Swissair Flight 111

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Swissair Flight 111
Date    1998- 09-02
Type   In-flight fire, subsequent instrument failure
Site   Atlantic Ocean near St. Margarets Bay, Nova Scotia
Fatalities   229
Injuries   0
Aircraft type    McDonnell Douglas MD-11
Operator    Swissair
Tail number   HB-IWF
Passengers   215
Crew   14
Survivors   0

Swissair Flight 111 (SR-111, SWR-111) was a Swissair McDonnell Douglas MD-11 on a scheduled airline flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, United States to Cointrin International Airport in Geneva, Switzerland. This flight was also a codeshare flight with Delta Air Lines.

On September 2, 1998 the aircraft used for the flight, registered HB-IWF, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Halifax International Airport at the entrance to St. Margarets Bay, Nova Scotia. The crash site was 8 km from shore, roughly equidistant between the tiny fishing and tourist communities of Peggys Cove and Bayswater. All 229 people on board were killed.

The resulting investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) took over four years and cost US$39 million ( CAD$57 million). Their main conclusion was that flammable material used in the aircraft's structure allowed a fire to spread beyond the control of the crew, resulting in the loss of control and crash of the aircraft.


The aircraft and its crew

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, serial number 48448, was manufactured in 1991 and Swissair was the only operator. The airframe had a total of 36,041 hours. The three engines were Pratt & Whitney 4462s. The cabin was configured with 241 seats (12 first-, 49 business-, and 180 economy-class). First- and business-class seats were equipped with an in-flight entertainment system.

The standard crew of MD-11 is a flight crew of a captain and a first officer, and a cabin crew of a maître de cabine (M/C) and 11 flight attendants. All personnel were qualified, certified and trained in accordance with Swiss regulations, under the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA).

The flight

Flight profile. Click to expand.
Flight profile. Click to expand.

Flight SR-111 departed JFK at 8:18 p.m. ( EDT) with 215 passengers, 2 pilots and 12 flight attendants en route to Geneva. At 9:10 p.m., cruising at FL330, or 33,000 feet (about 10,060 m), the flight crew smelled an odour in the cockpit and determined it to be smoke in the air conditioning system. Four minutes later, the smoke was visible and the pilots began considering a diversion to a nearby airport for the purpose of a quick landing. At 9:14 p.m. the flight crew made a " pan-pan" radio call, indicating that an emergency exists but there is no immediate danger to the aircraft, and requested a diversion to Boston's Logan International Airport (300 nautical miles away), but was instead directed to the closer Halifax International Airport in Enfield, Nova Scotia, 66 nm (104 km) away. The crew then put on their oxygen masks and began descending.

At 9:19 p.m. the plane was 30 nautical miles away from Halifax airport, but required more time to descend from its current altitude of 21,000 feet. At 9:20 p.m. the crew informed ATC that it needed to dump fuel, and was subsequently diverted away from the airport. At 9:24 p.m., the crew declared an emergency. Aircraft systems, such as lighting, flight instruments, and the autopilot began to fail and as a result the crew slowly lost any means of successfully flying the aircraft. According to readings from seismographic recorders in Halifax and Moncton, the aircraft struck the ocean at 9:31 pm EDT (10:31 local time). The crash location was approximately 44°24.55′N 63°58.4′W, with 500 metres' uncertainty.

Recovery and investigation

The aircraft broke apart on impact with the water, and most of the debris sank to the ocean floor (a depth of 55 m or 180 ft). Some debris were found floating in the crash area, and over the following weeks debris washed up on the nearby shorelines.

The initial focus of the recovery was on finding and identifying human remains, and finding the flight recorders. But this proved difficult as the force of impact (approximately 350 G), and the environmental conditions, only allowed recovery along with wreckage.

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) were found by the submarine HMCS Okanagan and quickly retrieved by divers (FDR on September 6 and CVR on September 11, 1998). However, both had stopped recording at approximately 10,000 ft, six minutes before impact.

Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Hudson searches for Swissair Flight 111 debris
Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Hudson searches for Swissair Flight 111 debris

On October 2, 1998 the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) initiated a heavy lift operation to retrieve the major portion of the wreckage from the deep-water before the expected winter storms began. By October 21, 27% of the wreckage was recovered.

At this point in the investigation, the cause of the crash was generally believed to be due to faulty wiring in the cockpit, after the entertainment system in the plane started to overheat. Certain groups issued Aviation Safety Recommendations. The TSB released its preliminary report August 30, 2000, but the final report was not completed until 2003.

