The Crash of Swissair 111

Flight route of Swissair 111 (Source: SRF)

Published: December 2018
Languages: German, English

It is the biggest disaster in Swiss aviation history: On 2 September 1998, near the Canadian Halifax, Swissair Flight 111 from NYC to Geneva crashed into the Atlantic with 229 people on board. The cause of the crash has never been clarified. Yet for Swiss media, the case remains taboo.

In its 2003 investigation report, the Canadian Transportation Safety Authority (TSB) came to the conclusion that a short circuit in the entertainment system cabling probably led to a fire in the cockpit, which caused the plane to crash within minutes.

However, in 2011 a forensic expert from the Canadian Federal Police RCMP involved in the investigation came to public attention as a whistleblower and presented new facts that questioned the investigation report and suggested sabotage or an attack as the cause of the crash. Six years later, he published his findings and original documents in book form.

The following list summarizes his main statements:

  1. After only a few days and despite initial indications of a possible crime, the investigation management decided to treat the crash exclusively as an accident and not to initiate a criminal investigation.
  2. An external metal expert, who was commissioned to investigate the site of the fire, found unusually high levels of magnesium residue, which indicated that a high-temperature thermite incendiary device had been used. However, the expert had to rewrite his report several times at the behest of the investigators until all evidence of a possible incendiary device was removed. Magnesium was no longer mentioned in the investigation report.
  3. The fire expert of the American FAA aviation authority and other experts also suspected the use of an incendiary device due to the damage.
  4. Test experiments, which were intended to prove that the burning insulation material alone could melt the aircraft’s aluminium frame, had to be adjusted on the instructions of the investigators until completely unrealistic conditions were reached.
  5. A piece of molten metal from the aircraft was disposed of during the test.
  6. The recorded voice data did not indicate a failure of the entertainment system as would be expected in the event of a short circuit. Rather, the examination of the wiring indicated that the defects were a result of the fire and not its cause.
  7. The aircraft maintenance check revealed that a new employee with a demonstrably false identity was present during the cleaning and handling of the aircraft at New York Airport and did not show up for work afterwards.
  8. According to cargo documents, the plane was supposed to carry diamonds with an insurance value of $300 million, but when the wreckage was recovered, they were untraceable.
  9. In the absence of a criminal investigation, no detailed profiling of the passengers was carried out, although some prominent persons were on board on the flight from New York to Geneva.
  10. During the investigation, the whistleblower was asked by his superiors to manipulate his police investigation protocols.

In 2011, Canadian television CBC and Swiss television SRF produced a joint documentary film in which the whistleblower and the metal expert had their say for the first time. The SRF journalist in charge also spoke in advance to two renowned European aviation accident experts, who also criticised the official investigation report.

Nevertheless, Swiss television surprisingly decided against broadcasting the documentary: They did not want to “spread speculation”, said the then editor-in-chief. Other Swiss media tried to portray the Canadian investigator as a “lone wolf” or “conspiracy theorist”. The then Swissair spokeswoman, however, who had insight into the whistleblower’s extensive documents, was shocked: “What he said was untouchable”.

The reason for the Swiss media’s lack of interest, which continues to this day, is not obvious. The years from 1996 to 1999 were a particularly difficult time for Swiss foreign policy. The – also unexplained – Luxor attack in November 1997 on a mainly Swiss travel group also fell during this phase.

And three years after Halifax, the attacks of 11 September 2001 occurred, in which, according to critics of the official account, thermite could also have been used.

Swissair 111: The Untold Story (CBC, 2011, 40 minutes)

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