Today is the 20th anniversary of the plane crash in Gander, Newfoundland, that claimed the lives of 248 soldiers — all members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division heading home to Fort Campbell, Ky. — along with eight crew members. The soldiers had just completed peacekeeping duties as part of a multinational force assigned to patrol the Sinai Peninsula. They arrived in Gander on an Arrow Air charter DC-8.
Upon arrival, many dashed to pay phones in the terminal for a quick phone call home. They would all perish shortly after takeoff just a few minutes later. None survived.
For the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, Dec. 12 is a dark day indeed. More U.S. soldiers died at Gander in 1985 than in other single incident involving U.S. forces over the last two decades. More died there than at the Marine barracks in Beirut two years earlier, for example. It was the worst single air disaster in history for the U.S. military, and it was Canada’s worst air disaster as well.
The late President Ronald Reagan, visibly shaken, attended a memorial service for these fallen peacekeepers.
The Canadian Aviation Safety Board investigation of the crash was often heated and controversial. The final report pointed to a possible ice buildup on the wings as the cause of the crash. This official version was quickly challenged, and triggered charges of a coverup. Eyewitness accounts of a fire aboard the plane, among other things, were reported widely in the press. Inconsistencies left the public skeptical and disbelieving.
One of the Canadian aviation experts appointed to the investigating panel, Les Filotas, not only refused to endorse the final report but also wrote a detailed account highly critical of the proceedings. His book covers a wide range of possibilities, and concluded that efforts to uncover the truth about the crash “drowned in a sea of bureaucratic self-interest, shameless incompetence and dogged, inexorable deceit.”
Many family members whose sons, husbands and brothers died view the official Canadian report as fiction rather than fact.
Did the plane crash result from sabotage? Could terrorists have planted an explosive device aboard the Arrow Air DC-8 as it sat relatively unprotected in Cairo? Or as it passed through Germany? Especially in 1985, when multiple attacks on aircraft happened all over the world? No conclusive proof has surfaced of any terrorist attack in this instance, and what brought the airplane down remains a mystery today.
The treatment of the crash site itself is disturbing. It was bulldozed almost immediately after the crash in striking contrast to the manpower-intensive evidence-gathering and piece-by-piece reconstruction effort three years later in Lockerbie, Scotland, after Pan Am 103 went down.
The attack on Pan Am 103 had a direct effect on the ongoing attempt to find out what really happened in Gander. Both the Arrow Air crash and the Pan Am 103 bombing involved flights from Germany carrying Americans home just before Christmas. These similarities helped to spark a round of congressional hearings years later, but this limited action failed to penetrate the darkness surrounding this whole sad episode.
The publication in 1990 of “Fighting For Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon,” the 450-plus page account by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger about his 1981-87 service in that post under President Reagan, sheds no light at all on this incident. The book addresses other key events in December 1985 related to missile defense, and Iran and the hostages, but I found no reference to Gander.
Today, near the crash site, a memorial plaque lists the names of those killed. A monument of three figures has been erected there, too. It sends a clear message. A lone soldier holds hands with two children. One child’s hand extends an olive branch.
On this 20th anniversary of the Arrow Air disaster, we should remember those who have given their lives. Multinational peacekeeping remains a noble cause, and sadly enough, will be required for years to come.
Peter J. Brown is a freelance writer from Mount Desert, Maine.