It has been 52 years since Aer Lingus flight 712 crashed into the sea near Tuskar Rock off the coast of County Wexford, killing all 61 passengers and crew. However, the truth of what happened that day is still unknown. The flight and resulting accident occurred on Sunday, March 24, 1968. The aircraft involved was a Vickers Viscount registration number EI-AOM called the “St. Phelim.”
To set the scene and the lead up to it, Aer Lingus flight number 712 was a routine hop across the Irish Sea from Cork Airport (ORK) to London Heathrow (LHR). Unlike the winter weather Ireland has today, 52 years ago, winters were much harsher, and in the early months of 1968, there had been repeated snowfalls.
Swans migrate to Ireland for the winter
In 1968 Ireland was the winter home to thousands of swans who, in the spring, fly home to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Russia. Finally, by March, spring was arriving, and it was time for the swans to leave.
This led to much speculation that Aer Lingus flight 712 had suffered a bird strike and as a result of it crashed into the sea. The investigation into the crash reported that swans might have played a part.
The plane was shot down
While a bird strike is possible, many theories surround what really happened, including the aircraft being shot down by a British missile. Perfectly positioned along the Viscount’s flight path was the Royal Air Force (RAF) station Aberporth. At the time, it was the United Kingdom’s leading missile testing range where missiles were frequently fired at unmanned drones flying over the Irish Sea.
The British Ministry of Defense immediately said they were not involved and had nothing to do with the plane crash. Another theory is that a British warship conducting exercises in the area, HMS Penelope, mistook the aircraft for a target drone and shot it down. The Ministry of Defense claims that there were no ships in the vicinity but cannot explain why HMS Penelope’s logbook went missing.
Weather played no part in the crash
One theory we can rule out is that weather may have played a part as it was a beautifully sunny day when the Viscount took off at 10:32 in the morning. Everything was proceeding as usual until the 22-year-old co-pilot Paul Heffernan, is allegedly heard saying the following, according to the Irish Times.
“…twelve thousand feet descending, spinning rapidly.”
That was the last communication heard from the plane and had London Air Traffic Control (ATC) immediately informing their Shannon counterparts. Aer Lingus Flight EI 362, en route from Dublin to Bristol, was asked to descend to 500 feet and search for the missing plane. Unable to spot anything, a full alert was declared at 11:25 with a report of wreckage sighted just over an hour later. Despite the wreckage’s sighting, search planes failed to find anything and called off the search until the following day.
The plane crashed near Tuskar Rock
Eventually, the aircraft’s remains were found, and bodies recovered six miles (11 kilometers) north-east of Tuskar Rock. Meaning “large rock” in Old Norse, it is a group of rocks that are responsible for more shipwrecks than any other place in Ireland.
At the time, the Irish government said it was happy how the search went, but a later report in 2000 noted that the state did not have enough resources to search sufficiently, saying:
“The lack of a financial commitment to indefinitely fund the search and salvage operation may have contributed to its limited success.”
Looking at it now from 52 years on, it’s hard to imagine that more effort to recover the bodies and discover what had caused the crash seems unthinkable. When speaking about the crash with the Irish Examiner newspaper in 2018, one of the victims’ relatives, Celine O’Donoghue, said that questioning the authorities was not a part of the culture.
“Not in the Ireland of 1968. We were still nearly fairy and leprechaun country at that point. People were lucky to have landline phones. Computers hadn’t even started,” she said.
“Anything was possible in those days because nobody had any way of knowing otherwise. You can not talk in the language of 2018 for 50 years ago.”
Ultimately it took the relatives of the only American victims of the crash, Joseph and Mary Gangelhoff, to say that they did not accept the initial investigation report. What seemed strange to them was that the British military took charge of the rescue and salvage operation and that there was no civilian body to provide an independent investigation. The Air Accident Investigation Unit of today was only established in 1994.
A new inquiry was held in 2000
Eventually, after public pressure and media speculation that a missile may have shot the plane down, a new independent study was held in 2000. The study found serious omissions in the aircraft maintenance records leading to speculation that some kind of structural failure caused the plane to spin out of control.
If a missile or drone had not hit the plane, the finger pointed to a problem with the aircraft itself. A problem that might have come to light if the aircraft had been properly maintained.
“The day I got a call from Department [of Public Enterprise] in Dublin, and they told me that the service cards relating to the Viscount had disappeared on the day of the crash and that that fact was omitted from the original report, I knew then what the real story was,” Celine said.
“It was an engineering fault, plain as day. So all the talk of it being shot down, of drones, of the British and the military — it was nonsense, it was the best scapegoat they could have thought of at the time, and it kept everyone’s attention away from the real issue.”
Another interesting fact is that most of the plane, including the tailplane, was never recovered. What was recovered ended up being disposed of without giving notice to parties that might have wanted to examine them.
Up until 1995, 139 Vickers Viscounts have crashed around the world with the loss of 1,573 lives. Following the crash of flight 712, Aer Lingus put its 12 Viscounts up for sale and replaced them with newer Boeing aircraft.
Aer Lingus still operates flight 712
Surprisingly unlike other airlines that discontinue flight numbers following a crash, Aer Lingus still operates flight 712 from Cork to London Heathrow.
Unlike 1968 far fewer swans now migrate as far south for the winter thanks to climate change, and it would not be acceptable for maintenance logbooks to go missing as they did for flight 712 in 1968.
While we will still don’t know what really happened to Aer Lingus flight 712, there seems to be a consensus that it was some kind of structural failure.
What do you think caused Aer Lingus flight 712 to crash? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments.