Once The Deadliest Single-Plane Accident Ever: Turkish Airlines Flight 981

Turkish Airlines flight 981 crashed in March 1974, marking the deadliest single-aircraft aviation accident in the world at the time. The DC-10 saw its left cargo door tear off while flying over France, causing a critical failure in the cockpit and crashing the aircraft. Here’s what happened.

Crisis

The accident occurred on March 3rd, 1974, onboard one of Turkish Airlines’ Douglas DC-10s. TK981 was scheduled to fly from Istanbul to London Heathrow, with a stop in Paris Orly airport. The first leg from IST to ORY went smoothly, with a flying time of four hours.

While the ORY-LHR leg usually did not attract many passengers, an ongoing strike by British European meant the economy cabin was full on this fateful flight. The flight departed at 12:32 PM local time, but things went wrong within minutes of the flight. While flying over Meaux, around 50 kilometers, the DC-10 lost its rear cargo door.

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The loss of the rear left cargo door caused a huge pressurization difference with the cabin right above it. This section was ripped off the aircraft, along with the six passengers seated there. However, the loss of the door resulted in pilots losing access to critical parts of the plane, including the rudder, elevator, and engine two.

The loss of controls pushed the nose down 20 degrees and caused an increase in speed. Attempts to pull the nose up and level off failed, causing the DC-10 to crash into the Ermenonville Forest just 77 seconds after the cargo door was ripped off. The location of the crash meant the accident is also known as the Ermenonville disaster.

Loess

The aircraft crashed at a speed of 783km/hr, splitting the plane into thousands of pieces. This made identifying the victims and collecting evidence challenging, given the sprawl of the wreckage. In total, all 346 onboard died, which was made up of 11 crew and 335 passengers (including the six who died after the cabin section was ripped apart).


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The aircraft broke up into uncountable piece after the crashes, making it hard to identify the passengers, over half of whom were British. Photo: Getty Images

The investigation centered around the cargo door and the reason it ripped off. It quickly became clear that the cause was a design flaw and failure by ground engineers to ensure the door was in the locked position before takeoff. In particular, the DC-10’s rear cargo door’s hinge had not moved into the correct position and the locking pins were not in place. This meant upon crossing 11,000 feet, the bolts gave way, and the door swung open.

On the day, Turkish Airlines had no engineer on the ground at Orly, leaving baggage handler Mohammed Mahmoudi to close the door. After he followed the basic procedure, the warning light in the cabin was switched off, and he presumed the door had closed successfully. In reality, the locking pins were not engaged, and the cockpit light was a false indicator.

Changes

The investigation sparked blame on Turkish Airlines and Douglas itself since both were at fault for different parts of the crisis. The airline had failed to station an engineer on the ground and had reportedly rushed the training process for the DC-10. However, McDonnell-Douglas knew about the flaws with the door design and an NTSB directive after a similar incident had not been implemented.

TK981 went on to become the deadliest single aircraft crash for over a decade, until the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123. The aftermath saw several design changes to the DC-10 to prevent such crashes and renewed scrutiny of the design process.


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