Thursday 22 March 2018

Search rekindles poignant memories of tuskar crash

Wreckage from the Aer Lingus Viscount is hauled ashore at Rosslare in 1968.
Wreckage from the Aer Lingus Viscount is hauled ashore at Rosslare in 1968.

David Tucker

THE ENORMITY of the task facing those searching for missing Malaysian airliner MH 370 is nowhere more keenly felt than in Kilmore Quay, where a similar search was being carried out for another missing passenger jet on a March morning 46 years ago.

On March, 24, 1968, Aer Lingus Flight EI 712 left Cork Airport on schedule and bound for London. Fifty seven passengers and four crew were on board the Viscount - St. Phelim - and weather conditions were perfect. The plane never reached its final destination. Its last message: '12,000 feet, descending, spinning rapidly'.

The plane disappeared into the sea near Tuskar Rock and there were no survivors. It remains the single biggest loss in the history of Irish civil aviation. Only 14 bodies were ever recovered.

Kilmore Quay lobster fisherman John Power, who was involved in the search for the Viscount wreckage, was years later to become one of the prime movers of the memorial garden to all those who died at sea off Wexford, located close to Forlorn Point, the so-called 'Graveyard of a Thousand Ships'.

He said the unfolding news of the Malaysian airliner tragedy brings haunting echoes to mind of a similarly frustrating search, albeit in a much smaller arena.

And while those with loved ones on the Malaysian airliner are demanding answers, what happened over the skies and waters of Wexford in 1968 is still a divisive subject.

Much of the Aer Lingus Viscount was never recovered and debris to this day still remains on the seabed. It took weeks and months to locate as well, despite the relatively small search area between County Wexford and the Welsh coast.

'When the plane disappeared, all the fishing boats went to search the area, including my wife's brother Billy Bates on the Glendalough,' said John Power.

'I had a boat called the 'Girl Anne', she was a 50 footer and we went searching with all the lads from Arklow to Ducannon,' said John.

Billy Bates and his crew on the 'Glendalough' did find the remains of a fuselage in a search being carried out weeks after the St. Phelim disappeared.

'The plane crashed in March and after three or four weeks we were after hired to go and look for her. The area where we eventually found the plane had been previously searched by the British navy,' said Billy.

Subsequent attempts to raise the main section of the fuselage failed when it broke up as it was being hauled from the seabed by a British recovery ship.

Billy said that despite the size of the search area where the Malaysian Boeing 777 was believed to have crashed, he was susprised that no sign had been found. 'I know it's a massive area, but with all the technology we have, you would have thought they should have found her by now,' said Billy, who lives at Newtown, Kilmore.

For many years the cause of the crash of the Aer Lingus Viscount was rumoured to have been caused by a British missile fired from a test range at Aberporth, in Wales.

However, in 2002, a review process conducted by the Air Accident Investigation Unit found 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.

A new board of investigation found that the crash was the result of a chain of events starting with a failure to the left tail-plane caused by metal fatigue, corrosion, flutter or a bird strike.

This hasn't stopped the conspiracy theorists and in 2007, a retired British air force flying instructor, Eric Evers, claimed that the crash was caused by a collision with a French-built military aircraft, in training with the Air Corps, which struck the Viscount after responding to a request to check the passenger plane's undercarrriage.

Both the French and Irish authorities colluded in a subsequent cover-up, he says. A Defence Forces spokesman described the claims at the time as 'spurious' and said there was no evidence that an Air Corps plane was in the vicinity at the time.

And so like the Aer Lingus disaster off our shores so many years ago, the facts about what has happened to Malaysian Airlines MH370 may remain one of the most enduring aircraft mysteries of modern time.

New Ross Standard