Gander air disaster nears 32nd anniversary

Newfoundland plane crash fatalities include Sleepy Eye soldier

Photos taken at Gander, Newfoundland were provided by Susie and Jeff Pelzel of Sleepy Eye who visited the site earlier this year. Above, a plaque carries the names of all who were killed in the crash.

An airplane crash with the highest death toll on Canadian soil and the second-highest of any crash involving a DC-8 claimed the life of a Sleepy Eye soldier Dec. 12, 1985. All 248 passengers and all eight crew members on Arrow Air Flight 1285 died when the aircraft stalled, crashed, and burned about a half mile from the runway in Gander, Canada. The fatalities included Sleepy Eye native, Sgt. Kevin Witt.

After an investigation, the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) determined the probable cause of the crash was the aircraft’s unexpectedly high drag and reduced lift condition, most likely due to ice contamination on the wings’ leading edges and upper surfaces, plus an underestimated onboard weight.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF, was chartered to carry U.S. Army personnel, all members of the 101st Airborne Division, back to their base at Fort Campbell, Ky. after a six-month deployment in the Sinai, in the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping mission.

The flight had three legs, with refueling stops in Cologne and Gander.

Taking off at Gander, witnesses reported the aircraft showed difficulty gaining altitude. It descended, crossed the Trans-Canada Highway about 900 feet from the departure end of runway 22, at a very low altitude.

Kevin Witt is shown in his high school senior picture. He graduated from St. Mary’s in Sleepy Eye.

Witnesses in vehicles on the highway said they saw a bright glow coming from the aircraft before it hit ground, just short of Gander Lake and crashed. The aircraft broke up, hit an unoccupied building and exploded, starting a fire. The blaze became more intense, due to a large amount of fuel on board, according to the Gander International Airport Aviation Occurrence Report.

The CASB found that during the plane’s approach to Gander, precipitation conditions were favorable for ice formation on the aircraft’s wings. After landing, it continued to be exposed to “freezing and frozen precipitation capable of producing roughening of the upper wing surface” in addition to the freezing temperature. It was also learned that the aircraft was not de-iced prior to takeoff.

The board determined that other possible crash factors such as loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds may have compounded the effects of ice.

Four of the nine board members dissented, issuing a minority opinion that there was no evidence presented proving that ice was present on the leading wing edges. It was speculated than an in-flight fire may have resulted in the detonations of undetermined origin that created catastrophic system failures.

The one piece of evidence that could have shown the correct crash cause was the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR). However, that device was defective and failed to record anything. The Flight Data Recorder (FDR) was an older model that only recorded four parameters. It was scheduled to be replaced a few weeks later.

Statues at the New Foundland memorial pay tribute to the military soldiers who died in the crash.

Former Supreme Court of Canada Judge Willard Estey, reviewed the CASB report in 1989 and ruled that available evidence did not support either conclusion. As a result the Canadian public’s confidence in the CASB fell. The federal government responded by creating the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

A memorial of the 256 victims overlooks Gander Lake. Another memorial was built at Fort Campbell. There is a Memorial Park in Hopkinsville,Ky., just north of Fort Campbell.

Scars on the land from the crash can still be seen on the ground and in satellite photos.

The Discovery Channel Canada/National Geographic TV series “Mayday” featured the Flight 1285 crash and investigation in a Season 11 episode titled “Split Decision.” The production included interviews with crash investigators and a dramatic recreation of the crash.

Gregg Witt, 63, of New Ulm, a brother of Kevin Witt, said he misses his brother every day.

The Gander air crash memorial.

“He was a fantastic brother. He loved music like I do,” Gregg said. “We went to KISS, Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne concerts. We also enjoy goose and rabbit hunting and fishing on the Minnesota River.”

Gregg said his brother worked at Associated Milk Producers Inc. in New Ulm for a few years after graduating from Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s High School.

“He enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st Airborne. He was sent to Germany at one point and send us photos,” Gregg said.

“I see his photo on the refrigerator every day,” Gregg added. “To me, it’s like he’s on a long, military mission. God willing, we’ll see him again.”