Independent Air Flight 1851: Portugal’s Deadliest Aviation Accident

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of Portugal’s worst air disaster. On February 8th, 1989, a Boeing 707 operating Independent Air flight 1851 from Milan Bergamo to Punta Cana crashed while approaching its stopover in the Azores. Let’s take a look back at how the tragedy unfolded, and its wider impacts on the airline.

The flight and aircraft in question

Based in Atlanta in the US state of Georgia, Independent Air’s primary business was operating charter flights. It flew these for both tour operators and the US military, as well as a travel club known as Atlanta Skylarks. The carrier’s operations were typically centered around North America and the Caribbean.

However, Independent Air would sometimes find itself operating flights further afield. Italy was a key longer-haul market for the airline, and it served two of Milan’s three main airports, namely Malpensa and Bergamo. On February 8th, 1989, one of its charters departed from the latter of these using the flight number 1851.

The flight’s ultimate destination was Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. However, it also featured a stopover at Santa Maria in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic. According to ATDB.aero, the Boeing 707-331 operating the flight was almost 21 years old, having been delivered to TWA in March 1968.

Guido Allieri via Wikimedia Commons“>


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Impact with the mountain

ASN notes that Independent Air flight 1851 had a total of 144 occupants onboard. This figure consisted of 137 passengers and seven crew members. Foggy conditions meant that the flight left Bergamo around two hours late, at 10:04. It was meant to leave at 08:00, but the fog delayed the inbound flight from Genoa.

Just before 13:57, the flight was on approach to Santa Maria when it received clearance to descend to 3,000 feet for an ILS approach to runway 19. However, when the crew of the flight read the transmission back to confirm its receipt, the altitude they stated was 2,000 feet. This misunderstanding proved deadly.

The 707 leveled off at 2,000 feet at 14:06, despite the minimum sector altitude being the 3,000 feet prescribed by ATC. It entered heavy clouds in a mountainous region a minute later, where it experienced turbulence. With the GPWS alarm sounding, the aircraft impacted Pico Alto, Santa Maria’s highest mountain, at 14:08.

Carlos Luis M C da Cruz via Wikimedia Commons“>


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Investigation and aftermath

The crash, which occurred at an altitude of 1,795 feet, caused the plane to explode, killing all 144 of its occupants. This made it Portugal’s worst-ever plane crash, as well as the fourth-deadliest involving the 707. Investigators found that non-adherence to operating procedures by the crew, such as the incomplete readback with the wrong altitude, was a key factor among several that caused the crash.

In 1992, a group of next-of-kin took Independent Air to court. The carrier was deemed to have acted negligently, with the case settled for $34 million. By then, the airline had already ceased operations, with flights ending in 1990. The crash of flight 1851 played a key role, as the negative publicity that ensued prompted companies to cancel contracts with Independent Air, bringing its story to a close.

Did you know about Independent Air flight 1851? If so, what are your recollections of the disaster? Let us know your thoughts and memories in the comments.


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