover-up. The one piece of evidence that could have shown which theory, the ice or an internal explosion, is correct was the Cockpit Voice Recorder. However, this device was mysteriously defective and failed to record anything. In addition, the Flight Data Recorder was an older model that only recorded 4 parameters, not the entire flight path. It was scheduled to be replaced a few weeks following the flight. There was no cargo manifest found and the evidence was buried.
One final telling fact regarding the radiation was uncovered when doctors performed autopsies on the recovered remains of the soldier. These autopsies revealed that many of the dead soldiers had a significant amount of carbon monoxide in their bodies, which meant they had inhaled smoke before the crash. There had to have been some sort of internal detonation or fire on board the craft, prior to it igniting on the ground.
A memorial to the 256 victims at the crash site overlooks Gander Lake in Newfoundland, Canada. As does another memorial erected at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In December of 2015, soldiers and relatives paid their respects to the fallen soldiers of the Gander crash at these two memorials. Yet even thirty years after the incident, the actual reasons for the crash are still undetermined…
What Really Happened?
In 1990, a mere five years after the horrific incident, Congress convened a hearing on the Gander disaster. Though the original committee faulted the U.S. Government’s investigation, they never insisted on a new one. Opting instead to accept the simplest explanation. The plane blew up and no one’s sure how. This still left the poor families of the Gander soldiers to wonder why their loved ones died.
Les Filotas, one of the four CASB board members who dissented in the final report, published a detailed argument for his dissenting opinion regarding the in-flight explosion. Was the government transporting nuclear weapons in the belly of the Flight 1285? Or was the crash simply the result of Islamic terrorists? Perhaps we will never really know what happened that day.