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The Khola Report
While it had become quite clear from circumstantial and criminal evidence that there was a bag bomb aboard Air India 182, accident investigators still had a major task ahead of them. First, they had to map the wreckage lying on the ocean floor, at depths of 7,000 feet in some locations. Second, they had to scientifically analyze the floating wreckage recovered by various ships, which had plucked bodies and debris form the surface of the Atlantic.
The floating debris recovered in the days following the Jumbo jet crash constituted only about five per cent of the aircraft’s structure. The scientists and technical experts probing the crash had to arrive at their own conclusion, separate from the criminal evidence. The job of correlating the criminal evidence and the findings of the crash investigators was to be done by Justice Bhupinder Kirpal, a New Delhi judge appointed by the government of India to head an inquiry into the tragedy.
The task of examining the floating wreckage was left to the structure group formed by chief investigator H. S. Khola. Much of the floating wreckage was in the form of lightweight parts of the aircraft. The major items recovered included panels from the wings, spoilers which are used to slow an aircraft while in flight, engine cowlings, toilet doors, cabin floor panels, passenger seats and life vests as well as hand baggage and suitcases. Also found were landing gear, wheel well doors and pieces of the tail section of the aircraft, such as the elevator and vital parts of the wings such as the aileron.
Initially, on 25 June, the floating wreckage was examined by explosives sabotage expert Eric Newton, who had been called out of retirement to go to Cork, where the wreckage lay prior to being flown to Bombay for further analysis. Newton was asked to submit a preliminary report with particular reference to explosive sabotage. Along with the floating debris, Newton examined the clothing of victims and the states of their bodies. Based on the study he carried out on the limited items of wreckage that were available, Newton made several preliminary observations.
Taking the scatter of the wreckage and the bodies into consideration, the condition of the limited amount of wreckage recovered indicated to him that the aircraft had broken up in flight before impact with the sea.
Detailed examination of the structural wreckage recovered did not reveal any evidence of collision with another aircraft and nothing was found suggestive of an external missile attack, the British expert concluded. He found no evidence of fire, internal or external, and no evidence of lightning striking the plane. After looking at all the available structural parts, Newton also said he could find no evidence of any significant corrosion, metal fatigue or other material defects that could have caused so sudden a break-up of the 747.
The expert said that all the fractures he had studied appeared to be consistent with overstressing and crash impact forces. Furthermore, examination of the clothing of the victims, most of them from the rear of the aircraft, showed no evidence of burning and no evidence of an explosion within the cabin of the aircraft.
Newton also examined 14 large and 29 small suitcases which were found floating after the crash. The damage sustained by the suitcases was due to impact forces rather than explosion. But Newton said that the fact that 14 large suitcases had been found meant that a luggage container had burst open, allowing the bags to escape. Examination of lavatory doors which were found showed no evidence of explosion. Neither did the flight deck door. Newton ruled that he could find no significant evidence of explosion on the flight deck itself or in the first-class and tourist passenger cabins.
‘The circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that a sudden and unexpected disaster occurred in flight,’ concluded Newton.
Later, Khola made a more detailed examination of the floating debris with representatives of the Boeing Company and United States and Canadian experts. They examined, among other things, fan cowls of the working engines as well as the fifth, non-functional engine that had been recovered. They found that the cowling of the number 3 engine, mounted on the right wing, showed severe impact damage and found that it had small puncture marks from inside to outside. Punctures and severe damage were also found in cowling stored in the aft luggage compartment, and impact damage was found on the spoilers mounted on the right wing. Impact damage of a severe nature was noticed to other structures of the right wing, meaning that something had come out of the aircraft and hit the right wing while it was still in the air. The structure group formed by Khola found that all the cabin floorboards that had been recovered had been detached form their fixings in an upward direction, meaning they had been blown upwards from the cargo compartment, which is beneath the passenger cabin.
The major part of the wreckage, and most of the bodies of the victims, had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. While the French ship Leon Thevenin was searching for the flight data recorders, it had also made some seven videotapes of the wreckage on the ocean floor with the help of its underwater mini-submarine called the Scarab. On 17 July 1985 the Canadian Coast Guard vessel John Cabot began making a detailed map of the wreckage and prepared about 42 video tapes and 3,000 still photographs.
