Episode 60: Air India Flight 182

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Just 30 minutes before Air India Flight 182 was scheduled to arrive in London, it disappeared from radar. That marked the first moment when anyone realized the flight was in distress- including the passengers and crew on board. In this episode of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, Stephanie shares the story of how this crash resulted in an investigation that spanned two decades and is remembered as "a Canadian tragedy." While the sequence of events and series of missteps may shock you, we know it's a story and legacy you won't soon forget.

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When Did Air India Flight 182 Take Off?

Air India Flight 182 had a long journey ahead of it when it departed from Montreal on June 22, 1985. Flight 182 started out in Canada. After flying out of Canadian airspace, the flight was headed to London, New Delhi, and finally Bombay, which we have known as Mumbai since 1995. Many of the passengers who were onboard that day were making the entire journey with the aircraft; quite a few of the 307 passengers on board were heading to India to see friends and family. All 22 members of the crew, including the flight crew and the cabin crew, were Indian citizens.

Air India Flight 182 Flight Crew

Flight 182 was scheduled to fly on the Kanishka, which was a Boeing 747 named in honor of Kanishka the Great, an emperor during the Kushan Dynasty which was during the second century. Seated in the cockpit were Captain H.S. Narendra, First Officer Satwinder Bhinder, and Flight Engineer Dara Dumasia. Captain Narendra was 56 years old and joined Air India in October of 1956. Captain Narendra brought 30 years of experience with him to his role, and he was also well-trained; in order to be converted to the pilot in command of the Boeing 747, he attended ground training at Boeing in the USA as well as simulator and aircraft flying training in Bombay in 1972. He was made a captain in February 1973, and he had more than 6,000 hours of flying time in the 747. That was just a percentage of his total amount of flying time, which was more than 20,000 hours. The accident report noted that he had been declared medically unfit for two months in 1966, when he was told he needed to lose 10 pounds. He was also declared medically unfit for three months in 1975 for a similar reason. Also of note was the fact Captain Narenda was involved with two incidents during previous flights; in one incident, he flew the aircraft he was commanding off course by 170 nautical miles, and he was given refresher training on route checks. In another incident, he was observed approaching a runway that was not assigned to him, and he was given simulator training on approaches and landings. Neither incident resulted in damage to an aircraft or injury to anyone on the plane or on the ground, but still, we don't often hear about incidents that involve the crew.

First Officer Bhinder was 41 years old and had flown with Air India since 1977. He was just shy of 7,500 career flight hours, with just under 2,500 of those hours as a first officer on the Boeing 747. Unlike Captain Narendra, he had not been involved in any aviation incidents during his career. And Flight Engineer Dumasia was 57 years old and had been flying with Air India longer than his colleagues in the cockpit; he started his career in December 1954. He had almost 15,000 flight hours of experience with 5500 of those hours on the Boeing 747.

Flight 182 Flew with Five Engines

One interesting thing about this flight was that, although 747s typically fly with four engines, this one happened to be flying with five. The aircraft was transporting a broken engine from Canada to India; the engine in question had failed during a takeoff in Toronto a about two months before, and Air India needed to get it back to Bombay for repairs. The way that was done was to mount the engine to one of the plane's wings, which would allow an aircraft to fly it back to the location where repairs could be performed. It's not as straightforward a process as it might sound; while the bulk of the engine was mounted to the wing, some pieces were carried in cargo. To fit the pieces, the door of the cargo compartment had to be removed to make some additional space for the pieces to be loaded, and then the door was reinstalled. The plane was late arriving in Montreal from Toronto, where the engine was installed, because of that process.

Where was Air India Flight 182 Flying To?

Air India Flight 182 was an overnight flight, and it departed on June 22, which means it was scheduled to land in London the following morning, on June 23. Flight 182 took off smoothly and reached its cruising altitude, where it flew through the night sky toward dawn. By morning, about four and a half hours into the flight, the aircraft was not too far off the coast of Ireland, and it was business as usual in the cockpit. The skies were quiet that morning, with just a few other planes in the vicinity, and at 7:00 AM local time it was only about 30 minutes or so until their scheduled touchdown in London.

