Swissair recordings revive horrifying drama of deadly 1998 tragedy
21 May, 3:51 PM
OTTAWA (CP) - After years of legal skirmishes, Canadians can finally hear the gripping soundtrack for one of the country's worst aviation disasters.
The Swissair Flight 111 air traffic control tapes, kept under lock and key since the 1998 tragedy, have been released to The Canadian Press following a tortuous court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The hours of recordings include 12 critical minutes, starting as the aircrew reports smoke in the cockpit and ending with a last desperate transmission as the aircraft nose dives at high speed into St. Margaret's Bay, N.S., near Halifax.
"Swissair one eleven heavy is declaring emergency," says one of the pilots in a heavy Swiss-German accent, as the second pilot makes a nearly simultaneous transmission in the cockpit confusion: "We are declaring emergency now."
"Heavy" refers to the aircraft's nearly full fuel tanks as it began its transatlantic flight from New York to Geneva on Sept. 2, 1998.
The voices of the Swiss pilots - Urs Zimmermann, 50, and co-pilot Stephan Loew, 36 - become slightly muffled in the recordings when they don their oxygen masks. The official transcripts do not indicate which pilot is speaking at any time.
Ten minutes later, as smoke billows through the cockpit and a massive electrical failure disables all flight controls, including the lights, there's another harrowing transmission: "Eleven heavy we starting to dump (fuel) now we have to land immediate."
There's a slight urgency in his voice as the pilot makes a final, repetitive transmission: "And we are declaring emergency now Swissair one eleven."
The MD-11 aircraft, with 229 people aboard, flew for about six more minutes before it slammed nose first and almost upside down into the dark, choppy sea off Peggy's Cove at 10:31 p.m. Atlantic time.
Hitting the water at about 550 kilometres an hour, everyone aboard died instantly and the fuselage shattered into several million pieces. The tremendous impact caused seismographic needles to flutter in Halifax and Moncton, as if an earthquake had hit.
The recordings add a human dimension to otherwise sterile transcripts, as air traffic controllers and the pilots betray hints of taut emotion while the high-altitude tragedy unfolds.
As the Halifax airport controller attempts to contact the aircraft there's a final brief radio burst, sounding like someone shouting. Investigators could not determine the source, but the electronic squeal provides a eerie coda to the drama.
Vic Gerden, chief investigator into the crash, said families of the victims were briefed frequently at the time of the disaster but have not previously heard the audio.
"I don't recall them having the opportunity to listen to the tapes," Gerden, who retired last year, said in an interview from Winnipeg.
Miles Gerety, who lost his brother Pierce in the crash, predicted that hearing the tapes will be painful for families.
"These things bring an event back to people, the family members, who've put a lot of time and distance between the crash ... and their losses," he said in an interview from his home in Redding, Conn.
"I think it would be hard to hear."
A four-year, $57-million investigation by the Transportation Safety Board blamed flammable insulation that allowed a small electrical arc fire to spread uncontrolled, melting the cockpit ceiling, shorting out all power and leaving the aircrew helpless.
Within days of the tragedy, the safety board released transcripts of the air traffic control recordings but steadfastly refused to release the audio itself, saying it contained personal information.
John Reid, then Canada's information commissioner, initially supported the refusal. "In my view, the voices, along with the tonal and emotive characteristics constitute personal information of three air traffic controllers and the two pilots," he ruled in 1999.
But after receiving complaints about the board's refusal to release ATC recordings for four other air disasters, Reid changed his mind and went to court. He lost at federal court in 2005, but won on appeal in 2006 when three justices dismissed the claim that ATC audio recordings by their very nature contain personal information.
The Federal Court of Appeal also dismissed a claim by Nav Canada, responsible for air traffic control, that such recordings are "commercial" and should therefore be withheld to protect the business interests of the organization.
The safety board and Nav Canada then went to the Supreme Court of Canada but were rebuffed last month when the high court refused leave to appeal. The board was therefore compelled to turn over the Swissair tapes after an Access to Information Act request from The Canadian Press, which was a complainant in the court action over the four other air disasters.
The high court ruling brings Canada into line with the United States, where ATC recordings have been available to the public for years. Even in Canada, radio enthusiasts have long been able to freely monitor ATC transmissions because open, unencrypted communication among aircraft and ground controllers has been seen as an essential safety measure.
At least one U.S.-based website (www.liveatc.net) broadcasts live ATC transmissions from airports around the world, including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
In Canada, cockpit voice recordings of conversations between pilots remain legally unavailable because of privacy rules. The Swissair investigation was hobbled in part because cockpit recording equipment failed in the last few minutes of the flight, apparently due to electrical failures.
Wow Chris. I couldn't even imagine me personally listening to that. I suppose other people will be able to...
I will say that I don't agree with Mr. Gerety regarding people putting time etc. between this tragedy. To me it was like yesterday, and many other people are still greatly affected.
Chris, Thanks so much for posting this information.
So we still won't know, if there was a disagreement between the pilots as was stated in the controversial WSJ article years ago. In that article, it was said that the co-pilot wanted to bring the plane right in for a landing in Halifax and that Urs Zimmermann had him go back over the ocean. I suppose that tape will never be released and that will remain shrouded in mystery. I find that disturbing. I would like to have the answer to that.
I wonder if this decision would open up the possibility that the final draft that families were not privy to before the release of the final report, could be released? If they went this far to release this tragic tape, why not put it all out there?This message has been edited. Last edited by: BF,
I'll tell you, I don't get it that the pilots are protected under a privacy act. They are at a job and most people are aware that when they are, they have no privacy. I don't get this reasoning at all. Why would anyone (particularly pilots that were in a crashed plane) have privacy while performing a job. Ridiculous to me.
