On the evening of 2 September 1998, Swissair flight 111,
a Boeing MD-11 bound for Geneve-Cointrin Airport (Geneva)
from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport,
crashed into the the water near Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia
at about 22:31, Atlantic daylight time.
All 229 people aboard died, including one of my co-workers.
Four years later, the cause of the crash is unknown. What is known
only takes us up until a few minutes before the crash. The first
word of trouble was at 22:14:18 ADT when Swissair 111 (SWR111)
declared Pan Pan Pan
the code phrase indicating non-emergent trouble. In the crew's words,
Swissair one-eleven heavy is declaring Pan Pan Pan.
We have, uh, smoke in the cockpit. Uh, request immediate return, uh, to a
convenient place, I guess, uh, Boston.
SWR111 was directed to Boston, acknowledging the new course at 22:14:50.
One minute later the air traffic controller
offered the pilot the
option of going to Halifax
instead, which was accepted at 22:15:38.
During this time SWR111 descended from 33,000 feet to 29,000 feet.
Another flight reported on Halifax weather at 22:16. From 22:16 to
22:21 there was constant conversation between control and SWR111
regarding course and altitude, with the control switching from Moncton
at 22:18:34. At 22:21 discussion centered around where
to dump fuel. At 22:22 a short question in German
within the cockpit was
picked up on the air, essentially the pilot asking someone if
they were using the emergency checklist for air conditioning smoke.
At 22:24:28 SWR111 radioed that they had had to switch off autopilot,
and at 22:24:45 they declared emergency,
Swissair one-eleven heavy is
declaring emergency; (22:24:46.4 second voice overlap) Roger, we are between,
uh, twelve and five thousand feet. We are declaring emergency now at,
ah time, ah, zero-one-two-four. (Possible intercom sound toward end of
They started to dump fuel at 22:24:56,
Eleven heavy, we starting dump now, we have to land immediate,
And we are declaring emergency now,
No further word was heard from SWR111, and
it is estimated that they crashed about 6 minutes later.
The crash site was a 3 mile stretch of water off the
coast of Nova Scotia
, near Peggy's Cove
, a popular
destination for Nova Scotia tourists.
There was a report in the Wall Street Journal which states the
pilot, Captain Uwe Zimmerman, and co-pilot Stefan Lowe,
disagreed about the severity of the emergency.
Apparently the cockpit voice recording reveals that the co-pilot
wanted to immediately dump fuel and land as soon as possible, whereas
the pilot thought the situation was stable enough so that fuel
could be dumped following proper regulations, further from the
Halifax International Airport.
Of the 229 souls lost, 14 were members of the Swissair crew and
215 were passengers, 136 U.S. citizens, 28 Swiss, and more than
30 French. There is a dedication web page devoted to the memory
of the victims at http://home.istar.ca/~robitza/swissair.htm
written by a resident of Nova Scotia.
On a personal note, I was watching TV late that night. Not knowing
that my colleague, an unmarried young man in his early 30's, was aboard,
I felt the usual regret one feels upon learning of a accident of
this scale. As the news broke, every major network and the cable
news networks concentrated solely on this story, interviewing "experts",
flying helicopters over water, focusing on the heartwrenching loss of
life, the courageous search for survivors, and wild, uninformed
speculation about the cause of the crash. Frustrated by the useless
news coverage and the absense of any other interesting TV, I went to bed.
The next morning I went to work without remembering the crash at all,
until the secretary came to my office to tell me our co-worker had
been aboard. That changed everything. I spent the rest of the day
being tortured by the media as I watched TV and read all the web articles
hoping for some new information. Despite learning very little, enough
that could be summarized in 10 minutes at lunchtime and again at dinnertime,
the cable news shows managed to milk the trajedy for an entire day's
ratings. They gave the impression that new information could come to
light at any time, so you'd better sit tight and stay tuned. Add a
few shots of crying widows and mothers, and they could pull anyone
back in front of the tube. I developed a new perspective on TV news
that day, at the expense of being able to grieve for my colleague.
Grieving would come later that week.
- CBC News articles at http://cbc.ca/news/indepth/swissair
A full description of the accident appears at the
Aviation Safety Network webpage:
http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19980902-0 . Thanks
to avalyn for the link and a correction.