What Happened In Flight 182’s Final Moments?

The cockpit voice recorder captured the conversation in the cockpit, which included a request from First Officer Bhinder to the flight's purser to fulfill the request of a young child onboard who was hoping to see the cockpit. After letting the purser know where the boy was seated, he suggested the child be brought up for his tour about 15-20 minutes later; the crew was working on some paperwork, and the cockpit would be a little more accommodating once they got that out of the way. At 7:10 they checked in with air traffic control in Shannon, and for a few minutes the CVR picked up some conversation as flights in the area confirmed the flight level they would be traveling at and were assigned discrete transponder codes, or squawk codes— Shannon ATC asked Flight 182 to squawk 2005, which the crew confirmed. A few moments later, the crew started discussing the customs forms they would need to prepare. At 7:13 AM, Flight Engineer Dumasia said, "Customs forms. For their arrival. Customs bar—" That’s when the CVR stopped recording.

Flight 182 Went Missing

At Shannon Air Traffic Control, Michael Quinn was working with his colleague Tom Lane to monitor the air traffic overhead. There were three planes that were flying close together, practically in the same space but separated by a few thousand feet. Air India was flying at 31,000 feet; another flight was at 35,000 feet, and a third plane was at 37,000 feet. The planes were so close together that their call signs merged on the radar, and when they became unscrambled Michael only saw two flights represented on his screen. Air India Flight 182 was missing. Michael said, "I said to my colleague that Air India was missing. That was the first indication we had the flight wasn't where it should be. Tom tried to contact the plane while I rang Search and Rescue to tell them the plane had disappeared off screen." Michael then contacted one of the planes that was flying through the airspace, TWA 770, and asked them to descend to a lower flight level to see if they could spot Flight 182. The flight crew's observations were startling: there was a vapor trail, but there wasn't a plane. Michael asked the captain of the TWA flight to turn back and look for the plane, but the flight crew declined: they didn't have enough fuel to stay in the air long enough to participate in the search, so they needed to continue on to London.

It was baffling to say the least: there had been no emergency call, no mayday or pan pan, no indication at all that something could be going wrong on board Air India Flight 182.

Ships Found Air India 182 Debris

At 8:30 AM, the crew members of a merchant vessel known as the Laurentian Forest, Daniel Brown and Mark Stagg, received an emergency call connected to the flight's disappearance. It was this duo that confirmed the devastating news: they could see debris in the water. As they approached, they could see wreckage from the plane, passenger belongings, and lifeless bodies floating in an ocean dark and slick with fuel. Daniel said, "Some were dismembered, one with torso split and intestines spilling out. Crew members were crying; some were physically ill." He gave a description of one of the passengers he was able to pull from the water onto a lifeboat: "His eyes were wide open; his mouth was wide open in a scream... He had a look of horror on his face." The crew faced the unimaginable task of both recovering bodies but also keeping them safe, which meant placing the bodies in bags and even laying on top of them at times to keep them safe in the lifeboats on the rough sea. The rescue efforts were most heartbreaking when it came to seeing the flight's youngest passengers had suffered the same fate. Mark Stagg said, "My faith in goodness, and God, and sense, and normality died then. I cannot begin to describe the utter wrongness of putting children into plastic bags."

Mark Tait was a winchman with the Royal Air Force, and he responded to a heads-up call when the plane was reported missing. He assumed he would confirm that it was nothing more than a plane with radar failure that had lost contact with ATC. The reality was devastating. He said, "The scene of the (tragedy) was a strange experience. It seems odd but I was struck by the feeling that a large number of people had just died." The first evidence that he discovered looked like a child's body floating in the water, but it wasn’t it was a doll. He said, "At this time I became absolutely furious as I thought we had wasted time for this when there could be someone drowning." It wasn't long before a harsher reality began to set in as Mark recovered the bodies of multiple people with shocking and traumatic wounds. He described bodies that had huge abdomen wounds, cuts to the legs, and several that were cut in two and joined only by their intestines.