23. May 2007, Swissinfo
Swissair Halifax crash recording released
A recording of the last minutes before the 1998 crash of a Swissair plane into the sea near Halifax in Canada, in which 229 people died, has been released.
The tapes of the Swissair flight 111 accident ? the worst in Canadian and Swiss aviation history : had been kept sealed since the crash.
The recording was released to the Canadian Press news agency following a court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. It was made public on Tuesday.
It includes the 12 last critical minutes, starting as the plane's crew reports smoke in the cockpit and ending with a last desperate transmission as the aircraft makes a high:speed nose dives into St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, near Halifax. The aircraft was on its way from New York to Geneva.
The official transcripts do not indicate which of the two pilots are speaking.
"We are declaring an emergency now," one of the men says.
Their voices later become muffled as they don their oxygen masks.
Ten minutes later, smoke billows through the cockpit and a massive electrical failure disables all flight controls, including the lights. The transmission states: "We are starting to dump [fuel] and have to land immediately."
The MD:11 aircraft flew for about six more minutes before it slammed into the dark, choppy sea off Nova Scotia at 10.31pm local time.
Hitting the water at about 563km per hour everyone aboard died instantly and the fuselage shattered, due to the tremendous impact.
Audio first refused
Within days of the tragedy, the safety board released transcripts of the air traffic control recordings but refused to release the audio itself, saying it contained personal information.
An investigation by Canada's Transportation Safety Board blamed flammable insulation that allowed a small electrical fire to spread uncontrolled, melting the cockpit ceiling, shorting out all power and leaving the crew helpless to avert the disaster.
In October 1998, a month after the crash, Swissair paid 156 victims' families a total of SFr4.7 million. The following March, the airline paid each of the families SFr195,000. It also upgraded its safety measures.
Swissair never really recovered from the accident. The downturn in the aviation market after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, proved the last straw for the heavily indebted national carrier, which folded the following year.
It had also over:extended itself by buying stakes in numerous loss:making airlines.
The remains of Swissair and the regional carrier Crossair were brought together in 2002 to form the new national carrier Swiss, which was in turn taken over by Germany's Lufthansa in 2005.
The release of the recording comes as eight employees of Swiss air traffic control agency Skyguide stand trial over a collision in 2002 over Lake Constance in which 71 people died.
swissinfo with agencies
This is interesting. This is the first time I've ever seen the Swiss press state that swissair never recovered from the tragedy. I recall swissair stating that the tragedy had no affect on their business whatsoever.
What pilots are saying about the release of the tapes:
As one pilot on the pprune board duely noted, these are AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL tapes from the crash, NOT the CVRs recovered from the plane. Big difference. We still don't know what went on in the cockpit between the pilots at all. That is an excellent thread on the pprune board. Thank you to the person who brought it to my attention.
By chance I have listened to the entire transcript of the CVR . At some point and a few minutes prior the crash, the F/O transmitted due to an error to the Canadian ATC an internal message directed at his cockpit or its cabin crew stating in a strong Swiss accent " do we see ( do we have ) the emergency check list for our air condition smoke " . I was kind of mistified on that trasmission and the confussion starting to take place in their cockpit . Additionally in smilar to other pilots I share the theory that provided an emergency decent would have been performed in timely manner and a straight forward landing would have been performed at their slightly bellow max take off weight the tragedy would have probably been averted or may have landed with an incident involving minor fatalities . Swissair company procedure at that time was no matter the nature of the emergency, do not land unless you are at landing weight , go on a hold and jettison the fuel. Someone at Swissair leaked the fact that the F/O suggested Mr Zimmermann to land straight forward, who knows if that was true !
Do you mean the copilot? There was an entire article about that where it said the pilots were having a disagreement about whether to go straight to Halifax (the co-pilot) or to go back over the ocean (Urs Zimmermann, according to the WSJ). I called the paper and talked to the reporter and he said he was absolutely telling the truth when he wrote the article alleging that the pilots disagreed about the decision to land. Since we will never hear the CVR (protected by privacy laws in Canada), I guess we will never be privy to that information.
I guess since I live near Peggy's Cove, I for some reason always believed SwissAir had suffered and not really recovered from this disaster. I wish I could tell you where I read that but I believe it was in local newspapers at the time of the crash and later when we here read about it or meet someone who has suffered as a result of the crash.
In a way, I wish they had suffered more- financially. Their actions make me angry!! I also think the Canadian government should permit the families to listen to any communication of SwiisAir they wish to. (akin to 9/11 though from what I hear from my sister who just barely survived that disaster, I have questions bout it as well, sigh!).
It's all made me rather cyncial I hate to admit.
It must be tough to listen to it all but I think as a parent who has lost a child, I would want to know everything!!!
Thanks Janey for saying that. Following the crash, the airline reported that they had suffered no loss of passengers as a result of the crash. I don't believe that for one second. I think it was the lousy management that led to the crash and the inevitable demise of the airline. It kind of bothers me that the swiss press doesn't connect the two, or for that matter they avoid the subject of the crash altogether. I'm not at all sorry that they went out of business. I am sorry for the employees, but I think some of them fail to see that this management team was endangering their lives when they decided to purchase the IFEN and not replace the mylar until it was too late. I wrote to a reporter once to explain this but didn't even receive the courtesy of a response.
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