By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The mystery of the Tuskar Rock crash — the worst air tragedy in Irish aviation history — may never be solved, one of Australia’s top air-safety experts admitted as he began an exhaustive investigation of what happened to the Aer Lingus plane St. Phelim 32 years ago.
Colin Torkington, 64, an aircraft engineer who is one of the world’s leading experts on Viscounts and their structures, said the possibility of a mechanical failure at 17,000 feet that led to a catastrophic spiral into the sea will be the focus the new probe.
All 61 passengers and crew died in the crash in March 1969, but the cause has never been established.
Torkington and a French air safety expert, Yves Le Mercier, 66, are reexamining the tragedy after a study of surviving documentation ordered by Public Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke uncovered "disturbing" new information involving missing Aer Lingus maintenance paperwork and questions surrounding the plane’s air-worthiness certificate.
One of the Viscount 800 series, the 10-year-old St. Phelim was bought by Aer Lingus from the Dutch KLM airline in 1967.
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Torkington, who is now an Australian representative attached to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Canada, has investigated the fatal loss of two Australian-registered Viscounts in 1966 and 1968.
He was structures group leader on the two investigations when the Viscounts broke up in mid-flight. "We knew at that time every nut and bolt on the airplane," he said.
Up to the end of 1995, there had been 139 reported Viscount crashes. There were 1,573 people killed in 66 of these accidents.
The two experts plan to review all Viscount accidents over 40 years — some of the crashes had some similarities with the Tuskar crash.
"We are not probably going to solve it, but we may come out with some better ideas," Torkington told RTE.
The two men have split their investigation with Torkington concentrating on the plane and Le Mercier looking at operation aspects such as navigation and air traffic control.
Records are missing from Aer Lingus and could not be found by the investigation immediately after the crash in the late 1960s. As a result of the missing work schedules and maintenance log details, Torkington plans to check if the Viscount manufacturers did see if they have copies.
"It’s a fairly cold trail," he said. "There is some still in the UK. In Australia they recently got rid of all their Viscount material because they are no longer in service in the world."
So far he had he had found no evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up involving the missing documents. "I suspect it is just an error," he said.
Torkington also dismisses theories that a rogue British missile or target drone had collided with the plane. "You would never have kept that quiet all that time," he said. "But it is something we will still look at to see what evidence there is; that is part of our work."
Areas of the south Irish Sea were known as "rocket alley" as a result of military exercises. Around the Tuskar Rock, fishermen had trawled up pieces of Firefly, Jindivik, Meteor and Stilletoe missile and drone components.