Arrow Air Flight 1285R

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Arrow Air Flight 1285R was an international charter flight carrying U.S. Army personnel from Cairo, Egypt, to their home base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, via Cologne, West Germany, and Gander, Newfoundland.[1] On the morning of Thursday, 12 December 1985, shortly after takeoff from Gander International Airport en route to Fort Campbell, the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 serving the flight stalled, crashed, and burned about half a mile from the runway, killing all 248 passengers and 8 crew members on board.[2] As of 2024, it is the deadliest aviation accident to occur on Canadian soil.[3] At the time of the crash, it was the deadliest aviation accident involving a DC-8; as of 2024, it is the second-deadliest, behind the crash of Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 nearly six years later.[3]

Arrow Air Flight 1285R
Wreckage from Arrow Air Flight 1285R in storage at a Gander Airport hangar on 16 December 1985
Date12 December 1985
SummaryAtmospheric icing and overloading leading to stall (CASB Report).
SiteGander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada
48°54′43″N 54°34′27″W / 48.91194°N 54.57417°W / 48.91194; -54.57417
Aircraft typeMcDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF
OperatorArrow Air
IATA flight No.MF1285R
Flight originCairo International Airport, Egypt
1st stopoverCologne Bonn Airport,
North Rhine-Westphalia, West Germany
Last stopoverGander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada
DestinationCampbell Army Airfield, Kentucky, United States
Gander  is located in Canada

The accident was investigated by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB), which determined that 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, as well as underestimated onboard weight.[4] A minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin before impact, with one of these dissenting investigators later telling a United States congressional committee that a thin layer of ice could not bring down the aircraft.[5][6] The dissenting report led to delays in changes to de-icing procedures, and a thin layer of ice caused the deadly crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363 in Canada in 1989.

In response to lack of confidence in accident investigations by the CASB, the Government of Canada shut the board down in 1990, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.[citation needed]

Flight history

N950JW, the aircraft involved in the accident in April 1984 at Zürich Airport while still in service with Arista International Airlines.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF, was chartered to carry U.S. Army personnel, all but 12 of them members of the 101st Airborne Division, back to their base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They had completed a six-month deployment in the Sinai, in the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping mission.[3] The DC-8 involved in the accident (registration N950JW)[7] was manufactured in 1969, and was first delivered to Eastern Air Lines and then leased to other airlines before being leased to Arrow Air under its owner/parent company, International Air Leases.[4]

The flight was made up of three legs, with refuelling stops in Cologne and Gander.[4] The aircraft departed Cairo at 20:35 UTC on Wednesday 11 December 1985, and arrived at Cologne on Thursday 12 December 1985, at 01:21 UTC.

A new flight crew, consisting of Captain John Griffin and First Officer Joseph Connelly (both 45), and Flight Engineer Michael Fowler (48),[8] boarded the aircraft before it departed for Gander at 02:50 UTC.[4] The aircraft arrived at Gander International Airport at 09:04, where passengers departed the aircraft while the aircraft was refuelled. Witnesses reported that the flight engineer conducted an external inspection of the aircraft, after which the passengers re-boarded the aircraft.[4]

The DC-8 began its takeoff roll on runway 22 from the intersection of runway 13 at 10:15 UTC (06:45 NST). It rotated near taxiway A, 51 seconds after brake release, at an airspeed of about 167 knots (309 km/h; 192 mph) IAS.[4] Witnesses reported the aircraft showed difficulty gaining altitude after rotation. Once airborne, the airspeed reached 172 knots (319 km/h; 198 mph) IAS before decreasing again, causing the DC-8 to descend. After crossing the Trans-Canada Highway, located about 900 feet (270 m) from the departure end of runway 22, at a very low altitude, the aircraft's pitch increased, and it continued to descend.[4]

Witnesses driving on the highway stated that they saw a bright glow emanating from the aircraft before it struck terrain just short of Gander Lake and crashed approximately 3,500 feet (1,100 m) beyond the departure end of the runway.[4] Flight 1285R broke up, struck an unoccupied building[4] and exploded; this started an intense fire fed by the large amount of fuel carried on board for the final leg of the flight. All 248 passengers and 8 crew perished.[3][4]



The Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) investigated the crash and, in a report signed by five of its nine board members, found that during its approach toward Gander, precipitation conditions were favourable for the formation of ice on the aircraft's wings. After landing, it continued to be exposed to "freezing and frozen precipitation capable of producing roughening on the wing upper surface" in addition to the freezing temperature. They also found that prior to takeoff the aircraft had not been de-iced.[4] The board issued the following probable cause statement in its final report:[3][4]

The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact sequence of events that led to this accident. The Board believes, however, that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that, shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift that resulted in a stall at low altitude from which recovery was not possible. The most probable cause of the stall was determined to be ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing. Other possible factors such as a loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate takeoff reference speeds may have compounded the effects of the contamination.

