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Special Report: Air India Flight 182

Investigators examine the wreckage of Air India Flight 182.
Air India's Boeing 747 'Kanishka,' named after Emperor Kanishka who ruled an Indian state in the second century, cruised over the Atlantic at 31,000ft as it flew towards London, Heathrow. The aircraft, registration VT-EFO, was operating Flight 182 on the east bound journey on a trip between India and Canada. Flight 181 from India had transitted Frankfurt when travelling westbound to Toronto, then had doubled back to Montreal. There the flight number had changed to Flight AI182 for the return trip to London, New Delhi and Bombay. On Flight 181`s Toronto to Montreal sector, therefore, some passengers were inbound to Montreal from India while others were outbound from Toronto on the way to India.

Air India's Canadian flight was a weekly service, and the present crew of 22, under the command of Captain Hanse Singh Narenda, had spent a pleasant six day stopover in Toronto before boarding the aircraft. The co-pilot was Satninder Singh Bhinder, also a Captain but on this flight sitting in the right hand seat, and the flight engineer was Dara Dumasia, about to retire and completing his last trip. The 19 flight attendants of Captain Narendra`s crew were under the charge of Sampath Lazer. A large expadriate Indian community had settled in Canada and Flight 182 was over three quarters full with 307 passengers who were mostly returning on a visit to India to their adopted country. The large crew onboard the aircraft brought the total onboard to 329 people.. The time was now 0.600hrs GMT on Sunday 23rd June, 1985, about 2½ hours from landing, and the aircraft was estimated to land at Heathrow at 08.33 hrs. The Air India flight was running about 1¾ hours late because of the time taken in Toronto to fit "fifth pod", or spare engine. On 8th June an Air India aircraft had suffered an engine failure on take-off and had landed back at Toronto where an Air Canada engine was borrowed for the homeward journey. The engine had been returned one week later and Kanishka now flew back with the broken engine for repair in India. The carriage of a spare engine, which is fitted below the left wing between the inboard engine and the fuselage, is more commonplace than most passengers realise, and is a convenient way of transporting such a bulky item. The engine is shrouded with fairings to reduce drag and slight trim adjustments are made to maintain balanced flight.. A maximum indicated airspeed is imposed with the carriage of a fifth engine, but otherwise flying characteristics are normal. Captain Narendra had requested a reduced cruising Mach number of 0.81 on the North Atlantic track for the purposes of Flight 182, instead of the normal 0.84 Mach cruise, to comply with the restricted speed.

The flight from Montreal to London was just over 6 hours, and at the beginning of the journey the passengers were served with a hot meal and drinks. For those who could remain awake a Hindi movie was showing, but most dozed quietly in the smooth flying condtions. Outside the air temperature was 47 below zero. In the cockpit, the flight crew looked out over a clear sky, and as the sun peeked it`s head above the eastern horizon, some low lying cloud could be seen far below. Apart from the delay over fitting the broken engine, all was normal and routine.

Six thousand miles away on the other side of the world, and in another time zone, ground staff at Tokyo`s Narita Airport unloaded baggage containers from Canadian Pacific Air Lines Flight 003which had recently arrived from Vancouver. With good winds on the trip the 747 made up some time and had landed 10mins ahead of schedule at 14.15 hrs local Japanese time. Trucks ferried containers to the ground floor of the terminal and luggage handlers removed the bags for passenger collection. The scene was typical of a busy international airport, but it was not to remain so for long. As bags were being unloaded from a container, one piece of luggage exploded causing a blast which shook the whole airport. a hole was blown in the concrete floor, and the unloading area was extensively damaged. Two Japanese airport staff were killed and another four seriously injured. CP Air's 747, Flight 003 from Vancouver, had arrived with a total of 390 people onboard, and had the aircraft been just half an hour late, there would have been a terrible disaster. There was no doubt that the force of the blast was sufficient to cause the destruction to something even as large as a 747.