Air India Flight 182 Fatalities

The British Royal Air Force sent in a reconnaissance plane to drop flares that made it easier to spot the victims and wreckage in the water. In all, 19 boats were part of the rescue effort, ranging from war ships to fishing boats. Only 132 of the 329 passengers and crew on board were recovered. Not one person survived the crash.

As the investigation began, it was the condition of the 132 bodies that provided some of the first meaningful clues as to what could have happened. Without any kind of an emergency call, it wasn't possible to rule out anything at that point: it could have been an undetected inflight fire, metal fatigue, or even an electrical issue that brought the plane down in such a catastrophic way. Before investigators could make any determinations based on the condition of the wreckage, they could start to understand what happened from the passengers. The vast majority of the passengers recovered were from the back of the plane. 34.4% of those recovered had mild injuries, 38.9% had moderate injuries, 25.2% had severe injuries, and 1.5% had catastrophic injuries. 26 victims displayed signs of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. Another 25 victims showed signs of decompression— specifically decompression and not decompression sickness. 23 victims showed signs of injuries from vertical force, which would be injuries sustained as the plane fell rapidly toward the ocean. 21 of the bodies were unclothed when they were recovered, which indicated the plane began its fall from its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet and the velocity ripped their clothing from them. Most passengers did not seem to be wearing their seatbelts, another indication that whatever brought the plane down was unexpected and the cabin had not been warned about it. 8 people showed signs of what are known as flail injuries, which indicate the bodies were not in the aircraft when they made contact with the water. And none of the bodies showed injuries that suggested they were subjected to fire or an explosion. Ultimately, a medical examiner identified as Dr. Hill in the accident report suggested there were two phases of fatalities for passengers on Flight 182: some people died in the air, and some people died in the water. This gave investigators something to go on: the plane had broken up in midair.

Air India Flight 182 Investigation

Investigators knew they were going to need the black boxes— the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder— to understand more of what happened and what could have caused Air India Flight 182 to crash into the water. And the water was a big obstacle. In the spot where wreckage was first discovered, the water was 6700 feet deep, which provided some enormous complications as some pieces of the plane sank to the bottom of the ocean. Finding black boxes in water as deep and cold as that had never been attempted before, but the efforts were successful: on July 10, 1985 the CVR was located, and on July 11th the FDR was located as well. As part of the investigation turned its attention to finding out what the black boxes could tell them, the rest of the investigation remained focused on using video and sonar technology to scan for pieces of wreckage at the bottom of the ocean. This work was painstaking, and it was carried out around the clock; every four hours the location of discovered wreckage was plotted on charts. Ultimately, it became clear that the wreckage was widespread on the ocean floor. The debris field was 10 nautical miles by 4.5 nautical miles, and it was difficult to know how much of the wreckage was in its original location and how much might have been moved by ocean currents by the time it was discovered and mapped. Some information could be understood, though; the forward fuselage section of the plane was found inverted and was described in the accident report as being badly broken into many pieces. The engines were located— there were five on board, but only four were intended to be functional. Those engines were discovered to be damaged as well, but they showed signs of normal rotation and were determined to have been operating as expected before the crash.

As the investigation continued, many factors were ruled out: the plane did not collide with another aircraft, it wasn't struck by lightning, there was no evidence of fire, there was no evidence of metal fatigue, and the CVR and FDR provided nothing especially valuable. The CVR confirmed that there was never any indication that the flight crew knew something was wrong; it cut off in mid-sentence about customs paperwork. And the FDR stopped recording at that point, too, which pointed to a very sudden electrical failure. The only thing investigators knew for sure is that there was a sudden, catastrophic event that somehow severed the electrical systems and brought the plane down. It was frustrating to not have a lead to go on— especially since the 329 people on board had family and friends who loved them and wanted answers.

