Within 24 hours of being awakened in his Winnipeg home by a phone call Vic Gerden was stepping off a coast guard helicopter in Peggys Cove.
It was Sept. 3, 1998 and the only solace he could hope to provide the families of the 229 passengers and crew of Swissair Flight 111 was to find out what happened.
Why did a seven-year-old plane operated by a company with an excellent safety record and flown by a former Swiss fighter pilot with 10,800 flight hours, crash into St. Margaret’s Bay?
Remembering Swissair Flight 111
With the rotors still thumping the air behind him, Gerden looked around.
There were television trucks with their preposterous antennas, navy and coast guard ships out scouring the bay and helicopters everywhere.
“This was the largest and most complex aviation investigation that has been done in Canada,” said Gerden, who still lives in Winnipeg.
“ … Fortunately, there’s been nothing like it in Canada since.”
Thousands of people of varied disciplines belonging to some 50 different organizations from five countries contributed to the investigation that swirled around the temporarily constructed ‘J Hangar’ on a mothballed runway at 12 Wing Shearwater.
That investigation would result in 55 recommendations to improve air safety and the removal of electrical components that likely caused the fire and insulation blankets that allowed it to spread.
There were also changes in training, cockpit lighting, certification for the flammability of materials used in planes and checklists for air crew faced with a fire, amongst other things.
That report took five years.
And it started with Gerden standing in a parking lot on a Thursday afternoon usually occupied by visitors to Peggys Coves iconic lighthouse.
His entire professional life had been spent in the study of how to keep aloft a species born to plod the earth. By training an engineer, he flew fighter jets for the Canadian Forces, instructed the generation that followed him and left the military as a colonel to join the Transportation Safety Board in 1989.
“There are thousands of commercial aircraft flying at any given time anywhere around the world and there are very few major accidents,” said Gerden.
“On those rare occasions when they do occur, they need to be and are thoroughly investigated.”
For analytical-minded students of flight like Gerden, it is not evolution that gives humanity wings, it is the systems we create.
Systems that are designed, then tested systematically for flaws and probabilities of failure.
Systems for training in both the maintenance and operation of aircraft.
Systems of accountability to be followed when a failure or a series of failures occurs so that the systems can be further refined.
So faced with an organizational task that would shortly become more gargantuan than anyone expected, Gerden, like the seasoned crew of Swissair 111 did when they first smelled smoke, turned to his checklist.
He had two:
The major crash checklist directed him to create working groups that would analyze all potential technical contributions to the disaster.
An international civil aviation document assigning responsibilities – he had a plane built in the United States, operated by a Swiss Company, crash in Canada. There were many different groups of people with different jobs to do to help find the causes.
“Aviation accidents usually occur because of several different factors that link together to potentially cause an accident if there aren’t sufficient defences in place,” said Gerden.
That’s what happened with Swissair 111.
But weaving together that series of unfortunate events was going to be exceedingly difficult.
Because the McDonnell Douglas MD 11’s two black boxes – one recording flight data and the other all talk in the cockpit – lost power when the plane was still nearly three kilometres in the air above St. Margarets Bay.
Five minutes and thirty-eight seconds after the black boxes lost power, the plane was in two million pieces.
“This necessitated the recovery of the aircraft – a significant challenge,” said Gerden.
The submarine HMCS Okanagan found those two million pieces of plane in 55 metres of water.
They started with divers and remotely-operated vehicles – going down and picking up everything they could find. The American recovery ship USS Grapple joined the Canadians – 200 divers in all searched the bottom of St. Margarets Bay.
Then a scallop dragger scoured the bay in a grid.
As a last step, a dredge ship scooped up the bay’s floor to be sorted through on its deck.
By weight they recovered 98 per cent of the MD 11.
Everything recovered came ashore at Sheet Harbour to be sorted through for human remains and cargo by a team of RCMP officers.
The fragments continued to Shearwater where a team of 350 investigators from the Transportation Safety Board, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Swissair and a handful of other organizations sorted them in boxes representing the area of the plane from which they came.
Every piece that looked burnt was noted.
Then, painstakingly, the front 10 metres of the plane were reassembled on a wire mesh.
Slowly they pieced together what was happening in the cavity above the crew’s heads during the final minutes of the flight known colloquially as ‘The UN Shuttle’ for being popular amongst United Nations staff travelling between Geneva, Switzerland, and New York.