The tapes and photographs were studied at the Boeing plant near Seattle, Washington. The report of the structural group showed that the wreckage had been scattered over several miles on the ocean floor in an east-west direction, all of it within a radius of about 5.5 miles save for one torn suitcase which was found lying about 2 miles before the main wreckage scatter began.
While much of the forward part of the aircraft was lying within a short distance from the beginning of the wreckage trail, the portion of the aircraft extending from the forward end of the aft luggage compartment to the rear pressure bulkhead was lying scattered over a five-mile east-west swath without any concentration. The videotapes made by the John Cabot also showed that the forward fuselage section of the plane was lying inverted on the bottom of the sea and was broken into many pieces. The investigators found that the portion below the first class deck, had been totally destroyed.
The lower fuselage of the front cargo compartment was severely damaged. In certain areas, said the structure group, the main deck floor beams were also found to be severely damaged. The most significant find was that about two-thirds of the upper portion of the front cargo door, which is about nine feet by six feet, had been broken off and blown away. It was not located. The floor of the forward cargo compartment was badly mangled and smashed.
In sharp contrast, although the rear cargo compartment bottom showed an opening below its surface and the metal had curled back, the wreckage was in relatively good condition.
All four of the aircraft’s engines were found detached from the wings. In two instances, the engine cases had split open.
In a report Khola prepared for Judge Kirpal, he noted: ‘It appears that some opening up of the structure had occurred in the aft cargo compartment in the air. The tail portion perhaps separated before the aircraft impacted with water. This is also supported by the evidence that some passengers who were occupying seats in the passenger cabin above the aft cargo compartment had sustained flail injuries, indicating that they had been thrown clear of the aircraft in the air.
‘The wreckage of the aft cargo compartment was found relatively in good condition,’ Khola said. ‘The bottom skin panel was curled back slightly … the left hand side skin [of the rear fuselage] was found folded back along its length.
‘The above nature of damage is not consistent with impact damage and corroborates break-up in the air of the aircraft in the aft cargo compartment area,’ he said, adding, in the cautious jargon of the scientist: ‘This is suggestive of some internal over-pressure in the area.’
But if Khola was saying in carefully guarded language that the aft cargo compartment had opened up in the air due to an explosion, that still didn’t explain why the right wing suffered such massive damage, as though items had been flung out o f the aircraft forward of the right wing.
That statement raised the intriguing question of why the forward luggage compartment door had been blown out. Khola believes contents of the front cargo hold could have been liberated into the air, hitting the right wing as the plane went into gyrations.
Another significant observation was that none of the fan blades of the aircraft showed any rotational damage, meaning that they were not operating when the plane hit the water.
Based on the evidence he had from the wreckage, videotapes, the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Data Recorder, Khola wrote up a report indicating 20 specific findings:
¨ The aircraft had a current certificate of air-worthiness and was maintained according to approved schedules.
¨ The loading and centre of gravity of the plane were within specified limits.
¨ The fifth pod engine did not cause any problems in flight which could have contributed to the disaster.
¨ Procedure laid down by Boeing for loading the engine cowlings in the aft cargo compartment was not followed (this refers to the removal of door fittings in Toronto). But this did not contribute to the accident.
¨ The flight crew was appropriately licensed and experienced to operate the flight.
¨ Weather at the time of the accident was fair and not a factor in the crash.
¨ There was no lightning strike to the aircraft.
¨ There was non-evidence of fire.
¨ The flight was uneventful until 7:14:01 GMT, when the aircraft disappeared from the Shannon radar screen and the flight recorders stopped recording.
¨ The aircraft was flying at its assigned flight level of 31,000 feet and was on its assigned track until the moment it disappeared from the radar screen.
¨ All the four engines were operating normally until 7:14:01 GMT.
¨ The aircraft’s speed was sometimes six-knot over the specified limit of 290 knots while carrying a fifth engine. But Boeing said this would cause no problem and did not contribute to the crash.
