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Now Available: Salim Jiwa’s Second Book on the Air India Disaster, Margin of Terror

Part One: The Disaster
Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Read Part Two:

The Investigation

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Chapter 1

Chapter 3

The Crew

Toronto, 5:45 p.m.

Captain Hanse Singh Narendra eased himself into the commander’s seat of the Air India 747 and began glancing at the maze of instruments. Flying was second nature to the 56-year-old son of a wealthy father from the Mathra district of the Indian State of Utar Pardesh. His other passion was hunting, a port that had fascinated him since his childhood days during the British Raj. His parents couldn’t keep him home as a boy because of his love for tracking down tigers at his uncle’s huge estate in Mathra. During his school vacations and even now, when he had a few free days on his hands, Narendra would romp over to Sahanpur Estates where he had grown up. The huge parcel of land was still the focal point of the wealthy. Close-knit family, even though the captain himself lived during his on-duty periods in a plush bungalow on a hill in what Bombay residents know as the Air India Colony in the Bandra section of this city of multitudes. Recently, he had also acquired land in Delhi, along with other Indian pilots, and was considering building a house. And his fascination with his uncle’s estate had prompted the veteran pilot to buy his own ranch in Mathra.A few months earlier, during a trip to Ottawa, where his sister Sheila Mann lives, Narendra had told her of his dream of spending his retirement years at the ranch. His sister is the wife of Ottawa University professor Ranbir Singh Mann.

After finishing high school, Narendra had put his mind to his passion for flying and had taken flying lessons at a private club. He became a commercial pilot in next to no time, and when Air India was formed from a number of smaller airlines, Narendra offered his services and the company hire him. This was in 1956, and those who had flown with him over the years knew him as a perfectionist who kept his cool even when the going got tough.

Captain Narendra knew the airplane he was sitting in today as well as he knew the back of his hand. But twice in the last year, Narendra had had his wrists slapped for putting too much faith in his co-pilots.

The first time he had slipped up was while flying over the territory of India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan. It was 25 August 1984. Narendra was in charge of Air India Flight 1100 from London to Delhi when his plane, being controlled by a co-pilot, deviated from its track by 170 nautical miles. The commander, responsible for the safety of his aircraft and the actions of his co-pilot, was sent back to school for a few days, to re-learn instrument navigation systems and route cross-checking procedure. Like the able pilot that he was, Captain Narendra would not repeat that particular mistake. 

The second error occurred when he was commander of a Delhi to Bombay flight on 6 December 1984. The runway in use at Bombay’s Santa Cruz Airport was number 27, but the aircraft, again in control of a co-pilot, was seen approaching runway 32. Narendra’s stern bosses sent him to a simulator to practice approaches and landings at runway 27 in Bombay. But that was all – there were no other blots on the captain’s record. He was a check-pilot and had never recorded an accident in 20,000 hours in the cockpit of jets of all sizes.

Narendra was now waiting patiently to begin his task of flying the Kanishka to London and handing it over to another commander. He had flown in on Saturday 15 June, exactly a week earlier, from Frankfurt, Germany, hauling an extra engine that had been borrowed by Air India from Air Canada. This was not his usual route, but like his co-pilot Satwinder Singh Bhinder, he had been assigned to the flight because of staffing situations. He arrived in Toronto just one day before his girl friend Valerie Margaret Evans flew in from London. The tall, pretty, 43-year-old Air Canada passenger agent had met the witty, extrovert captain when he was flying to London almost 19 years earlier. Since then the two had developed a friendship that had grown into an affair.

It had been quite a week since Narendra had flown in the previous Saturday and gone to his suite at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto for a weeklong layover. It was Valerie’s birthday on Monday the 17th, and the captain had already reserved a suite for her next to his own when she checked in the next evening. Valerie and the captain had tried to meet whenever they could, but their respective jobs had kept them away from each other more than they liked.

They spent the Sunday night together, mostly in their rooms at the Royal York. Then on Tuesday the pair left for New Jersey to spend a few days with their friend Saravjit Singh who lives in Spotswood with his wife and two children. It was something that they did without fail every year, and the couple didn’t return to Toronto until Thursday. The next day the outdoorsy captain decided he would join the rest of his crew on a day-trip to breath-taking Niagara Falls.
Narendra was one year away from his retirement. And that’s what he would talk about whenever he was with family and friends. He had brought up the subject in conversation with his sister in Ottawa when he spent five days at her home a few months earlier. At the time of that visit the trusted captain had been put in charge of flying a Jumbo to Canada for the inauguration of Air India’s service to Toronto. On this latest trip to Canada, though, Narendra had not had a chance to visit his sister and brother-in-law, a chemical engineering professor, as they were traveling in the US.

