26 Years Later: Icing or In-Flight Explosion; Arrow Air 1285

By By Dan DePodwin, Meteorologist
December 13, 2011, 3:56:00 AM EST

On a dreary wintry evening 26 years ago in Gander, Newfoundland, a DC-8 aircraft carrying 256 people (most of whom were U.S. soldiers) crashed, killing all souls on board. It is still one of the most deadly plane crashes in history, and has become one of the most controversial.

The flight (Arrow Air #1285) was bound for Fort Campbell, Ky., the home of many of the soldiers on the flight. They were flying home from Cairo, Egypt, where they had been part of a peacekeeping mission.

The aircraft refueled on the evening of Dec. 12, 1985, at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland. Freezing rain and snow grains fell for the hour the plane was on the ground. The temperature hovered around 25 degrees Fahrenheit during this time.

At 6:45 p.m. local time, the plane attempted to take off, but crashed just a half of a mile from the runway after failing to gain altitude.

The ensuing investigation would provide more questions than answers and lead the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) to issue two opinions on the cause of the crash.

The "majority opinion" of the board stated that "the most probable cause of the [accident] was determined to be ice contamination."

Ice on an aircraft causes reduced lift and has been the cause of numerous accidents. Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., in a snowstorm in 1985. More recently in 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 plunged into a neighborhood outside of Buffalo after ice accumulated on the wings.


In the case of Arrow Air Flight 1285, there was not heavy precipitation falling at the time the aircraft was on the ground in Gander. Although freezing drizzle was falling, only a trace (less than 0.01 inches) was observed at the airport.

While only a small amount of ice is needed to bring down an airplane, other pilots flying into Gander that evening reported minimal ice-related problems, and no problems at less than 700 feet (the accident aircraft never reached 700 feet).

The inconsistencies in the icing reports led four members of the CASB to issue a "minority opinion" that concluded that an in-flight explosion led to a loss in engine power and other flight controls.

There is still much dispute over what happened that fateful evening in Gander. For a more thorough look at the accident, check out the CASB majority and minority report.

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