¨ There was no problem regarding the controllability of the aircraft until 7:14:01 GMT.
¨ The crew declared no emergency. Life rafts were un-inflated and so were the life jackets. The seats were not in an upright position as they would be if the crew had had a chance to caution passengers about a problem and institute ditching procedures.
¨ The wreckage of the aircraft was scattered over a distance of five and a half miles in the direction of the flight, meaning that it broke up long before it hit the water.
¨ The right-hand wing inboard of the No. 3 engine and the right-hand stabilizer showed impact damage sustained in the air.
¨ Fan blades of the engines showed no rotational damage, indicating that the engines were not operating under power when the plane plunged into the sea.
¨ The wreckage found in the beginning of the wreckage trail consisted mainly of suitcases and the aft cargo compartment lower skin panels indicating that some rupture had occurred in the aft cargo compartment in the air.
¨ The aft portion of the aircraft had separated from the aircraft, perhaps before impacting the water.
¨ From the sounds recorded on the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Shannon ATC tape, it appeared that an explosion had occurred on board the aircraft at 7:14:01 GMT.
Khola had said about everything here was to say, except to point a finger at M. Singh’s bag. But one aspect of the crash was still something of a mystery. Was the explosion in the rear cargo compartment or in the front one? Khola seemed to believe that it was in the aft compartment, but that didn’t explain why the front cargo compartment door had been blasted out.
United States expert Paul Turner, from his analysis of the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the ATC tape, had ruled that the explosion had occurred in the front of the aircraft. Also, Eric Newton was still wondering why the transponder had died so suddenly if the explosion had occurred in the back of the aircraft. The transponder sends the signal – called the ‘squawk’ – that enables radar to pinpoint the position of the plane. It had blanked out at the same moment the Cockpit Voice Recorder died. That could only be explained if the explosion had been close to the Electronics Bay of the aircraft in the forward belly hold.
The debate could be settled once and for all if samples of debris could be brought to the surface. But such an operation to salvage wreckage had never been carried out at depths of 6,700 feet. Could it be done?
The Challenge of the Deep
First the skeptics said a plane lying on the bottom of the murky Atlantic would never be found. Then they said the black boxes would never be recovered. And when those things had been done, they said there was no technology available to salvage the wreckage.
They hadn’t reckoned on the champion of the deep, a robot submarine called the Scarab. The 6,300 pound marvel of modern technology with its video eyes constantly scanning, its jets pushing it forward, and its sonar guiding it in the right direction, would prove them wrong by crossing a frontier. The frontier of a 6,700-foot depth, one from which man had never before salvaged the wreckage of an aircraft.
What is more, the Scarab (there are actually two in the world today) wasn’t even designed for the task it was now being assigned. The submarine, a little larger than a small truck, got its name from the original job it was supposed to do. Maintain and repair undersea telecommunication cables. Hence the name Submersible Craft for Assisting Repair and Burial.
Burial indeed. Now the little craft was being asked to open a watery grave which held the 300 or so scattered parts of the Kanishka. Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey first developed the computerized Scarab. The designers had in mind operations at a limit of some 6,000 feet. But the job called for diving to depths of more than 6,7000 feet. The Scarab would go down to that depth again, as it had done while retrieving the black boxes that provided such vital clues about the flight conditions before the crash. This time, though, the logistics were slightly different. This job involved plucking much heavier objects from the seabed and called for a tricky operation that would require two surface ships.
The Canadian government was already paying through the nose for sending the Coast Guard ice-cutter John Cabot, recently converted to a cable-laying ship, to the scene of the disaster shortly after the crash. The 303 foot long and 60 foot wide vessel had a complement of some 90 crewmembers. The ship would have to house additional technicians for the Scarab, which requires at least three people to control its propulsion unit, maneuver its video eyes and its detachable arms and operate the onboard computer. The Scarab is an immensely expensive machine to charter. Another ship would be needed as well because both the deck space on the John Cabot and its capabilities for lifting heavy aircraft parts were inadequate for the job. For that reason, the Canadian offshore supply vessel Kreuztrum would also be used.
