Aer Lingus Flight 712
A Vickers Viscount of Aer Lingus, similar to the accident aircraft (1966)
|Date||24 March 1968|
|Summary||(Undetermined) 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 aircraft, 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. Causes proposed in several investigative reports include possible impact with birds, a missile or target drone, or mechanical and structural failures.
Aer Lingus still uses this flight number for a daily flight from Cork to London Heathrow, contrary to airline convention of discontinuing a flight number following a crash. The route is operated with an aircraft from the Airbus A320 family.
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 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 included Captain Bernard 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. The two stewardesses on board were Ann Kelly and Mary Coughlan.
All 61 of the persons aboard the aircraft died. In total, only 14 bodies were recovered from the St George's Channel following the crash.
An investigation report was produced in 1970. A review was undertaken between 1998 and 2000. An independent study was commissioned in 2000.
Of the several reports issued on the potential causes of the crash, several causes were proposed. These included possible bird strike, corrosion or similar structural failure, or collision with a target drone or missile. The latter causes were based on the proximity of Aberporth in west Wales – at the time the most advanced missile testing station in Britain.
In the years following the crash, several witnesses came forward in support of the missile theory. These include a crew member of the British ship HMS Penelope who alleged that part of the recovered wreckage was 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 likely 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 made an unsupported claim that the accident was 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. Evers maintained that he had evidence that a Fouga Magister trainer accidentally collided with the Aer Lingus aircraft as it was checking the status of the Viscount's undercarriage, which he claimed had failed to lock in position correctly. According to Evers, the Magister's two pilots survived by ejecting and parachuting to safety; however Magisters do not have ejector seats. Evers' claims, including that French and Irish authorities colluded in a cover-up, have been strongly refuted by other commentators. For example, Mike Reynolds, an aviator and author of Tragedy at Tuskar Rock, disputed Ever's claims and supports the findings of the 2002 French/Australian investigation – which ruled-out an impact with another aircraft or missile. This study, on which Reynolds 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 similarly described the Evers' claims as "spurious", noting that there was no evidence that an Irish Air Corps plane was in the vicinity at the time, and that Magisters did not actually enter service with the Irish Air Corps until 1976.
- Manx2 Flight 7100, a 2011 crash that was the deadliest Irish aviation incident since Aer Lingus Flight 712
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- Air Investigation Report 1970
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- Con Houlihan (2007). "On the wings of heroes and demons, mystery and injustice". Independent News & Media. Retrieved 6 December 2015.
- Report on accident to Viscount 803 Aircraft EI-AOM near Tuskar Rock, Co Wexford on 24th March, 1968 (reformatted version) (PDF) (Report). Air Accident Investigation Unit (Ireland). 1970. Retrieved 6 December 2015.
- Vogt, Ronny (1997). Irish Crash Airmails. Bray: Irish Airmail Society. p. 78.
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- Siggins, Lorna (3 March 2007). "Tuskar Rock crash caused by collision – RAF man". The Irish Times. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
- Air Accident Investigation Unit report (1970 report)
- Press release announcing new investigation of crash (2000 press release)
- Press release summarising findings of new investigation (2002 report)