Flight 182 Passengers and Families

The majority of travelers were Canadian citizens who were returning to visit friends and family in India. Deepak and Sanjay Turlapatis were just 11 and 14. They were traveling without their parents on their way to see their grandparents in India. Their mother, Padmini, said, "We were at home sleeping when a phone call came from a friend. My husband took it and he collapsed. He said, 'All is gone.' I had heard him mention news on the BBC so I turned on the television and I found out what had happened. I never cried because I am the strong one. As a scientist I knew at once no-one could have survived. But as a mother it is different." Sanjay's body was recovered from the ocean, but Deepak's was not. Natasha Madon and her mother Perviz were waiting for her father, Sam, to meet them in India. Sam was a college instructor, and the family lived in Canada but had traveled separately to India. Susheel Gupta was only 12 years old, and his mother Ramwati was an Air India Flight 182 passenger. In an interview with The Star years after the accident, he said he was taken to see her body when it was recovered. He said, “I was a kid who did a lot of repair work on antique watches, and so I didn’t understand when I saw her body intact ... why someone wasn’t adding a new part and making her my mom again." The shared grief among the community was heartbreaking even for those without friends and family on board, including David Cooper, who was a photographer who traveled to Cork to cover the story. He said, “The first time that I remember actually crying on the job was in June of 1985. Air India Flight 182 had disintegrated in mid-air off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people. A few days later, I arrived in the Irish city of Cork with the family members of the victims. Many of them were sobbing. The scale of their pain just overwhelmed me.”

Every single name on the passenger list had a unique story— including one who never made it onto the flight from Montreal to London. Manjit Singh was traveling on a business class ticket purchased at the last minute, just the day before. He was planning to fly from Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Montreal, and Montreal to Bombay on Air India Flight 182. When he approached the ticketing counter in Vancouver, he wanted to be sure his luggage would be automatically transferred from Toronto to Montreal and onward to Bombay so he wouldn't have to worry about picking it up while he was en route. The problem identified by ticketing agent Jeanne Adams, though, was that Manjit Singh did not have a confirmed ticket all the way through to Bombay; he was on standby for the full flight, and the airline policy was that luggage could not be checked through if a passenger was not confirmed all the way through to the destination. Because he was flying on a business class ticket, and because Jeanne wanted to provide great customer service to a passenger who paid for a premium ticket, she did him a favor and checked the bag all the way through to Bombay even though she could only confirm his seat from Toronto to Montreal; in Montreal, he needed to check in with Air India to confirm his seat. It sounds like the kind of frustrating experience we have all had before, right? Well, there was one twist that made this a little different: Manjit Singh missed his flight from Toronto to Montreal. Because there was no such person as Manjit Singh.

Air India Flight 182 Luggage

The person who presented himself as Manjit Singh was never identified, but the luggage that he checked in provided the clues investigators needed to unravel the mystery of what brought down Flight 182. The luggage in question was a brown hard-sided Samsonite suitcase. Jeanne fixed a pink international tag to the bag that would send it on its way to Bombay without the need to be collected and rechecked by Manjit Singh, which was just what was intended: there was no Manjit Singh, and the man who checked the bag had no intention of ever seeing it again. The luggage traveled uneventfully to Toronto, where it was subject to screening before being loaded onto the aircraft that would become Air India Flight 182.

The first mistake made in the sequence of events that led to this air disaster was the fact the luggage was accepted for travel despite the fact its accompanying passenger was not confirmed. It made it all the way to Toronto. The second mistake made was during the luggage security screening. Air India required all luggage to be screened by an x-ray machine before it could be loaded, but the available x-ray machine in Toronto was not working on June 22, 1985, the day Flight 182 took off. Screening using the x-ray machine started at 2:30, but at 4:45 the machine was reported to be out of service. The Air India security officer responsible for screenings permitted employees to use a hand-held device to screen the bags for explosive materials. Employees were shown a demonstration of what kind of sound the device would make if there was an explosive device in a suitcase. And although a summary of the air disaster on the Public Safety Canada website noted it is not possible to confirm if the bag was screened before or after the x-ray machine was taken offline, multiple accounts noted that employees did scan the bag with the handheld device, and the device made a noise that would have alerted them to the fact something was off. The difference, though, was that the noise they heard was inconsistent with the noise they would have expected based on the demonstration they had heard. What is clear, though, is that the bag was never opened regardless of whether it was screened by machine, handheld device, or both.