Four (of nine) members of the CASB dissented, issuing a minority opinion asserting that there was no evidence presented proving that ice had been present on leading edges such as the wings, and the minority report speculated that "An in-flight fire that may have resulted from detonations of undetermined origin brought about catastrophic system failures."[5]

The report also noted the inadequacy of the data from the antiquated foil-tape flight data recorder, which recorded only airspeed, altitude, heading, and vertical acceleration forces. The plane also took off with a non-functioning cockpit area microphone. There were no steps on any of the standard checklists to test the microphone's functionality, despite the existence of a button in the cockpit for that sole purpose. The defect went undetected for an indeterminate number of flights leading up to the accident flight, and thus the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) did not record any useful data.[4]

The main final report is 95 pages long while the minority report is only 14 pages long. The main report has overwhelming support in evidence produced by the 31 investigators working on the crash for 3 years. The minority report on the other hand consists of multiple hypotheses supported solely by witness statements and improbable claims with very little supporting evidence that were deemed unreliable and dismissed by experienced investigators.[citation needed]

Willard Estey, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, submitted a review of the CASB report in 1989, ruling that the available evidence did not support either conclusion. Estey reviewed the report from the perspective of beyond a reasonable doubt as per a court of law rather than based on the available evidence as how investigators make their conclusions. [9] As a result, the Canadian public's confidence in the CASB was undermined. The federal government responded by creating the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.[10]


Caskets being carried in for a memorial service at Dover AFB on 16 December 1985
The "Silent Witness" by Kentucky artist Steve Shields. Arrow Air Flight 1285R memorial at Gander Lake, with a DC-8 taking off in the background
Arrow Air Flight 1285R memorial in Fort Campbell, Kentucky

On the day of the crash, responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Jihad Organization. Islamic Jihad had already claimed responsibility for the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings that killed more than 200 American Marines. The claim was dismissed by the Canadian and U.S. governments soon after.[2][11] According to United Press International, "Hours after the crash the Islamic Jihad – a Shiite Muslim extremist group – claimed it destroyed the plane to prove [its] ability to strike at the Americans anywhere." Pentagon and Canadian government officials rejected the claim, made by an anonymous caller to a French news agency in Beirut.[12]

All 256 people died – 248 U.S. servicemen and 8 crew members. To date, the death toll still constitutes the deadliest plane crash in Canada,[13] and the U.S. Army's single deadliest air crash in peacetime.[14]

Of the 248 servicemen, all but twelve were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), most of whom were from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry; eleven were from other Forces Command units; and one was an agent from the Criminal Investigations Command (CID).[15]

A memorial to the 256 victims at the crash site overlooks Gander Lake, and another memorial was erected at Fort Campbell. There is also a Memorial Park in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, just north of Fort Campbell. As of 2018, the scar from the crash is still visible from the ground and by satellite.

The dissenting report led to delays in changes to de-icing procedures, after a thin layer of ice caused the deadly crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363 in Canada in 1989. In response to lack of confidence in accident investigations by the CASB, the government of Canada shut down the board in 1990, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.


The television documentary series Mayday featured the Flight 1285R crash and investigation in a season 11 episode titled "Split Decision", which included interviews with accident investigators and a dramatic recreation of the accident.[6]

See also



  1. ^ "258 killed in Gander plane crash". The Citizen. Ottawa, Canada. The Canadian Press. 12 December 1985. p. 1.
  2. ^ a b "Terror bomb ruled out in Canada's worst crash". Montreal Gazette. news services. 13 December 1985. p. A1.
  3. ^ a b c d e Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Aviation Occurrence Report, Arrow Air Inc. Douglas DC-8-63 N950JW, Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, 12 December 1985" (PDF). Canadian Aviation Safety Board. 14 November 1988. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  5. ^ a b Dissenting Opinion, Arrow Air Inc. Douglas DC-8-63 N950JW, Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, 12 December 1985 (PDF). Canadian Aviation Safety Board. 14 November 1988. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 April 2005. Retrieved 13 December 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Split Decision". Mayday. Season 11. Episode 3. Cineflix. 26 August 2011. Discovery Channel Canada.
  7. ^ "FAA Registry (N950JW)". Federal Aviation Administration.
  8. ^ "Disasters: Gander, Newfoundland Plane Crash December 12, 1985". Archived from the original on 27 April 2006.
  9. ^ "Canada Judge Rejects New Gander Crash Probe". Los Angeles Times. 22 July 1989. Retrieved 27 August 2011.
  10. ^ Watson, Blair. "The Transportation Safety Board Taking centre stage to advance aviation safety" Archived 25 September 2010 at the Wayback Machine. Wings at Transportation Safety Board of Canada. July/August 2008. Retrieved on 17 September 2010.
  11. ^ "Plane's airworthiness questioned". The Citizen. Ottawa, Canada. staff and wire reports. 13 December 1985. p. 1.
  12. ^ Watson, Laurie (6 November 1988). "Errors By Crew Reportedly Cited in Gander Crash". The Philadelphia Inquirer, United Press International. p. A33.
  13. ^ Ranter, Harro. "Canada air safety profile". Archived from the original on 28 September 2006. Retrieved 22 October 2006.
  14. ^ Wolf, Marion E. (1990). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Etiology, Phenomenology, and Treatment. American Psychiatric Pub, p. 127. ISBN 0880482990
  15. ^ Gough, Terrence J. (1995). "Tragedy at Gander". Department of the Army Historical Summary Fiscal Year 1986. United States Army Center of Military History. Archived from the original on 4 July 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2010.

Further reading

External image
  Pre-crash photos of the DC-8 in service with Arrow Air and other airline companies at