According to the TSB’s final report, electrical arcing potentially from the plane’s inflight entertainment system ignited insulation blankets that weren’t supposed to be able to burn.
Circuit breakers meant to prevent such an ignition from arcing wires also didn’t trip.
“Swissair one eleven heavy is declaring Pan Pan Pan,” radioed the aircrew to Moncton Area Control Centre at 9:14 p.m according to the transcript of the plane’s final communications.
“We have uh smoke in the cockpit, uh request (deviate), immediate return uh to a convenient place, I guess uh Boston.”
It was likely a small amount of smoke as the crew did not declare an imminent emergency and instead took Moncton Area Control’s recommendation to prepare for a landing in Halifax – which was nearer their location than Boston.
“The board concluded that the actions by the flight crew in preparing the aircraft for landing, including their decisions to have the passenger cabin readied for landing and to dump fuel, were consistent with them being unaware that an on-board fire was under way,” reads the TSB’s final report.
The crew began following its checklist for smoke in the cockpit from an unidentified source as the fire spread above their heads. The silicon end-caps on the air conditioning system would have failed, feeding the fire with breathing air.
At 9:16 p.m. the crew confirmed via radio that they were wearing their oxygen masks.
Though they were apparently still unaware of the extent of the fire, the 229 souls on board were likely already doomed.
“A theoretical descent profile calculation, conducted by the TSB during the investigation, confirmed that, because of the rapid progression of the fire and its adverse effects on various aircraft systems and the cockpit environment, they would not have been able to complete a safe landing in Halifax, even if they had undertaken to do so at the time of the PAN PAN urgency radio communication,” reads the report.
The flight crew plotted their course to dump fuel and then to head for the Halifax airport.
“Moncton Centre good evening,” they radioed at 9:16 p.m.
“Swissair one eleven heavy flight level two five four descending flight level two five zero on course Halifax. We are flying at the time on track zero five zero.”
The crew did not have access to where the fire was occurring in the aircraft’s ceiling and were directed by their procedures to prepare for a landing and not to search out the source of the smoke.
As part of the crash investigation, an MD 11 on loan from Swissair was equipped with special equipment to monitor airflow in the cavities above the cockpit. The TSB report states that the progression of smoke in the cockpit may have stopped completely for a period of time – potentially alleviating fears of the crew.
At 9:22 p.m. the airplane banked left to dump fuel over the ocean – it was 10 nautical miles from the Halifax airport.
“Ah Swissair one eleven. At the time we must fly ah manually. Are we cleared to fly between ah ten thou..eleven thousand and niner thousand feet?” the plane radioed at 9:22 p.m.
Components of the MD 11 that would have been in the fire’s trajectory were sent to labs in the United States and Europe to determine how they would behave under extreme heat. It was found the aluminum cap assembly on the stainless steel oxygen line supplying the pilots’ masks would fracture under those temperatures, directing a flow of pure oxygen onto the fire causing it to expand exponentially.
Thirteen minutes after the first whiff of smoke the recovered aircraft data recorder (one of the black boxes) noted a rapid succession of system failures in the cockpit.
“Swissair one eleven heavy is declaring emergency (Roger) we are between uh twelve and five thousand feet we are declaring emergency now at ah time ah zero one two four,” radioed the plane 17 seconds after stating that they had to fly manually.
“Eleven heavy we starting dump (fuel) now we have to land immediate,” radioed the plane again.
Halifax air traffic control, which took over from Moncton as the plane approached, responded, “Swissair one eleven just a couple of miles I'll be right with you.”
As conditions would have rapidly deteriorated in the cockpit, the crew radioed one last time at 9:25 p.m., “And we are declaring emergency now Swissair one eleven.”
About six minutes later the aircraft struck the water at 555 kilometres an hour.
The pieces of the plane assembled on wire mesh in ‘J Hangar’ at Shearwater were taken down and placed in 400 boxes after the TSB report was issued.
There they sat for a few years, in case further questions arose.
“I’m not sure where it ended up, frankly,” said Gerden of the boxes.
“Probably some of it could have been recycled.”
Now all that remains of Swissair 111 are the lessons learned from its tragedy, the memories of loved ones lost and the pain of the first responders who helped collect the pieces afterwards.