flight 981

Today is the 40th anniversary of the crash of Turkish Airlines Flight 981, one of the most tragic air disasters in aviation history. On March 3, 1974, the fully-loaded DC-10, named Ankara after the capital of Turkey, took off from Orly Airport in Paris for a relatively short flight to London’s Heathrow Airport. It was the second leg of a scheduled run from Istanbul to London. Only ten minutes after takeoff, something catastrophic happened aboard Ankara. Crippled and out of control, the DC-10 crashed into the Ermenonville Forest outside of Paris at nearly 500 miles an hour. Every one of the 346 people on board was killed.

What happened to Ankara? A panicked transmission was heard from the plane just before it disappeared from radar. Over the sound of multiple alarm bells the Turkish pilot could be heard saying, “The fuselage has burst!” When first responders reached the crash site in the forest they found the plane–and its occupants–literally in millions of tiny pieces. The plane hit the ground so fast that it virtually vaporized; there were no pieces of large wreckage left, with one grisly exception. Nine miles away, in the town of Saint-Pathus, a chunk of the rear of the DC-10 was found, including the rear row of seats. Six corpses were still strapped in their seats.

Investigators concluded that the cargo door in the rear of the plane blew off during the flight. This caused the cargo hatch to decompress rapidly. Like sucking a chunky milkshake, the pressure void caused the floor in the back of the plane to buckle and break. The control and hydraulic lines led through this part of the floor, which meant when the rear part of the plane broke away the pilots could no longer control the aircraft. The rest of the tale is grimly obvious.

ermenonville disaster memorial

This is the memorial to Flight 981’s victims, in the Ermenonville forest where the plane crashed. It was probably very busy today.

What was shocking about the Flight 981 disaster was that it had been predicted. In June 1972 Dan Applegate, an engineer for Convair, one of the subcontractors who built the DC-10, wrote a memo warning his boss that the cargo doors on DC-10s had a serious design flaw that could cause them to open unexpectedly in flight. Applegate’s memo predicted exactly the chain reaction effect that eventually happened to Flight 981: decompression, the floor getting sucked in, the rear of the plane falling out, loss of control and catastrophic crash. Convair analyzed the problem but this company and McDonnell-Douglas ultimately decided that retrofitting all the DC-10s in service to fix their cargo doors was too expensive. Instead they opted for a cheap fix, a couple of add-on pins that were supposed to prevent the door from blowing open, and warning signs cautioning baggage handlers about how to make sure the door was latched for flight. These cheap fixes obviously didn’t work for Ankara. The baggage handler who closed the plane’s cargo door just before it left Paris was from Algeria and couldn’t read the warning signs which were printed in English and Turkish.

The case of Applegate and the Ermenonville disaster posed a classic problem in “engineering ethics,” and also illustrates the ethical difficulties that arise when for-profit businesses are forced to choose between morality and economics. What happens when a manufacturer accidentally makes a dangerous product but turns out to be unwilling to shell out the money to fix it? The crash of Flight 981 provided a chillingly blunt answer to that question: people die. In this case, 346 people were killed in an entirely preventable accident. There are few starker demonstrations of how morality and capitalism are sometimes incompatible.

The human cost of the Ermenonville tragedy is almost beyond imagining. The horror of the passengers’ final moments of consciousness–and life–is grisly to contemplate. Flight 981 was truly a global disaster, killing nationals of 21 countries from every inhabited continent. An entire British rugby team was wiped out. A noted diplomat and an Olympic athlete were among the Americans killed. Some of the dead were children. Consider the trauma of first responders tasked with collecting all the tiny pieces of human bodies scattered throughout the Ermenonville Forest. I have seen photos of this disaster. They’re pretty awful.

Forty years on, have we learned from Ankara’s fate? Entirely preventable disasters–not just in air travel or transportation–continue to occur regularly, often quietly. In addition to airplane and automobile manufacturers (think of the infamous Ford Pinto), pharmaceutical companies often face moral dilemmas in developing drugs with potentially dangerous side-effects. I have little confidence that these dilemmas are more often resolved in favor of lives as opposed to money. Ask the surviving family members of the dead of Flight 981 whether their loved ones’ deaths served a greater good.

The CGI reconstruction of Flight 981’s last moments is by Wikimedia Commons user Anynobody and is used under GNU Free Documentation License. The photo of the memorial at Ermenonville is by Wikimedia Commons user P.Poschadel and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.