This page kindly provided by Tom Shoemaker.
Copyright March 16, 1997, by Tom Shoemaker
In late April, 1991, the crew of an Alitalia MD-80 in the air between Kent and London reported that , while passing near the Ministry of Defence's Lydd Firing Range, a missile had passed very close to them. The crew members of the Alitalia aircraft provided detailed descriptions of the missile they had observed. London ATC detected an unidentified image on their radar screens at the time of the alleged near collision between aircraft and missile. Officials of the Ministry of Defence responded to inquiries about the incident with denials that any missile firings had taken place in the area.
Two weeks later there was another incident which caused many persons in Ireland and western England and Wales to wonder about the reliability of the military equipment that is tested in their areas. A Royal Air Force target drone crashed into a campground, tore the roof from a car there, and ignited the rest of the car into a blazing fireball. Fortunately no one was killed in either incident. In this latter case, the malfunctioning drone had been launched from a test area called Aberporth.
The two incidents separated by so few days stimulated more than surprise or shock at the possibility that civilians had been endangered by military tests which had somehow flown beyond the normal limits of their test areas. Two things about these incidents in 1991 caused a great many people to think of earlier incidents: the terse Ministry of Defence denials of any test exercises in the area of the first incident despite the high degree of credibility of the witnesses, and a name which brought back memories of a terrible event in the past. The name was "Aberporth."
Aberporth played a central and mysterious role in an aircraft disaster that remains unsolved at present: twenty-nine years later.
The statistics of the disaster are rather simple and clinical. An Aer Lingus Viscount airliner, Aer Lingus Flight EI 712, carrying sixty-one persons ( a crew of four and fifty-seven passengers) on a flight from Cork to London, crashed into the Irish Sea from an altitude of 17,000 feet near Tuskar Rock between 11:10 and 11:15 AM. The date was March 24, 1968. Preliminary investigation of radio records indicated the Viscount, christened "St. Phelim", had just concluded a routine radio exchange with ground control when a call from the aircraft stated it had lost 5,000 feet of altitude and was continuing to plummet downward in a rapid spin. The aircraft came to rest under forty feet of water after descending more than three miles to the Irish Sea. There were no survivors.
Photo Credit : "The Sunday Express" (Irish Edition), May 19, 1991
But there had been witnesses in the area, and until salvagers could raise the wreckage of "St. Phelim" for forensic analysis, it was thought these witnesses could perhaps shed some light on the sudden and catastrophic failure of one of the safest passenger aircraft ever to fly.Several witnesses agreed they had observed a second aircraft in the area at the time of the Viscount crash. Some witnesses stated they saw that aircraft, not the Viscount, crash into the sea. They described it as having the markings of a target drone used by the British for missile tests at one of their coastal facilities in Wales: Aberporth. Additional information was obtained that indicated that there had been five British naval platforms in the Irish sea at the time of the accident. Some of these ships were known to have had a history of participation in weapons tests.
Inquiries to the British Ministry of Defence about these observations did not generate much helpful information. The Ministry stated there had simply been no target drones in the area on March 24, a Sunday, because the Aberporth facility had been closed for the weekend. Thus, there had not been any missile firings from Aberporth either. The five ships reported to have been in the area had simply been engaged in routine operations of a nature unrelated to missile tests or tests involving a drone.
It eventually took eight weeks to recover the wreckage of Aer Lingus Flight 712. Fourteen bodies were recovered. The British Ministry of Defense maintained a high profile during the salvage operations. A major and very early contribution to the recovery effort was the deployment of a state-of-the-art salvage vessel, the "Hector Gull". Even after the great majority of the wreckage had been retrieved, it was reported by Irish government officials that the Royal Air Force had trawled the crash area with steel nets. The collaboration by Irish and British Naval and Air Force resources did not lead to a definitive accounting for the cause of the Viscount's strange plunge into the sea. The official accident inquiry conducted by the Irish government concluded there was not "not enough evidence to reach a reasonable conclusion about the initial cause of the high-altitude incident". ("The Western Mail", March 26, 1996, page 12) Some investigators blamed engine failure.
Map Credit : "The Western Mail"
To many on both sides of the Irish Sea, this was a very troubling finding. What about the excellent safety record of the Viscount : did this dependable aircraft have a hidden weakness that certain flying conditions could turn into a death-trap? What type of sinister force could incapacitate a modern, robust, four-engined , well-maintained aircraft? What about the witnesses who saw the drone-like aircraft fly into the area and then crash into it? Why had it been there? If Aberporth had been closed that day, where had the drone come from? What had happened to it? Why were the five naval ships in the area at the time of the crash? Why and how had the British military mobilized its own salvage operations so quickly? Why might the Royal Air Force, not generally known for marine salvage operations, gone out to the crash site and trawled the sea bed? Why did the testing base at Aberporth expand its range over the sea after the accident? For these questions, there were no immediate answers...no emotional or intellectual closure...no reason for the suffering the passengers and crew and their families had gone through...and many of the men and women who had been touched by the loss of Flight 712 wondered if they would ever know.
