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Govt. reopens probe of ’53 airline crash

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — A new judicial investigation into an Aer Lingus plane crash near Birmingham 47 years ago is to be announced "within weeks," according to the Department of Public Enterprise.

The move follows pressure from the family of the pilot, the late Capt. T.J. Hanley, who was blamed for the accident. His career was ended after his license was revoked by the then minister for industry and commerce, which effectively prohibited him from flying passenger aircraft.

The DC 3 aircraft was on a scheduled flight from Dublin to Birmingham on New Year’s Day 1953 when it crash landed at Spernal near Birmingham. The plane was destroyed, but there were no fatalities among the crew and 22 passengers on the flight.

A public inquiry held in the Four Courts in June 1953 before the late Judge Thomas Teevan found that Hanley was responsible for the accident by allowing both engines to cut out by feeding from the same fuel tank, which ran dry.

The finding was devastating for Hanley and his family. He had been president of the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association, but he later left Ireland and went to work as a flight dispatcher in Honolulu.

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New evidence the crash may have been caused by contamination of the fuel is expected to be central to the planned investigation of the crash, which will also look at other similar air accidents in the 1950s.

Green Party TD Trevor Sargent raised the issue after being contacted by one of Capt. Hanley’s daughters, Nuala Hanley-Pearce, who lives in the U.S.

"Since this crash there has been advances in technology and a considerable improvement in crash investigation procedures," Sargent said. "If it is a case that this man was wrongly judged and punished, then that should be established for his family. They are entitled to seek to have his name posthumously cleared if there was a miscarriage of justice.

"In doing this there may also be lessons that can be learned for the public good about air safety and procedures. If it wasn’t human error, then we should try and establish what is was and look at the wider issues to ensure current practices are not being compromised. Water contamination in the fuel has been mentioned as a possible cause."

Minister Mary O’Rourke said her officials were in discussions with the family to find an "agreed mechanism" to review the issues that are of concern.

The family wants a quashing of the 1953 court finding. It is understood that it has turned down an offer of an apology because it would have meant the guilty verdict would have remained.

It is expected that a retired judge or a senior counsel will be appointed to carry out the new investigation.

This will be the second time the minister has reopened investigations into Aer Lingus crashes.

She appointed international experts from France and Australia to carry out a new investigation into the Tuskar Rock air crash off Wexford in March 1969 when all 61 passengers and crew died.

An initial review of the surviving Tuskar Rock crash files revealed what the minister described as "disturbing" new information involving missing Aer Lingus maintenance paperwork and questions surrounding the plane’s air-worthiness certificate

The experts are focussing on the possibility of mechanical failure and are due to report back to the minister next month.

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