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Swissair 111: The Crash of the ‘Diplomat Shuttle’

On September 2nd, 1998, Swissair’s flight 111 crashed into the sea off Nova Scotia. All 229 people aboard were killed. The pilots were facing a big problem. The fact that they underestimated it at first is not their fault. They did exactly what the airline had taught them to do. But they might have saved the plane, had they thrown regulations overboard.

Smoke in the cockpit is something many pilots are confronted with, even these days. Just three days before this article was written, on August 31st, 2018, a Boeing 757 freighter owned by UPS was on its way from Rockford (Illinois) to St. Louis (Missouri), when the cockpit crew noticed the issue.

The pilots knew the Swissair 111 story. Everyone in the business does. They were not going to take unnecessary risks. So they diverted to Cedar Rapids (Iowa). Immediately after landing, the aircraft was evacuated. One crew member was badly injured during the evacuation, the Aviation Herald reports. But everyone survived.

Pilots Loved the MD-11

Flight crews learn how to deal with fire aboard aircraft during their training. This applies to flight attendants and pilots. What they do not learn is how to extinguish a fire between the outer hull of planes and its wall covering, one which burns through cable harnesses at 4000 degrees Centigrade.

The flight left on time from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Its destination was Geneva. Because both New York City and Geneva are basically the capitals of the United Nations, there are headquarters in each of those cities, this night flight was known as the “diplomat shuttle”. Some U.N. diplomats used it once a month, others even once a week.

It was 8:18 p.m. when the MD-11 designated as Swissair fight no. 111 raced down one of the runways. At ‘V2’, Captain Urs Zimmermann and co-pilot Stephan Löw pulled the plane’s nose up. Without any issues, the enormous jet rocketed into the night sky over the U.S. East Coast.

MD-11s are just as ugly as their predecessor, the DC-10. They have the same weird expression in their ‘faces’ when looked at from the front. Pilots and airlines loved this model though. It was considered a lot safer than the DC-10. Its three engines sucked less kerosene out of the tanks than the Boeing 747 with its four engines. And it was easy to fly.

Weird Smells from the A/C are a Regular Occurrence

Once the Swissair plane was airborne, the 229 passengers and crew did not know they would never reach Geneva. They did not know they had exactly one hour and thirteen minutes to live. And they had no clue they might have survived, had the pilots thrown company regulations overboard.

The plane was still climbing when the passengers must have tried to get comfortable. Most likely, some tried to sleep, in order to be fit for a day at work in Geneva. Forty-four French citizens were on flight no. 11, three of them with dual citizenship. Forty-eight Swiss nationals, four of them with dual citizenship, were aboard too. So were as many as 110 Americans and an additional 27 passengers and crew from 19 nations.

The very plane which crashed as flight 111, photographed two months before.
Photo: Aero Icarus

At 8:58 p.m., the flight reached its cruising altitude. Only some 12 minutes later, the pilots smelled traces of smoke in the cockpit. At this stage, they believed the air conditioning was the source. Weird smells, transported by the A/C, are a relatively normal occurrence up there.

Another two minutes later, smoke was spreading in the cockpit. By now, Zimmermann and Löw knew they were in a serious situation, but they still thought it was more harmless than it actually was. Had they known just how serious things were, they would have reacted in a different way.

A Huge Plane Flying Low

At 9:13 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time (EDT), the pilots were busy choosing an airport to land at. A minute later, Zimmermann sent a ‘Pan Pan Pan’ call to the Canadian flight controllers in charge. This kind of call stands for a serious situation, but falls short of the kind of the kind of urgency a ‘Mayday’ call would have had.

Now the pilots were ready to turn around and go to Boston, but the controllers convinced them to land at Halifax Airport, which was a lot closer. Actually, it was too close. Since they needed more room for their descent, they turned east, over the sea. While they were losing altitude, they wanted to get rid of kerosene, since the plane was far too heavy for a landing, according to the handbooks.

It was 9:24 p.m. when the crew knew exactly how alarming their situation was. At this moment, the pilots might have used fire extinguishers against the flames which were coming out of the rear cockpit wall. They announced they had to “land immediate” (instead of ‘immediately’) and repeated the fact that they were in an emergency, a minute later. This was the last time they were heard.

At 9:30 p.m., residents in St. Margaret’s Bay saw and heard “a huge plane flying low”. Seconds later, the MD-11 crashed into the North Atlantic Ocean at a speed of more than 500 kilometers per hour. At that millisecond, everyone on board was dead. The plane exploded into millions of parts. So did the victim’s bodies.

Thirty minutes after the crash, it was 4:00 a.m. in Switzerland, on September 3rd, 1998, twenty years ago today. One by one, the media learned about the horrible news of this night, and reported it to their readers, listeners and viewers. The author of these lines was a freelance radio correspondent in Washington D.C. at the time. He reported about the crash for Radio 24, an independent station in Zurich, and for German networks.

Too Heavy for Landing?

Everything the pilots did was right and wrong at the same time. It was right in the sense that they did exactly what Swissair expected from them. They kept calm as long as possible, while trying to resolve their issue. When they knew they had to go for an emergency landing, they followed the checklists for cases of this kind.

But doing what they were supposed to do may have cost them their lives, along with 227 others. Back then experts said, had the pilots just landed in Halifax without any delays, they might have saved the flight, even though it was far too heavy to land, officially, since it had not consumed enough of the kerosene they were carrying.

Five years later, in 2003, the investigation report was released. It said that there had been a short circuit on a cable the isolation of which had been broken. That cable had provided energy for the modern in-flight entertainment system the plane was equipped with. It looks like that short circuit caused a fire, since insulating panels behind the walls of the cockpit were not fireproof. But they were supposed to be.

A few hours after everyone on board Swissair flight no. 111 had died in the waters off Nova Scotia, some families and friends of the victims went to John F. Kennedy Airport, where they were informed about the crash. The shocked and crying people were a very sad sight, the author of this article remembers, as the next of kin were cared for by psychologists and other medical professionals.

Victims Remembered Forever

Another few hours later, that sad scene repeated itself at Geneva Airport, after the terrible news had spread there as well.

The Swissair 111 crash was the end of Swissair. Because of the technical issues which led to the deadly accident, the American FAA changed some regulations, in order to make flights safer.

This accident was one of the terrible losses which happened above the North Atlantic during that era. Those also included TWA flight 800, a Boeing 747-100 which was ripped apart in a center fuel tank explosion south of Long Island two years earlier.

The crash of Egypt Air flight number 990 happened fourteen months after Swissair 111. It was a co-pilot suicide. And ten years before, in 1988, Pan Am flight no. 103 was destroyed by a bomb over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Libya’s leader General Gaddafi accepted responsibility for that attack in 2003.

On a positive note, since 1998, flying across the North Atlantic has become a lot safer. Since this terrible period, during which hundreds of passengers and crew members died, including the 229 people who were on Swissair flight 111, hardly anything bad has happened.

Today, exactly 20 years later, the victims are being remembered by their families and friends. And they will be forever.