At home in Bombay, where two full-sized tiger skins adorned the walls of the living room, Narendra had left behind a 21-year-old son, Anil, she hadn’t been well recently. Just before he left home, Narendra and his wife Sheila had discussed having him go overseas for medical treatment. But the couple had changed their minds, deciding that doctors in Bombay could do as good a job.
The only unpleasant episode during the week since Narendra had arrived in Toronto had been the re-appearance of a ‘pest’ called Sharma. On Friday evening, the cool captain had had to use a stern voice in cautioning his younger co-pilot Satwinder Singh Bhinder, who was occupying a room in the same hotel, about Sharma. Valerie was listening when Narendra answered a phone call from Bhinder. The co-pilot said Sharma was in his room and wanted to see the captain. Narendra himself had received numerous messages from Sharma, whom he had met two years earlier while on a flight to Montreal. Since the, Sharma had continually left messages for him whenever he flew to Canada. On his inaugural flight in January, Narendra bowed to persistent pleas from him and visited his house, staying long enough to have coffee. But the captain had decided he didn’t have much in common with Sharma, a resident of Toronto.

‘Get rid of him,’ Narendra said curtly to his co-pilot. Then Sharma came on the line, asking to see him, but the captain informed the man that he was busy and wouldn’t have the time. Sharma sounded drunk on the phone, he told Valerie. A little irritated at the company Bhinder was keeping, Narendra passed the remark that his co-pilot, a fellow Sikh, was an ‘extremist’.
But it was a remark made in the heat of the moment. Bhinder’s loyalty to his country was never in doubt. On the contrary, he came from a family which, generation after generation, had served India through thick and thin. During its most difficult wars with archrivals Pakistan and China, Bhinger too had served his country – as an ace Air Force pilot – before he joined Air India as a commercial flyer.

That Friday evening, however, in the hotel room, Bhinder was having a tough time. His patience was being tested to the limit by the mysterious Sharma, but Bhinder still didn’t lose his demeanor as a gracious host to the man who had called from the hotel lobby saying, ‘You’ll recognize me when you see me.’ Somewhat baffled by the call, Bhinder had put his hand on the mouthpiece and asked his long-time friend Jagdev Singh Nijjar if it was all right if this man came upstairs. Nijjar, editor of a community newspaper in Ontario, shrugged. But neither of them were prepared for the man who staggered into the room smelling of booze and carrying a leading bottle of whisky in his back pocket. The liquid was running down his trousers as he entered. Bhinder didn’t recognize the man who now came in and greeted him like a long-lost brother. Then Sharma startled him by mentioning the model number of the aircraft he and Narendra were flying.

Bhinder looked at Nijjar. But his friend was no help, he just shrugged, slightly amused at Bhinder’s plight. The guest flopped on a chair and Bhinder offered him a drink. Then Sharma stood up and asked Bhinder to come into the bathroom, where in a loud voice – Nijjar could hear what he said from the living room – Sharma asked the co-pilot to deliver an envelope to a Mr. Khan in London, England. When they emerged, Bhinder suggested that they all go downstairs for dinner. At the Black Night restaurant in the hotel’s lobby, the hostess took on look at Sharma and decided he wasn’t having any more drinks. Not at her restaurant, anyway. Bhinder had walked away to the gents’ as Sharma and Nijjar sat down. Nijjar watched in bewilderment as Sharma began eating one bread roll after another. Nijjar was ready to blow his top, but kept the lid on his anger. What on earth was wrong with this man? Who the hell was he? Those were the thoughts in Nijjar’s mind as Bhinder returned from the washroom and sat down. Sharma had by now cleaned out the basket full of rolls. Then, as soon as Bhinder sat down, Sharma stuffed a slice of bread into his mouth. That was enough, Bhinder decided. He wasn’t going to put up with this ill-mannered idiot who had barged into his room. Not for a moment longer. Nijjar and Bhinder walked away to another table.

‘Look at him now, he doesn’t look drunk at all,’ remarked Nijjar as Sharma suddenly walked out of the restaurant straight as a ramrod.
Nijjar and Bhinder didn’t share the same political affiliations. Both were Shikhs by religion, but were diametrically opposed when it cane to the future of India.
The Indian nation has been ripped apart in recent years by the turmoil in the Punjab State, which was home to both men and the rest of the world’s 13.5 million Sikhs. The conflict in the Punjab, where the proud Sikhs ruled their own kingdom before the British Empire took over, has polarize Sikhs living in other countries like England, Canada and the US.

Some, like Nijjar, feel that a separate state should be carved out of the Punjab where the Sikh faith can flourish without the overwhelming influence of the majority Hindu population of India. But a huge majority still feel that this is not the answer, despite the bloody assault on the Sikh holy shrine called the Golden Temple by Indian troops trying to flush out extremists, and the incredible massacre of Sikhs in New Delhi following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Ganghi.
Many Sikhs are still loyal to India, believing that the conflict can be resolved peacefully, Bhinder, like the rest of his family of staunch Indians, shared this moderate view. But that was politics and his friendship with Nijjar was not based on their political opinions. The two had met for the first time in Bombay while Nijjar was visiting the city and was introduced to Bhinder by a mutual friend. Hence on his first trip to Canada, Bhinder’s first phone call was to the friend he had made four years ago.