Over the Atlantic, Air India Flight 182 continued on its way to London, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding. All airlines, of course, are subject to the threat of sabotage, although some more than others, but most have implemented careful checks to safeguard against such a happening. Air India was no exception. Internal strife in the northern State of Punjab, brought about by extremist demands for a separate nation of Khalistan, had created civil unrest in India. The trouble came to a head in June 1984 in Arnritsar with the Indian Army's storming of the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest of shrines. The result was a bloodbath. Sikhs throughout the world were horrified by such an act. In retaliation, the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. Her death stunned the world and created a Hindu backlash, which resulted in Sikhs being massacred in the streets of New Delhi. Mrs Gandhi's successor as prime minister, her son Rajiv Gandhi, was no less at risk. Ona planned visit to Washington earlier in the summer of 1985 the FBI had foiled  an  assassination  plot  by Sikh  terrorists.  Two suspects wanted for questioning, Lal Singh and Ammand Singh, escaped capture. The proliferation of the name Singh, meaning 'the Lion', may have compounded the problems of detection, for all male Sikhs carry the name. As a result of the struggle in India, the Indian Government was not short of enemies and Sikh extremists posed a specific threat. Air India, as a long arm of the nation, was particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and was fully aware of the risks. Canada and the UK both contained the largest concentration of Sikhs outside  India,  and  were  subject  to  special  precautions.  Air India  had implemented a security system which appeared effective, and passengers boarding Flights 181/2 in both Toronto and Montreal underwent strict security measures. Air India employed the services of local security companies who, together with the airline's own agents and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), subjected the passengers to a double security check. Metal detectors were used to screen for weapons and all hand baggage was searched. Suitcases were individually X-rayed and where suspicious items were uncovered a portable bomb 'sniffer' could be used to detect explosives. Three bags containing doubtful packages had been left behind in Montreal: later inspection revealed them to be safe. Only an iron, a radio and a hair dryer were found. Air Canada, as Air India's handling agent, used a recommended passenger numbering system which ensured that all who had checked in boarded the aircraft. The security system implemented by the Indian airline seemed a reasonable and adequate response to the risks.

(File Photo)
At 07.05hrs GMT, Air India Flight 182 passed track position 50°N 15°W, and relayed the information to Shannon. The aircraft was just within VHP radio range and the position report was transmitted to control on 13;5.6 MHz, a frequency which had been previously assigned on HF radio. The frequency, in fact, had been incorrectly allocated and AI182 was now instructed to call Shannon on 131.15MHz. On frequency diangeover a stream of calls could be heard but eventually at 07.08:28hrs, Captain Bhinder, acting as co-pilot, established contact. 

Capt Bhinder R/T: 'Air India 182, good morning.'

Shannon Control R/T: 'Air India 182, good morning. Squawk two zero zero five, and go ahead please.'

Capt Bhinder R/T; 'Three zero zero five squawking, and Air India is five one north one five west at zero seven zero five, level three one zero, estimate FIR (Flight Information Region) five one north zero eight west at zero seven three five, and Bunty next.'

Shannon Control R/T: 'Air India, Shannon, Roger. Cleared London via five one north zero eight west, Bunty, upper blue 40 to Merley, upper red 37 to Ibsley, flight level three one zero.'

Captain Bhinder repeated the instruction then Shannon replied correcting the earlier mistake and confirming the squawk of 2005.

Capt Bhinder R/T: 'Right, Sir" Squawking two zero zero five, 182.'

The time was now 07.10hrs and, with fair westerly winds, Kanishka flew on at a ground speed of 519kt, heading (198° magnetic towards the next position of 51°N 08°W, which lay about 50 miles south of Cork in the Irish Republic. Flight 182's routeing then proceeded up the mouth of the Bristol Channel, on across the West Country to the VOR radio beacon at Ibsley, and from there it would continue on to London.

On the flight deck the discussion centred around the flight purser's requirement for bar seals to lock bars in keeping with customs regulations. F/E Dumasia asked Captain Bhinder to radio ahead to London operations with the request. Meanwhile, in the Shannon Air Traffic Control Centre (ATCC), controllers M. Quinn and T. Lane monitored Air India's progress, together with other aircraft in the vicinity. 

Momentarily a clicking sound of a transit button came over their headsets and, as they watched the screen, the Air India radar return suddenly vanished. The time was 07.14;01hrs GMT. Unknown to the controllers, Flight 182 had disintegrated in mid-air. The tail section aft of the wings broke off, and as the aircraft plummeted towards the ocean the wings and engines detached and fell in a shower of twisted metal into the sea. In a moment Kanishka was gone. There was no warning and no `May day' call: Flight 182 simply disappeared. With contact lost the controllers, alarmed by the circumstances, requested other flights to call Air India, but to no avail. By 07.30hrs it became obvious that the problem was serious and an emergency was declared. The emergency services were mobilised and shipping in the "area of 51°N 15°W was alerted. The Irish Navy vessel, Le Aisling, with cargo ships in the region, among them the Laurentian Forest, Ali Baba, Kongsteift and West Atlantic, converged on the location of the crash. By 09.13hrs a radio report from the Laurentian Forest confirmed the worst fears as wreckage and bodies were found floating on the surface. There were no survivors; all 329 people aboard had perished. The accident proved to be the worst aviation disaster over sea, and at the time the third worst disaster in aviation history. 