Air India Flight 182 Bombing

It was a bomb housed within the suitcase that destroyed Air India Flight 182, ripping through the plane and causing a midair breakup that killed all 329 people on board. The suitcase was loaded into the plane's front cargo hold, close to sensitive electrical systems that would have immediately brought the plane's system to a halt. The report also suggested that the explosion would have impacted the oxygen stream that would have flowed to the oxygen masks in the cockpit; if the sudden decompression didn't kill or incapacitate the flight immediately, the oxygen they would have breathed through the masks would have almost certainly been contaminated. In any scenario, the flight crew would have been unlikely to have been able to control the plane after the explosion. 

The report noted that there was both circumstantial and direct evidence to confirm the plane crashed because of a bomb— including the explosion of another bomb at an airport just 55 minutes earlier.

In the early evening of June 19, 1985, a man with what was described as a slight Indian accent in the official accident report called Canadian Pacific Airlines to make two different reservations: one for Mohinderbel Singh to travel from Vancouver to Tokyo, then connecting to an Air India Flight headed for Bangkok. The second ticket, purchased for Jaswand Singh, was from Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Montreal, and Montreal to Bombay on Air India Flight 182. The next day, a man paid for those tickets in cash in Vancouver. At that time, he changed the names on the tickets: Mohinderbel Singh became L. Singh, and Jaswand Singh became M. Singh— only using first initials. On June 22, a man who identified himself as Manjit Singh called to confirm his reservation and was told he was waitlisted out of Toronto, and he was offered alternate arrangements which he declined. He said he would take his chances at the airport, which he did; he arrived, checked his luggage despite not having a confirmed onward ticket, and disappeared. L. Singh checked in for his flight to Tokyo at the same counter. He didn't board his flight, either. 55 minutes before Flight 182 disappeared from radar off the coast of Ireland, a baggage cart exploded at Narita Airport, killing two baggage handlers. The Air India flight intended to carry that luggage took off without ever knowing it was targeted for destruction.

There is a lot of evidence here that suggests these events are connected and can't be coincidental; the tickets were purchased together at the last minute, for two travelers with the same last name, both names were changed on their respective tickets, they were paid for together in cash, and both travelers missed their flights. Investigators understood that the bombings were part of a terrorist plot.

Terrorism on Air India Flight 182

Although it took months to confirm these connections, it only took hours after both bombings for initial questions to be asked about whether or not terrorism could have been part of the equation. None of the bomb on Flight 182 was recovered from the ocean, but the bomb in Tokyo exploded at the airport and on the ground, so investigators had real evidence they could use. They were able to identify parts of the bomb, including the fact it was packaged in a stereo tuner that was part of a series shipped to Vancouver for sale. Knowing the suitcases originated in Vancouver, investigators were able to track down receipts connecting the purchase of the stereo tuner used in Narita to a resident of nearby Duncan, British Columbia. He worked as an electrician and auto mechanic and had ties to a terrorist group that were calling for a separatist state to be formed in India.

Arrests and Charges Connected to Air India Flight 182

This is where the investigation took an even more unexpected turn: it stalled. There were no arrests made in the immediate aftermath. The terrorist who purchased and constructed the bombs was arrested- but not until 1988, 3 years after the bombings. He was extradited from the UK for his trial and was eventually convicted of two counts of manslaughter and four explosives charges relating to the Narita Airport bombing. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. In 2001, he was arrested again on charges of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy in the Air India bombing. Ultimately, he pled guilty, but to manslaughter and to aiding in the construction of a bomb. He received an additional five years in prison.

He was not the mastermind of the bombings. In 1992, the terrorist believed to be the mastermind of the plot that claimed 329 lives on the plane and two lives in Tokyo was murdered in India.

Two others were charged with conspiracy to commit the first-degree murders. Their trials started on April 28, 2003 and took a year and a half to complete with 115 witnesses called to testify. Some witnesses were threatened to the point they were sent into the witness protection program. The terrorist who constructed the bombs was expected to implicate others when he was called to the stand in September 2003, but instead he claimed to not remember any of the details about the plot. Ultimately, the trial concluded in December 2004 with a verdict issued in March 2004. Family members packed the courtroom for the verdict, which left them all in shock: the terrorist responsible for building the bombs walked free that day. The presiding justice, Ian Josephson, said, "I began by describing the horrific nature of these cruel acts of terrorism, acts which cry out for justice. Justice is not achieved, however, if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appear to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard."

