Aer Lingus Flight 712
|Date||24 March 1968|
|Summary||In-flight airliner structural failure|
|Site||St George's Channel
near Wexford, Ireland
|Aircraft type||Vickers Viscount 803|
Aer Lingus Flight 712 crashed en route from Cork to London on 24 March 1968 killing all 61 passengers and crew. The plane, a Vickers Viscount 803 named "St. Phelim", crashed into the sea off Tuskar Rock, County Wexford. Although the investigation into the crash lasted two years, a cause was never determined. There has long been popular speculation that the aircraft was shot down by a British experimental missile. Aberporth in West Wales was at the time the most advanced British missile testing station.
The flight left Cork Airport at 10:32 hours for London. The flight proceeded normally until a call was heard with the probable contents "twelve thousand feet descending spinning rapidly". There was no further communications with the aircraft and London ATC informed Shannon ATC that they had no radio contact with EI-AOM. London ATC requested Aer Lingus Flight EI 362 (flying Dublin-Bristol) to search west of Strumble. This search at 500 ft (150 m) in good visibility saw nothing. At 11:25 a full alert was declared. By 12:36 there was a report of wreckage sighted at position 51°57′N, 06°10′W. Searching aircraft found nothing and the report cancelled. Aircraft and ships from the UK resumed the search the following day and "wreckage was sighted and bodies recovered" 6 nautical miles (11 km) north-east of Tuskar Rock with more wreckage scattered "for a further 6 nautical miles north-west".
Thirteen bodies were recovered over the next few days. Another body was recovered later. The main wreckage was located on the sea bed by trawling 1.72 nautical miles (3.19 km) from Tuskar Rock at 39 fathoms.
The aircraft was a Vickers Viscount 803 which flew under tail-number EI-AOM and had been in service since 1957 with a total of 18,806 lifetime flight hours. Aer Lingus operated approximately 20 Viscount aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s, of which two others were involved in serious incidents. The year before the Tuskar Rock crash, in June 1967, an 803 Viscount on a training flight crashed (due to a stall) with the loss of 3 crew lives. Also in 1967, in September, an 808 Viscount was damaged beyond repair during a crash landing (due to pilot error in fog) that caused no serious casualties.
The crew of EI-AOM Flight 712 were Captain Bernard 'Barney' O'Beirne, 35, who had joined Aer Lingus after three years in the Air Corps. His total flying time was 6,683 hours, 1,679 of them on Viscounts. He was endorsed for command on Viscount aircraft and passed a medical in January 1968. The First Officer was Paul Heffernan, 22, who had training with Airwork Services Training at Perth and joined Aer Lingus in 1966. That year, he received an Irish Commercial Pilots licence with Viscount endorsement and instrument rating. His total flying time was 1,139 hours, of which 900 was on Viscounts.
All 61 persons aboard the aircraft died. The majority of the passengers were Irish (33), the remainder being Swiss (9), Belgian (6), British (5), Swedish (2) and American (2).
An investigation report was produced in 1970. A review was undertaken between 1998 and 2000. An independent study was commissioned in 2000.
In the years since the crash several witnesses have come forward with evidence to support the missile theory, including a crew member of the British ship HMS Penelope. He claimed that part of the wreckage that was recovered by Penelope was secretly removed to the UK.
However, in 2002 a review process conducted by the AAIU (Air Accident Investigation Unit) disclosed that Aer Lingus paperwork relating to a routine maintenance inspection carried out on the aircraft in December 1967 was found to be missing in 1968. Moreover, a large body of research was done by the investigators after the accident regarding the maintenance operating plan used for EI-AOM and defects on the aircraft found during analysis of the maintenance records. This research was not referred to in the 1970 report. A new board of investigation was set up by the Irish government and found that the crash was the consequence of a chain of events starting with a failure to the left tail-plane caused by metal fatigue, corrosion, flutter or a bird strike, with the most likely cause being a flutter-induced fatigue failure of the elevator trim tab operating mechanism.
In March 2007 retired RAF Squadron Leader Eric Evers who was previously chief flying instructor with the British military in RAF Little Rissington, made a claim that the accident was in fact caused by a mid-air collision between the Aer Lingus Vickers Viscount and a French-built military aircraft which was training with the Irish Air Corps. Squadron Leader Evers maintains that he has evidence to prove that a Fouga Magister trainer accidentally collided with the Aer Lingus aircraft as it was responding to a request to check the status of the Viscount's undercarriage, which had failed to lock in position correctly. All 61 people, including the four crew, on board the Aer Lingus Viscount Cork-London Heathrow flight were lost in the subsequent crash off Tuskar Rock, but according to Sqn Leader Evers information, the two pilots in the trainer survived by ejecting and parachuting to safety. Sqn Leader Evers maintains that both the French and Irish authorities colluded in a subsequent cover-up, and the Fouga Magister wreckage may still be on the seabed off the Co Wexford coast.
Eric Evers' claims have been disputed by Capt Mike Reynolds, retired sea captain and aviator and author of Tragedy at Tuskar Rock, published in 2003. Capt Reynolds upholds the findings of the 2002 official report by French and Australian experts which ruled out the possibility that the Viscount was hit by another aircraft or missile. The international study, on which he worked as Irish assistant, concluded that the cause may have been as a result of structural failure of the aircraft, corrosion, metal fatigue, "flutter" or bird strike.
An Irish Defence Forces spokesman described the claims of Squadron Leader Evers as "spurious" and said there was no evidence that an Irish Air Corps plane was in the vicinity at the time. That Fouga Magister did not "come into service" with the Irish Air Corps until 1976. However he could not comment on why a Fouga Magister was listed as one of the Air Corps aircraft in service in 1968, as stated in appendix 5.2.g of the 2002 report.
- Manx2 Flight 7100, a 2011 crash that was the deadliest Irish aviation incident since Aer Lingus Flight 712
- Mullin, John (11 January 1999). "Did British missile hit Flight 712?". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 4 June 2009.
- Lashmar, Paul (16 March 2000). "For 30 years, the RAF has been suspected of causing Ireland's worst air disaster. Until now...". The Independent (London). Retrieved 4 June 2009.
- "Irish air crash report due". BBC News. 19 April 2000. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
- Air Investigation Report 1970
- Aviation Safety Network - Accident Database - EI-AOM 28 March 1968
- Aviation Safety Network - Accident Database - EI-AOF 22 June 1967
- Aviation Safety Network - Accident Database - EI-AKK 21 September 1967
- Siggins, Lorna (3 March 2007). "Tuskar Rock crash caused by collision – RAF man". Retrieved 4 June 2009.
- Air Accident Investigation Unit report
- Press release announcing new investigation of crash
- Press release summarising findings of new investigation