The two incidents in the Spring of 1991 spurred many to look back at Spring, 1968, and to wonder if circumstances had changed very much...if at all. Each of the incidents easily motivated caring persons to think a hundred questions, and yet the answers just did not come. Citizens having the keenest interests continued to look at the 1968 accident.: so many things about it were strange, and in that case the deaths of sixty-one persons suggested to a great many that a strangeness so lethal must not be forgotten. Perhaps, in a little more time, they would stop wondering about the questions and the odd circumstances surrounding Flight 712"s destruction....and, eventually, for most, the whispered doubts became quieter and less numerous.
An organization known as The Celtic League was not about to forget. Members of The Celtic League, concerned about military testing in the Irish Sea and the probability of harm coming from them without very careful independent monitoring and open communications between those testing and those who must live and work near the test areas took actions to remove at least some of the doubts about the fate of "St. Phelim". The Celtic League lobbied for the release of information concerning some of the most fundamental questions about the 1968 Aer Lingus flight: what had those five ships in the Irish Sea been doing at the time of the Sunday crash? What sort of activities were taking place at the Aberporth test facility on March 24, 1968?
More than twenty-five years after the Viscount plunged into the sea, the Ministry of Defence responded. In June, 1993 the ministry announced the log book for the salvage vessel "Hector Gull" was missing. The logs from two other ships were also missing. It wasn't known why. Records released concerning the activities at Aberporth on the day of the crash showed the base had been closed the weekend of the crash. Copies of the log of activities at Aberporth were given to The Celtic League. These materials showed no tests involving missiles or drones the day of the crash. They also indicated that not only were there no missile or drone launches that weekend, but no activities of any types whatever had taken place on that weekend.
They did indicate missile and/or drone launches immediately before and after the weekend of the EI 712 crash. And they indicated one more thing as well: an odd overall appearance, suggesting to some that they were not records accumulating from day-to-day updates twenty-five years previously, but more like a ledger that had been written at one time by one person, instead of at separate times. The Ministry of Defence did not make originals of these logs available for handwriting analysis.
Document Credit: " The Celtic League"
Another disturbing piece of news was published by "The Irish Times", on March 25, 1994. Reporter Peter Thompson revealed the astonishing fact that in all the time since the loss of Flight 712, the Irish Government had never requested to examine British Ministry of Defence records to determine for itself the relevancy of the information there. Citizens who remembered that the crash inquiry had somehow concluded that the Viscount had "almost certainly not hit another aircraft, target drone, or a wayward missile, but was unable to provide an explanation for the crash." Such a conclusion provided an obvious and powerful reason for the Irish Government to push for their own examination of British Ministry of Defence records, and yet, this had never been done. What could be the reason for such a lack of initiative?
Just one month prior to reporter Thompson's shocking revelation, an unusual incident had taken place in the Irish Sea, off Wexord, near Tuskar Rock. A French trawler operating there brought a metallic artifact to the surface. It was part of a jet engine. An engineer examined it and stated the part came from a British "Meteor"aircraft. The "Meteor"was used as a target drone in the late 1960s. An examination of the Aberporth test facility records indicates frequent use of "Meteor"drones in the days just before and after the crash of Flight 712. How did a "Meteor"end up on the seabed near the site of the 1968 crash? Was this what the military trawling activities were attempting to retrieve after the accident? Where did the "Meteor"come from? Does the "Meteor" wreckage have anything to do with the Viscount wreckage?
There is a possibility that soon the answers to those questions and many of the others will be acquired. Almost all of the military records related to the 1968 crash are subject to a law which mandates their unavailability for release for a period of thirty years. So, soon after March 24, 1998, it is expected that much will be learned about what happened more than a generation before. Those who care most deeply about learning the truth about Aer Lingus Flight 712 are already looking to 1998 with both anticipation and apprehension. Will the answers be found and doubts laid to rest... thoughts and feelings about the great sadness in that Spring long ago made a little more tolerable by the arrival of the truth at last...or will those records prove to be incomplete, missing, empty, and hostile reminders of the long Flight 712 ordeal?
When that day arrives and the hand of public scrutiny touches the dry, stale , hidden history of the work of hundreds of now-retired bureaucrats and servicemen, there will be homes across the land where families may still look out to sea and sky, thinking of their lost kin just as they had been thirty years before. And as they have done so many times since 1968, they will ask that sea and sky a question, a simple question, more with their eyes than with their voices: "Why?"
Back To The Top.
Back To The Crash Page.
Back To The TWA Page.