Ultimately, Canada did not prove their case. And in addition, a slew of missteps and failures contributed to the lack of evidence. The Canadian government had been warned against potential terrorist attacks targeting Air India flights and, at the time of the air disaster, was aware that the threat level was considered to be high. Some of the subjects had been wiretapped in the past because they were known to authorities; some of those wiretaps were destroyed. They were intentionally destroyed by someone who wanted to protect his sources. In 2006, a full public inquiry was launched in; at its conclusion, it was determined the failures were the result of, "a cascading series of errors."

Legacy of Air India Flight 182

In May 1997, the USA's Federal Aviation Administration and the UK's Civil Aviation Authority partnered to conduct an explosion test designed to learn about ways to minimize the threat of bombs checked in passenger luggage. The test was conducted at the Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome, and the process was pretty simple: four bombs were placed on board. Three of the bombs were surrounded by kevlar or titanium, while the fourth was unprotected. And the results were stunning: all four bombs were detonated at once, and the unprotected bomb ripped through the fuselage as expected. But the other three bombs? They contained the damage. But these containers are not used in practice today; they are extremely expensive to produce and very fragile, meaning any unintended damage or dents can render them completely useless.

A big part of the legacy of Air India Flight 182 is in how airlines do not allow luggage to travel without a passenger on board. Although this was common practice before the disaster, the need for this requirement was highlighted because of it. Additionally, airlines have much stronger luggage screening procedures in place.

Twenty years after Air India Flight 182 crashed into the ocean, Prime Minister Paul Martin declared the anniversary to be a national day of mourning. He said, "Make no mistake: The flight may have been Air India's, it may have taken place off the coast of Ireland, but this is a Canadian tragedy." It was, for a while, referred to as Canada's 9/11, although a key quote from Canadian news magazine Maclean's said, "In truth, it was never close to that. The date, 23 June 1985, is not seared into the nation's soul. The events of that day snuffed out hundreds of innocent lives and altered the destinies of thousands more, but it neither shook the foundations of government, nor transformed its policies. It was not, in the main, even officially acknowledged as an act of terrorism." On the 25th anniversary of the disaster, the Canadian government issued a formal apology for the errors committed.

Jeanne Bakermans, the ticketing agent who sent the deadly suitcase through on its interline journey to Air India Flight 182, was present when two terrorists walked free. She said, "I am in absolute shock. I came here expecting closure. Now, after all these years, I find myself still in limbo. A horrible limbo." Of the years since that fateful decision in 1985, she said, "I felt responsible for what I had done. For a long time, I couldn't sleep. I cried. I still get headaches. I can't seem to stop the yama yama, the mind chatter, that goes around in my brain. You can't help it."

Memorials honoring the lives of all 329 victims stand today in Canada and Cork, Ireland. Padmini Turlapati, who lost her two sons, returns to Cork each year. She said, "I come with all the worries and the pettiness of life and it calms me here. The water has my son in it. It has all the Earth's joys and tears and it replenishes me." Many people who visit the memorial do so as they seek community and support in a way so similar to the moments they spent together following the crash of Air India Flight 182, when Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Martin stood before them and said, "Those who use terrorism and violence in pursuit of their misguided objectives seek to divide people and communities with their agenda of hate and intolerance. But looking at those gathered here today I see only unity, common purpose and a shared grief. This feeling of grief and loss transcends all boundaries, it joins us as one people."

Show Notes:

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Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Stephanie Hubka
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Air India Flight 182

Wreckage from the aircraft. Source: Aviation Accidents

Air India Flight 182

Victims recovered from Air India Flight 182 are housed in a hospital. Source: India Today

Air India Flight 182

Debris from Air India Flight 182. Source: AFP

Air India Flight 182

Wreckage from the crash site. Source: AP