Turkish Airlines Flight 981 Crashes from Cargo Hatch Failure
Turkish Airlines Flight 981 was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, registered TC-JAV and nicknamed the Ankara, that crashed just outside Senlis, France, on 3 March 1974 killing all on board.
Known as the Ermenonville air disaster, from the forest where the aircraft crashed, the accident resulted in the deaths of all 346 on board. The crash of Flight 981 was the deadliest air disaster of all time before the Tenerife Disaster event of 1977, and remained the deadliest single-airliner disaster until the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985. Flight 981 has the highest death toll of any aviation accident in France and the highest death toll of any accident involving a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 anywhere in the world.
The crash resulted from the failure of the rear cargo hatch latching system, which allowed the hatch to blow off in flight. The resulting decompression of the cargo hold caused the cabin floor above the hatch to collapse. The flight control cables for the airplane that ran through the floor were severed, leaving the pilots with almost no control over the aircraft. Problems with the latching system and the potential failure mode that led to the crash were known to Convair, the fuselage's builder, several years prior to the accident. Changes that addressed the problem had been found, but were not applied to TC-JAV, nor many other aircraft in the DC-10-10 fleet. McDonnell Douglas's reputation and the reputation of the DC-10 were harmed.
Flight 981 had flown from Istanbul that morning, landing at Paris's Orly International Airport just after 11:00 am local time. The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, was carrying just 167 passengers and 13 crew members in its first leg. 50 passengers disembarked at Paris. The flight's second leg, from Paris to London's Heathrow Airport, was normally underbooked, but due to a strike by British European Airways (BEA) employees, many London-bound travelers who had been stranded at Orly were booked onto Flight 981. Among them were 17 English rugby players who had attended a France-England match the previous day; the flight also carried four British fashion models, 48 Japanese bank management trainees on their way to England, as well as passengers from a dozen other countries.
The aircraft departed Orly at around 12:30 pm for its flight to Heathrow. It took off in an easterly direction, then turned to the north to avoid flying directly over Paris. Shortly thereafter the flight was cleared to flight level 230, and started turning to the west for London. Just after Flight 981 passed over the town of Meaux, controllers picked up a distorted transmission from the plane; the aircraft's pressurization and overspeed warnings were heard over the pilots' words in Turkish, including the co-pilot saying "the fuselage has burst."
The flight disappeared from radar shortly afterwards and its wreckage was later found at the Grove of Dammartin in the Ermenonville forest, close to the town of Senlis. The aircraft had broken into many small pieces. The post-crash fires were small as there were few large pieces of the aircraft left intact to burn. Of the 346 onboard, only 40 bodies were visually identifiable. Nine passengers were never identified.
The wreckage had been so extensively broken up that immediate investigation suggested that a bomb had been placed on-board. Turkish news reports suggested that a group had intended to bomb a BEA aircraft but had switched planes along with the other passengers. Two terrorist groups soon called to claim responsibility.
The disaster that had been feared since the start of the jumbo jet era, a non-survivable crash involving a heavily loaded wide-bodied transport, left commercial aviation reeling for more than a year. This accident has been used by industry critics a as an example of corporate ineptitude, design shortsightedness and government laxity.
At the center of the controversy was a serious defect in the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft. The fault lay not in its performance or handling, but something far more mundane, namely the locking mechanism of its rear cargo door. Previously, most jetliner doors had been of the `plug` type, opening inwards and held firmly inplace by cabin pressure while the aircraft was in flight. But the door on the DC-10, which was built by the Convair division of General Dynamics, opened outwards.