Peter Parsons / Herald Photo
Swissair crash victim relatives Miles Gerety and Margie Topf
discuss the Transportation Safety Board report in Halifax on
Thursday. Mr. Gerety called for an investigation into an
entertainment system aboard Swissair Flight 111.
Peter Parsons / Herald Photo
Transportation Safety Board head investigator Vic Gerden holds a
thermal insulation blanket in Halifax on Thursday after
releasing the final report on the crash of Swissair Flight 111.
They didn't have a chance
Pilots couldn't have saved Flight 111 from fire,
Susan LeBlanc / Staff Reporter
The 229 people aboard Swissair Flight 111 had no chance.
That's what the final report into the Sept. 2, 1998, crash,
released Thursday in Halifax, concludes after 4 1/2 years of
The report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said a
hidden fire in the cockpit ceiling - sparked by faulty wiring,
fuelled by highly flammable materials and worsened by inadequate
fire detection and response systems - left the pilots with little
ability to prevent their deadly plummet into the Atlantic Ocean off
"Even if the pilots could have foreseen the eventual
deterioration due to the fire, because of the rapid progression of
the fire, they would not have been able to complete a safe landing
in Halifax," lead investigator Vic Gerden said.
The TSB said if "readily ignitable"
metallized insulation blankets were not present inside the aircraft
walls, "this accident would not have happened."
But the board said it's not its job to assign blame, and did not
pinpoint a sole factor in the accident that killed all 215
passengers and 14 crew.
Despite much speculation about wiring connecting the jet's
inflight entertainment system, the TSB stopped short of saying the
system by itself sparked the fire.
Yet a handful of victims' relatives who were in Halifax, while
praising the TSB's work, said the system was at fault.
"The spark came from that system. And the way that system got
into that plane is a scandal," said Miles Gerety, a Connecticut
lawyer who lost his brother, Pierce, on the flight, which was bound
for Geneva from New York.
Mr. Gerety was referring to a recent media report that said the
system, unique to Swissair planes, was certified by a private U.S.
firm that the Federal Aviation Administration had criticized in the
Mr. Gerden said investigators found, among the 250 kilometres of
airplane wire, evidence the entertainment system wiring was likely a
source of initial arcing, or a short-circuit, that ignited
But another type of wiring, which experts couldn't identify, was
also in play, Mr. Gerden told a news conference attended by
The board said flying is now safer worldwide thanks to its
$57-million probe, and released nine new safety recommendations.
The new recommendations, bringing to 23 the total issued since
the Swissair crash, aim to:
- Reduce risks associated with thermal insulation materials, and
ensure new materials are certified properly;
- Ensure supplemental systems - such as the entertainment system
- are properly vetted and installed;
- Establish standards for circuit-breaker resetting;
- Get better-quality cockpit voice recorder data;
- Have new aircraft able to record more flight data;
- Have image recording systems installed in cockpits; and
- Harmonize international rules for protection of cockpit voice
and image recordings.
Since the crash, plane diversions due to on-board smoke have
risen everywhere, Mr. Gerden said.
"People are taking the approach that it's a serious issue if you
have smoke," he said.
Thermal insulation blankets, which go by the brand name Mylar
among others, are being removed from the 700 U.S. aircraft that have
them. Another 1,900 planes worldwide - but no Canadian ones - also
Mr. Gerden said the red flag concerning flammable materials is
"probably the most important legacy" of the probe.
As well, he said the FAA has sent out 50 airworthiness directives
on the MD-11 aircraft - none of which fly in Canada - to eliminate
potential fire sources.
The TSB also wants built-in fire detection systems on all planes,
but Mr. Gerden said the timing on that is up to industry and
regulators - the FAA in the U.S. and Transport Canada here.
Research chemist Robert Kauffman, who did wiring research for
investigators of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island,
N.Y., said arcing may have been occurring on the Swissair plane for
a while, but no one knew.
"If you had some type of sensor that could have alerted someone
several flights before that this problem was starting to happen,
then it would have helped," he said from the University of Dayton
Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio.
Though the MD-11 that crashed off Peggys Cove was only seven
years old, wear can occur among wires bundled with "knife-edge"
clamps, Mr. Kauffman said.
Mr. Gerden said there have been only 15 inflight fires on large
commercial aircraft worldwide in the past 30 years.
Of the 20 pieces of Flight 111 wiring that showed arcing, half
had so-called Kapton insulation and half had another type.
Still, Mr. Gerden said the TSB can't say the insulation is
problematic. He said the board has recommended better wiring
Another area that concerned investigators was the way crews
respond to fires.
The Flight 111 crew, pilot Urs Zimmermann, 49, and co-pilot
Stefan Loew, 36, followed a standard emergency checklist - and such
checklists can take too long, said the TSB.
Computer modelling showed the fire started on the right side of
the cockpit ceiling and moved toward the passenger cabin.
But when the pilots, following their checklist, turned off
electrical power to the cabin, air recirculation fans stopped.
Starved of oxygen, the fire was drawn back into the cockpit.
A year ago, a lawyer representing victims' families suing
Swissair said all lawsuits would be settled within months. He said
combined payouts would reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
Inquiries to Swiss International Airlines - formed after Swissair
went bankrupt in October 2001 - were directed to Zurich, but a
spokesman was unavailable.
The nine-metre section of the plane the TSB reconstructed, plus
boxes of other wreckage, go to the airline's insurer.