By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A new investigation of the country’s worst aviation disaster is to be carried out by two international air accident experts after a review of files on the 1968 Tuskar Rock crash dramatically raised what Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke described as "deeply disturbing" new questions about missing Aer Lingus files.
The review by her departmental experts failed to solve the mystery of why the St. Phelim Viscount plunged into the Irish Sea off Wexford, killing all 61 people on board.
After 32 years of conspiracy theories surrounding claims that a British missile or target drone downed the aircraft, the review has now switched the focus to a possible coverup involving the state-owned airline and crucial evidence about the plane’s air-worthiness.
If negligence or a coverup is established, it could lead to huge compensation claims against Aer Lingus, which is about to be privatized by the government.
Under the Warsaw Convention on compensation for victims of air crashes, most families got in the region of the maximum £7,000 at the time. The compensation cap did not apply if "malice or default" can be proved on the part of the airline.
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The 10-year-old St. Phelim was on a morning flight from Cork to London on March 24, 1968 when it went down.
The victims were Irish, British, American, Swiss, Swedish and Belgian. Only 14 bodies were recovered.
After publication of the review, O’Rourke said there were "a number of serious matters have arisen which, I believe, warrant further appraisal."
She said the cause of crash may never be known, but she was not prepared to let the matter rest.
The two experts, Colin Torkington from Australia and Yves Le Mercier from France, are to conduct a new probe and report to her by November.
"In particular, I am deeply concerned that the original report into the accident in 1970 did not make reference to some of the aircraft’s maintenance records being missing," O’Rourke said July 4 in announcing the new investigations.
The minister described this omission and the 34 missing work cards relating to the maintenance as her "overriding concern."
"It is inexplicable and incomprehensible it was not included in the 1970 report," she said.
The plane was bought by the state-owned airline from the Dutch KLM company in 1967. Paperwork relating to routine maintenance work, carried in December 1967, was found to be missing in 1968.
The minister also expressed concern with the obvious potential conflict of interest in arrangements in the late 1960s when airline safety regulators were also in charge of investigating accidents.
The review states that errors in the maintenance operating plan and the list of defects in the aircraft’s short career with Aer Lingus were fully investigated.
The minister pointed out that the review report states that "It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain why this material was not included and discussed in the final accident report to determine if these matters had any bearing on the accident.
"However, there is no evidence that the aircraft’s maintenance history was a factor in the accident."
The report reveals missing documentation was a problem at Aer Lingus in the late 1960s.
O’Rourke paid tribute to the cooperation of the British authorities in the review of the surviving files and said UK officials had been "most forthright."
The review report also concludes that the possibility of a collision with another airborne object does not appear to have been "adequately examined" in the 1970 investigation.
The cause of the accident has never been established. Part of the plane was found six miles from the main wreckage, indicating it may have not been intact when entering the sea.
The 1970 report did not refer to the failure to retrieve the rear starboard door, the rear starboard cargo door and the rear starboard freight door. Also missing are the tail plane and elevators.
The reports reveals that in July 1969, then Finance Minister Charles Haughey refused to sanction £2,000 funding for what he described as a "highly speculative" extension of the salvage work.
There has been speculation that the plane was hit by a British missile or target drone before it crashed near the Tuskar Rock.
The 1970 investigation found there was not enough evidence to reach a "conclusion of reasonable probability" about the cause.
It said there was evidence to suggest the possible presence of "another aircraft or airborne object" in the vicinity that either collided with the plane or caused an upsetting maneuver resulting in a spin or spiral dive.
The year-long review of Irish and UK files connected with the crash followed a long campaign by relatives of the dead.
The minister met 29 relatives before publishing the review and described them as still "most anguished."
Theories of a UK coverup surrounding the crash had been fueled by the fact that the Irish authorities did not have the resources to recover the wreckage and the British Royal Navy did most of the salvage work.
The British Defense Ministry told the review body it was being completely open and forthcoming and hoped its response would "lay to rest myths" that had developed.
"We have found nothing to support the theory that the aircraft was hit by a British missile, aircraft or drone," the ministry said.
The restrictions of the UK Official Secrets Act was lifted to allow witnesses to come forward with new evidence to the review body, but none did. O’Rourke appealed for anyone with extra information — even if it is minute — to come forward to the newly appointed inspectors.
The UK position has not change since 1968, when the British government said Welsh missile ranges were closed and there were no naval or other military exercises in the area at the time of the crash.