The origin of the black box
The modern frenzy to locate black boxes after air tragedies may have its origins in a crash on the slopes of the Western Ghats near Junnar
Around mid-morning on Friday, 6 July 1962, Terry Quinn carefully observed the crowd inside the departure lobby at Sydney airport. Quinn, a reporter with the Sun Herald newspaper, was there to watch the weekly Alitalia service to Rome take off. The service had just been inaugurated the year before, and Quinn was there, one presumes, to keep an eye on celebrity passengers. But the plane also carried something else that was unusual for the 1960s: a cockpit voice recorder.
Forty-five passengers boarded the Alitalia 771 service from Sydney. “There was nothing unusual about the passengers on Flight 771,” Quinn later wrote in his paper. “There was no air of foreboding or disaster hanging heavily over the heads of the 45 ordinary men, women and children who waited, some bored, some excited, for their turn to pass through the small glass doors.”
There was the occasional hold up as the passengers boarded. A short, nervous Japanese businessman held up boarding, Quinn wrote, as he rifled through a dozen pockets to find his misplaced ticket. Quinn later distinctly remembered an attractive air hostess boarding the flight with a six-year old German girl with beautiful but sad eyes.
The Douglas DC-8 Series 43 aircraft took off from Sydney around 11am on its multi-stage trip to Rome. Its first three stops were at Darwin, Singapore and then Bangkok. In the hands of experienced Alitalia commander Pilot Luigi Quatrain, the plane was scheduled to make another three stops before landing in Rome.
At each stop the plane gained a few passengers and lost a few. At Bangkok, there was an unplanned disembarkation: Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian adventurer and author. The bestselling author of Seven Years In Tibet and The White Spider agreed to stay back over the weekend for an interview by an American magazine.
Eventually the plane took off from Bangkok with 84 passengers and nine cabin crew. Its next stop would be at the Santa Cruz airport in Bombay. As it approached Bombay, the plane was cleared by air traffic controllers to descend to 4,000 ft. Later the pilot was given permission to make a 360-degree turn over an outer marker. (The definitions of these aviation terms are quite outside the scope of this column.)
At 18:39 UTC time, air traffic controllers told the pilots: “Roger understand you will be making a three sixty over the outer marker. Report leaving outer marker while proceeding making a three sixty.”
Twenty seconds later, the pilots confirmed: “Roger will do Alitalia Seven Seven One.”
At this point the plane was somewhere in the air over Aurangabad and less than 10 minutes out of Bombay.
Shortly afterwards, AZ771 vanished.
Fourteen hours later, when there was still no sign of the plane, everyone suspected that the worst had taken place. The Alitalia DC-8 had crashed somewhere in the Western Ghats or out at sea. The plane had been making its approach during a monsoon thunderstorm, and there was also speculation that it had been hit by lightning.
The Indian government scrambled several planes, boats and helicopters to scour the land and sea around Mumbai for the plane. International media responded to the crisis in unsurprising fashion. The Tuscaloosa News wrote later: “There had been fears the plane was down east of Bombay in mountainous jungles inhabited by snakes, leopards, tigers and the Warli and Katkari tribes, who still use bows and arrows.”
Then on Sunday, 8 July, after at least one false alarm, the wreckage was found by two shepherds in the hills near the town of Junnar. Nearby, a single body was found of a European man, and some Italian Lira currency.
David Gero summarizes what happened in his book Aviation Disasters: “The jet airliner crashed into a hill at an approximate elevation of 3,600 feet, only about 5 ft from the top… at a position 5 miles to the left of the proper track.”
The investigation that followed was not, shall we say, conducted in mild temper. An Indian investigation suggested that the crash was down to pilot error and unfamiliarity with the terrain. The Italians blamed the air traffic controller for “defective, wrong and incomplete” clearance. After all, the plane was quite new and the pilot was a World War II veteran who had been with the company since the 1940s.
This debate has never really been settled conclusively. But what perhaps tilts the scales slightly in favour of the Indian case is the transcript of the cockpit voice recordings. According to more than one source, this Junnar tragedy was the first air crash investigation in history to use cockpit voice recorders as evidence. None of these sources are conclusive. But the timeline seems to make sense. It was only from the mid-1960s that passenger aircraft began to be widely fitted with black boxes and recording equipment.
Thus the modern frenzy to locate black boxes after air tragedies may have its origins in a crash on the slopes of the Western Ghats near Junnar. Unfortunately, like in the tragic case of AZ771, black boxes sometimes generate more questions than answers.
Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.
Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview
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