The Czech Crash
In September, 1967, Gander experienced its second worst crash.
The $2-million aircraft was a Russian built Iylushin IL-18D, (turbo propellers) with registration OK-WAL, operated by Czechoslovakia State Airlines.
In the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1967 it departed Prague, Czechoslovakia, for Havana with scheduled stops at Shannon, Ireland, and Gander. It departed Shannon that evening for Gander, and landed on runway 14 (now runway 13) at 0326 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Jack Pinsent was the tower controller, and yours truly was the arrival controller. The aircraft was refueled by two CSA mechanics and a local service company under supervision of the flight engineer of the out going flight. The flight crew that flew the aircraft to Gander remained at Gander and was replaced by a crew that had been off duty in Gander.
The aircraft departed runway 14 at 0510 (02:40 AM local time). The pilot called the control tower and reported that the aircraft was airborne. Mr. Pinsent instructed the aircraft to contact departure control on 119.7 in the Area Control Centre.
While the aircraft’s radio operator was changing frequency, the aircraft’s right wing struck the guy wire of a radar reflector mast that was located 4,000 feet from the end of the runway. (It broke the guy wire and dragged it 670 feet beyond the mast). One hundred feet later, numbers 2, 3 and 4 propellers started to nick the ground shrubs, and 20 feet later the belly of the aircraft made contact with the ground.
Shortly after, it hit the railway track embankment and rails, skipped 400 feet over a depression in the ground, and crashed into boggy ground breaking the wings into several sections and the fuselage into seven major parts. The aircraft caught fire immediately, and continued to burn for approximately six hours.
The aircraft was built in April of that year and had accumulated only 766 hours. It was in excellent mechanical condition and operated by an experienced and well-rested crew. There was no evidence of any pre-impact explosion or fire. The analysis of fuel indicated that it conformed to the required specifications. The aircraft was just slightly overweight, but the extra 119 kilograms would have no significant effect on the performance of the aircraft. The weather conditions were good.
The official accident reported stated that the probable cause was “undertermined”.
Every pilot who departed runway 14 at night knows, regardless of weather, that if the moon was west or obscured by clouds, it is necessary to immediately “go on instruments” because of the lack of any visual horizontal reference.
There were no lights to the east of the field in 1967, so it is possible that the pilot at the controls, because of the good weather conditions, was duped into not paying enough attention to his artificial horizon indicator. Until someone comes up with a better explanation, that is my hypothesis. What I do know for certain is that the aircraft actually made a shallow descent and flew into the ground. Of the 69 passengers and crew, 32 died immediately, and three died later. Thirty-four survived. It was a busy night for the hospital staff, who suddenly had an extra 37 patients. All of those involved worked long and hard hours getting the survivor out of the wreckage and aboard the helicopter that transported the injured to the hospital.
The Gander Town Council named a street after helicopter pilot Austin Garrett as a result of his actions that September morning in 1967. Mr. Garrett’s tireless efforts operating in poor flying conditions (caused by darkness and the smoke from the burning 6,100 gallons of fuel) was considered among the reasons that some survived.
Among other reasons that some survived was the medical treatment given to the survivors at the scene of the crash and later in the hospital. Medical staff from the James Paton Memorial Hospital were on the scene within a very short time and worked on patients while struggling through knee-deep bog.
Some of the survivors were transported to the burn units at Halifax and Montreal.
An interesting note about the accident concerns the late Ariel King, who was a member of the crash crew at the airport. It seems that they were trying to account for the 69 that had been on the aircraft and the count kept showing 68. Mr. King found the 69th about six hours after the crash. It was a woman who had been in the rear of the aircraft and had been protected from the fire and structural damage by material that had fallen and which had rendered her unconscious.
The late Mr. King was searching in the debris with his arm reaching in among the wreckage when he felt a hand take hold of his arm. The woman was not seriously injured, and was released from hospital as soon as the medical staff had completed an examination.
At the end of our shift at 8 AM, I invited Jack to come along with me as a cameraman and rented a Cherokee 140 from the Gander Flying Club. As a result of that brief flight I have the only video footage of the wreckage. Smoke was still coming from the aircraft, and that last lady passenger was still entangled in the debris.