The final phase of wreckage recovery by dredging ended in December 1999 with 98% of the aircraft retrieved: approximately 126,554 kg (279,000 lb) of aircraft debris and 18,144 kg (40,000 lb) of cargo.

As each piece of wreckege was brought in, it was carefully cleaned, sorted, and weighed. All items not considered significant to the crash were stored with similar items in large boxes. If deemed significant to the investigation, the item was documented and photographed. Particular attention was paid to any item showing heat damage, burns, or other unusual marks.


The front 10m (33 feet) of the aircraft, from the front of the cockpit to near the front of the first-class passenger cabin, was reconstructed. Information gained by this allowed investigators to determine the severity and limits of the fire damage, its possible origins and progression.


The cockpit voice recorder has only 30 minutes of tape, automatically recording on a loop. It also operated off the aircraft power, and stopped recording when the aircraft lost electrical power.

TSB Findings

The investigation identified eleven causes and contributing factors of the crash in their final report. The first and most important was:

Aircraft certification standards for material flammability were inadequate in that they allowed the use of materials that could be ignited and sustain or propagate fire. Consequently, flammable material propagated a fire that started above the ceiling on the right side of the cockpit near the cockpit rear wall. The fire spread and intensified rapidly to the extent that it degraded aircraft systems and the cockpit environment, and ultimately led to the loss of control of the aircraft.

Arcing from wiring of the in-flight entertainment network did not trip the circuit breakers but ignited flammable covering on insulation blankets and quickly spread across other flammable materials. The crew did not recognize that a fire had started and were not warned by instruments. Once they became aware of the fire, the uncertainty of the problem made it difficult to address. The rapid spread of the fire led to the failure of key display systems, and the crew's ability to control the aircraft was soon overcome. Because he had no light by which to see his controls after the displays failed, the pilot was forced to steer the plane blindly; as a result, the plane swerved off course and headed back out into the Atlantic. Recovered fragments of the plane show that the heat inside the cockpit became so great that the ceiling started to melt.

The recovered standby attitude indicator and airspeed indicator showed that the aircraft struck the water at 300 knots in a 20 degrees nose down and 110 degree bank turn, or almost upside down . Upon impact, the nose of the plane slowed down considerably: in less than a second, the tail of the plane, still moving at its original velocity, would have reached the nose, crushing the plane in between and killing all aboard almost instantly.

Reconstructed cockpit during investigation
Reconstructed cockpit during investigation

The TSB concluded that even if they had been aware of the nature of the problem, the rate of spread of the fire would have precluded a safe landing at Halifax even if an approach had begun as soon as the " pan-pan" was declared.

The TSB made nine recommendations relating to changes in aircraft materials, electrical systems, and flight data capture. (Both flight recorders failed, along with main power, six minutes before impact.) General recommendations were also made regarding improvements in checklists and in fire-detection and fire-fighting equipment.

The lack of flight recorder data for the last six minutes of the flight added significant complexity to the investigation and was a major factor in its duration. The Transportation Safety Board team had to reconstruct the last six minutes of flight entirely from the physical evidence. The plane was broken into millions of small pieces by the impact, making this process time-consuming and tedious. The investigation became the longest (five years) and most expensive (57 million CAD) transport accident investigation in Canadian history.


Bayswater, Nova Scotia memorial.
Bayswater, Nova Scotia memorial.

Two memorials to the victims have been established by the government of Nova Scotia. One is located east of the crash site at The Whalesback, a promontory 1 km north of Peggys Cove. The second memorial is a more private but much larger commemoration located west of the crash site near Bayswater Beach Provincial Park on the Aspotogan Peninsula. Here, the unidentified remains of the victims are interred.

In September 1999 Swissair and Boeing offered the families of the passengers full compensatory damages. This was rejected in favour of a $19.8 billion suit against Swissair and DuPont, the supplier of Mylar insulation sheathing. The claim was rejected in a US federal court in February 2002.

A number of famous or notable people died in this accident, including Joseph LaMotta, son of former boxing world champion Jake LaMotta, and Jonathan Mann, a well-known former head of the WHO's AIDS program. A number of works of art, including a piece by Pablo Picasso, were lost in the crash.

After the crash, the flight route designator for Swissair's New York-Geneva route was changed to Flight 139.

Since the crash there have been many television documentaries on Flight 111, including episodes of disaster shows like History Channel's Disasters Of the Century and National Geographic's Air Crash Investigation.

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