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Study blames ’68 crash on mechanical failure

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — After decades of conspiracy theories, an independent study by international experts has ruled out the involvement of a British missile or aircraft in the 1968 crash of an Aer Lingus plane into the ocean off Tuskar Rock in County Wexford.

Many have argued that a rogue British missile, target drone or aircraft may have been responsible for the Aer Lingus Viscount aircraft St. Phelim. The talk was fueled by the fact that the British Navy did most of the salvage work because Ireland did not have the capabilities, subsequent incidents in the Irish Sea involving submarines and trawlers, missing maintenance files and a failure by the military to release records.

All 61 people on board the flight from Cork to London on March 24, 1968 were killed. The victims were Irish, British, American, Swiss, Swedish and Belgian. Only 14 bodies were recovered.

The new study, which was released Thursday, Jan. 24, fails to establish a definitive cause for the crash but says it may have been structural failure leading to loss of the tail. They also found the plane had been on a different flight path to that known before and that the problems began off Dungarvan, Co. Waterford.

There was mixed reaction from relatives, some of whom are considering taking legal action.

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A 1970 investigation also failed to establish the reason for the crash. However, it said there was evidence to suggest the possible presence of “another aircraft or airborne object” in the vicinity. That report said the airliner could either have collided with the Viscount or caused an upsetting maneuver resulting in a spin or spiral dive into the sea.

Amid speculation of a coverup involving a British military surface-to-air missile fired in the Irish Sea or launches of missiles or drones from the range at Aberporth in Wales, relatives of the dead have been campaigning for a new investigation.

An inconclusive 2000 review of surviving files on the crash by officials from the Public Enterprise Department led to the latest probe.

The new study also fails to reach a firm conclusion. The experts say the cause may have been structural failure, with initial “distress” affecting the horizontal tail.

It possibly resulted from “corrosion, metal fatigue, ‘flutter’ [vibration that can lead to structural failure] or a bird strike.”

It says the file should now be closed.

Because of political sensibilities surrounding the issue, Public Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke had called in three independent air-accident experts: retired Admiral Yves Lemercier and Manuel Pech of France, and Colin Torkington of Australia.

They examined 17 similar Viscount crashes around the world, including accidents in Indonesia and Bolivia. They also spoke to new witnesses who had come forward.

The British authorities lifted the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act to release files and allow full cooperation with the latest probes.

Torkington said he was “absolutely confident” the theory of a collision with a missile or other aircraft could be “completely rejected.”

“We have carefully examined all aspects of the tests conducted in the UK ranges and of the sea and air activities performed on that Sunday,” he said.

The study takes issue with the 1970 investigation and says that report was “deficient” in that “insufficient effort was made to thoroughly reconstruct the track of the aircraft and that pertinent material was excluded.”

The experts say it was a major achievement for the pilots, Capt. Barney O’Beirne and First Officer Paul Heffernan, to have kept the aircraft flying for more than half an hour as the tailplane progressively failed and then probably fell off.

The pressure on the pilots’ controls as they battled to save the plane would have been about 20 times normal, or the equivalent of trying to lift two or three people, they said.

“The very poor maneuverability of the Viscount during the degradation process explains why the crew could not come back to Cork, nor land or ditch on the large strands they know along the coast,” the report said.

The only radio message intercepted from the doomed plane came just before it plunged into the sea. It said, “Descending, spinning rapidly.” The experts said there had been a similar lack of communications in comparable crashes.

Torkington said missing Aer Lingus maintenance records were a “cause for concern” but added that he did not believe their absence was deliberate.

The experts said there was no suggestion that any error or omission in a December 1967 inspection contributed to the accident.

“But serious errors in Aer Lingus maintenance scheduling may have been indicative of a less-than-ideal work culture existing in the airline at that time,” the report said.

Minister O’Rourke said that while the cause of the crash may never be conclusively known, the file will remain open in case any fresh evidence comes to light.

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