On Thursday, the day before the incident with Sharma, Bhinder had paid a visit to Toronto’s Punjabi market, a little Bombay which is a focal point of the city’s large Indo-Canadian population and where everything from cooking oil to saris can be bought. You can bargain for things there, too, as you can in popular bazaars in Bombay. The, in the evening, Bhinder called his cousin Harinder Kaur Mahal, wife of Vancouver area contractor Davinder Mahal. Bhinder was ecstatic over his first-ever trip to Canada, promising his cousin he would come back to the country as many times as he could. And he said he’d love to see Vancouver.

Harinder Kaur inquired about Bhinder’s wife Amarjit and their two little children. During a conversation that lasted more than 45 minutes, Bhinder told his cousin that Amarjit and the two children had been with him in New York just three weeks prior to his trip to Toronto. But they had to go back to Bombay, where the children were going to school. Previously, said Bhinder, he had been thinking about letting them come to Canada, where he’d pick them up. Harinder wanted to know all about their hometown of Karnal, in the state of Haryana, where Bhinder’s father was a wealthy landlord and where Bhinder and she had grown up.

As he sat in the cockpit of Kanishka on 22 June 1985, Bhinder held a proud record of 7,489 hours of accident-free flying since joining Air India on 12 October 1977. Bhinder had arrived with the rest of Flight 182’s crew on the bus delayed by flight engineer Dumasia’s slumber. Valerie was at the airport too, and said goodbye to Narendra as he headed towards his aircraft to assume command. Some day soon, after he retired, Valerie was hoping the captain would marry her.

Toronto, 6:10 p.m.

The passengers for Flight 182 were pacing about in the boarding lounge when the announcement finally rang out that they could now proceed to their plane. There were 202 passengers, many of them children, boarding the aircraft from Toronto, including 21 who had arrived aboard various Air Canada flights from Winnipeg, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Edmonton during the day.

There was no sign, however, of the CP Air passenger from Vancouver who had made such a fuss with the clerk at Vancouver Airport to have his bag put directly aboard Air India 182 in Toronto. He hadn’t even showed up to check I at the Air India counter there to see if he had a seat. But his bag was being loaded even as the passengers for Montreal who had arrived I Toronto with the flight from India and Frankfurt, only 65 had showed up for the final leg of their journey. The three missing passengers had probably used the well-known ploy of purchasing a ticket to Montreal simply because it was a cheaper destination from India than Toronto. It often happens that customers who are flying to Toronto will buy tickets for Montreal to save money, and then disembark in Toronto.

The security surrounding the boarding was extraordinarily tough. Passengers were first frisked under the watchful eyes of the Mounties and Burns Security while passing through the door frame metal detector. Then they were again checked as they boarded the flight from the holding area. Security chief John D’Souza busily searched each and every piece of hand baggage being taken aboard the aircraft while metal detectors were used again to frisk the passengers. Furthermore, the airline, sensitive to the threat of terrorism, was also using a ‘security numbers’ system to make sure that all the passengers who had checked in were actually boarding the flight. Boarding of passengers was completed at 7:00 p.m.

The aircraft had already been delayed by 25 minutes. But there would be a further delay as ground technicians encountered a problem with loading of parts of the nonfunctioning engine inside the rear cargo compartment. To facilitate the insertion of the inlet cowlings of the fifth engine, Air Canada technicians removed the door fittings. Actual procedure as outlined in Boeing manuals calls for the removal of panels from the cowling to load it into the compartment. However, neither the Air Canada technicians nor Montreal maintenance manager Thiniri Rajendra were aware of the Boeing procedure. Rajendra, however, made sure the door fittings were properly reattached. He also carried out a final check of the aircraft and handed the certificate of airworthiness to Captain Narendra, who duly accepted command of the aircraft.

Kanishka was now ready for take-off. The time was 8:16 p.m., a delay of one hour and 41 minutes from its scheduled take-off-time. As it lifted off from Toronto’s runway 24L with sandwiches and juice for the short haul to Montreal, the plane was carrying 270 passengers, 22 crew and hundreds of pieces of luggage, including two diplomatic bags from Vancouver. Also aboard for the hour-long flight to Montreal were security man John D’Souza, maintenance manager Rajendra and Divyang Yodh, passenger service supervisor, who had come in from New York because the regular agent in Toronto was on leave.

And, of course, the aircraft was still carrying the bag whose owner had never showed up. A bag no one aboard Flight 182 was aware of.