An accident co-ordination centre was set up in Cork and floating wreckage and bodies recovered from the sea were taken to the Irish port. In the days that followed the accident, about 50% of the aircraft's total structure was retrieved from the sea's surface and 131 victims of the crash were brought ashore. A team of pathologists was organised to perform autopsies and arrangements were made to fly in relatives to identify the next of kin. The vessel Guardline Locator from the UK, with sophisticated sonar equipment aboard, and the French cable laying vessel the Leon Thevenin, with its robot mini-sub Scarab, were dispatched to locate the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) boxes. The batteries of the acoustic beacons attached to the recorders would survive for a maximum of only 30 days. The boxes would he difficult to find and it was imperative the search was commenced quickly. By 4 July, the Gardline Locator, equipment had detected signals on the sea bed and on 9 July the CVR was pin-pointed and raised to the surface by the Scarab. The next day the FDR was located and recovered. It was a remarkable achievement. The two boxes were brought ashore and dispatched to India for analysis.

The remaining wreckage of Flight 182 lay on the sea bed at a depth of 6,700ft and its retrieval would be difficult if not impossible. In preparation for a recovery attempt the Canadian Coast Guard vessel John Cabot began combing the area, taking video film of the debris on the bottom and shooting thousands of still photographs. Over the month of July, fortunately in unusually calm weather, the painstaking process of mapping the wreckage distribution was begun. It would be many weeks before it was completed. On 16 July. the CVR andthe FDR boxes were opened in Bombay and their contents analysed in the presence of international safety experts. The results were startling.  At precisely 07.13:01 hrs, the exact moment of the break-up, both recordings had stopped abruptly. Flight 182's electrical power supplying vital components had been completely and instantly severed. The electrics bay must have been totally destroyed. This sudden loss of electrical power was in keeping with analysis of the Shannon ATCC tape and with the abrupt disappearance of the radar 'target. Whatever had happened at 31,000ft out over the Atlantic was sudden and catastrophic indeed. Meanwhile, in Canada and Japan, a full-scale investigation of the Air India crash and the blast at Narita was being instigated by RCMP and Japanese police. At first glance there appeared little to connect the two incidents, although Canada obviously seemed to be the linking factor. If Kanishka had been destroyed by a bomb, the answer could lie in Toronto or Montreal, the departure points of Air India's I8I/2, or in Vancouver, the departure city of CP Air's 003.

As the weeks of July passed the police evidence began to mount. An examination of passenger lists and computer records indicated that a traveller by the name of L. Singh had checked in at Vancouver but had failed to board CP Air's Flight 003 to Tokyo's Narita Airport. L. Singh was also booked on Air India Flight 301 from Narita to Bangkok. Another passenger, M. Singh, had also checked in at Vancouver for CP Air's Flight 060 to Toronto, and he had failed to turn up as well. In both instances their bags had been loaded. M. Singh had not been confirmed on Flight 182 because of overbooking at the time of reserving his seat, but he was wait-listed for the trip. It was not permitted to check straight through, or interline piece of luggage onto a flight for which a passenger was (only wait-listed, so what had become of M. Singh and his bag? And where had L. Singh gone? The Canadian investigation also began to unravel a confusing sequence of bookings which had been made in the name of various Singhs, including one A. Singh, in the days leading up to the tragedy. The situation was proving to he suspicious, to say the least. The vast majority of the Sikhs in Vancouver were hard working, law abiding citizens, but the plot to assassinate Rajiv Ghandi in the US indicated that extremist elements did exist in such communities. In fact, two of the names used in booking flights matched the names of the two Sikhs wanted by the FBI. It was doubtful if those implicated in the scheme to kill Gandhi were connected with events in Vancouver, but the names in which flights were booked seemed to have been deliberately chosen to advertise the fact that a Sikh terrorist group was involved. If Flight 182 had been downed by a bomb, the motives for sabotage were becoming clear. Yet one strange fact confused the inquiry: no Sikh extremist organisation claimed responsibility. On that front there was total silence.

Other causes of the demise of Flight 182 had also to be considered and examined. If results were not forthcoming from the various investigations the answer could still lie at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Problems with the 'fifth pod' were dismissed with the preliminary inquiry, but one other obvious source of the tragedy, almost too shocking to contemplate with over 600+  747s flying the skies of the globe daily, could be some kind of catastrophic structural failure. If such an event had occurred, other 747s throughout the world could be at serious risk.

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