The cost, according to the lowest estimates, would range from $10 to $15 million. But the Canadian government was willing to take its share of responsibility. The order came from the Prime Minister’s office in Ottawa to proceed with the search, and the Kreuztrum was initially hired for a 30-day period, which would later be extended for another 10 days with funds coughed up by the Indian government.
It was already autumn, and winter storms in the Atlantic are not to be sneezed at. This imposed a strict limitation on the scoped of the search. The Canadian Aviation Safety Board the Kirpal Commission inquiry to oversee the salvage job from shore in Cork. After a short stint, investigators Wally Peters, Harry Boyko and Brian Mask would then replace him.
The structure group set up by Indian investigator Khola had already examined videotapes and still pictures of the wreckage. They made a decision to lift out only pieces that could shed some light on what had happened – ‘a sort of a cross-section of the aircraft,’ as Brian Mask explained. That was what the structure group wanted. Pieces of the forward luggage hold bottom, parts of the aft luggage hold, parts of the rear pressure bulkhead and so on.
But what do you see at depths of 6,700 feet under the ocean? What is the view through Scarab’s eyes?
‘The bottom of the ocean is just sand, flat and clear,’ said Mask. ‘There is nothing down three, no sign of vegetation there at all … pieces of metal just lying there as though wreckage of an aircraft had been laid out on a beach.
‘The resolution of the photography is such that you can actually read part numbers off some of the wreckage. Sometimes the moving Scarab raised a dust storm on the bottom. Then it would be allowed to stand still till it settled,’ Mask said, describing the burial ground of Kanishka and many of its passengers. ‘There is a bunch of metal pieces lying all over the place … some are just a tangled mess and some are sitting there as though they’d been sliced neatly.
‘You see a suitcase sitting there and it looks like it’s in perfect condition. Then you see metal that’s all pieces which range from parts the size of small suitcases to the cockpit which is 25,000 pounds. The biggest piece was the nose section – it was just a tangled mess.’
The salvage operation would begin with controllers lowering the Scarab from the mother ship John Cabot, to which it was attached by an umbilical cord of about 10,000 feet. The robot sub would clutch the smaller objects and bring them to the surface, and then a basket lowered from the Cabot would pluck it up. The tricky part was lifting the bigger pieces, such as a big chunk of the lower skin of the forward luggage hold. First the Scarab would be lowered to attach a bridle to the metal chunk and bring a line back to the surface. Then crew from the Cabot would attach a buoy to the line. The Cabot would move out of the location to make way for the Kreuztrum, which would move into place and use its massive crane to lift the object tot he surface. A couple of intriguing parts of the aircraft, such as a forward door, were located but unfortunately dropped and never retrieved. But in all more than 23 different articles were brought to the surface.
The find included a couple of bags that really interested the structure group, especially a bag that had a tear in it. Also salvaged from the bottom was a video recorder which was broken in several places. A huge chunk of carpet from the forward cabin was brought to the surface, and the an eight-foot section of the bottom skin of the forward luggage hold.
Sitting with microscopes in the Kreuztrum were two metallurgists, including RCMP explosives expert Ron Madore, who would provide initial analysis and advice on the need for further salvage after viewing parts that showed damage consistent with an explosion on board. Madore had already seen the forensic evidence in Narita. On shore was Vancouver RCMP crime lab expert Sandy Beveridge.
One of the most interesting finds was a small circuit board, embedded in a bag pulled from the bottom. On first examination, it looked very similar to the timer circuit board found after the Narita blast.
The forward section of the fuselage skin, which lay underneath the forward luggage hold, had 20 holes in it, punctured from inside out, as though particles had been propelled from the inside of the luggage hold. The carpet from the cabin shoed holes blasted in an upward direction from the luggage holds. Furthermore, some parts of the passenger cabin showed particles of glass embedded in paneling. Further analysis would produce still more evidence that a bomb had knocked down the Jumbo. The Scarab, the men from the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Aviation Safety Board had beaten the challenge of the deep.