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Echo India Alpha Oscar Mike (EI-AOM) was the callsign of the Aer Lingus Vickers Viscount 803 airliner that crashed into the Irish Sea near the Tuskar Rock Lighthouse on 24 March 1968.  61 lives were lost that day.  The 'Tuskar Rock Tragedy' still represents the largest single loss of life in Irish civil aviation history.  Special Event Station EI5ØAOM remembers those who perished that crisp, clear Sunday morning in March, fifty years ago.

Tragic though it is, the story of EI-AOM is fascinating and poignant.  There is the aircraft, the flight, the inquiries and the victims. . . .

The Aircraft
The Viscount airliner, produced by Vickers-Armstrong Ltd from 1948 to 1963, was technically advanced for its day and celebrated for its comfort, speed and elegance.  It was one of the first airliners with a pressurized cabin; it was the first to be powered by quieter and more powerful turboprop engines—basically jet engines with propellers attached; its windows were large (19” x 26”) and elliptical in shape, to the delight of passengers; and it had a unique tetrahedral stabilizer (tail) that was complex to engineer but allowed for greater control of the aircraft. 

EI-AOJ, sister ship of EI-AOM, shortly before departure ca. 1970.  Note that the tail 'wing' points slightly upwards--the complex tetrahedral design of the tail that failed on EI-AOM.  (Copyright of image is unknown; from collection of Bob Garrard.)

The Viscount—originally to be named Viceroy until Lord Mountbatten became the last of those in India—became popular throughout the world and was a workhorse for many smaller airlines long after production ended.  Sales of refurbished Viscounts, mostly to African operators, continued into the 1990s and it is thought that the last Viscount to fly left service in about 2008.  Routine Flight is a fascinating documentary featuring the Viscount, produced in 1955 by the National Film Board of Canada.  It can be viewed at https://www.nfb.ca/film/routine_flight/ (jump to 20:00 for the flight).

The Viscount later to be registered EI-AOM first flew on Friday, 18 October 1957.  Its first owner was Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V.--better known as KLM - Royal Dutch Airlines--and was delivered to KLM on 22 October 1957.  It carried the registration PH-VIG and sported the name Sir Charles Kingsford Smith under the banner De Vliegende Hollander ('the Flying Dutchman').  The airliner was sold to Aer Lingus on 3 November 1966 and re-registered as EI-AOM.  (Source:  http://www.vickersviscount.net/index/vickersviscount178history.aspx.)

EI-AOM on taxiway before takeoff ca. 1966.  This aircraft was a regular on the daily service between Cork and London Heathrow.  (Image downloaded from baaa-acro.com website and permission sought for its use; copyright of image is unknown.)

The Viscount was an airliner popular with both operators and passengers.  However, because of its complexity and revolutionary design, Viscounts needed meticulous maintenance.  Of the 445 Viscounts built, 144 or 32% were involved in accidents in which the complete hull was lost.  Of those accidents, 68 (15% of all Viscounts built) involved fatalities--generally all on board--with a total loss of 1,740 lives (source: Aviation Safety Network).  Analysis after the crash of EI-AOM found that some maintenance compliance periods on EI-AOM were exceeded by a factor of four.  For example, some jobs due at 350 hours’ flying time were carried out at 1,400 hours.  Although exemplary now, Aer Lingus’ maintenance on EI-AOM was woeful.  This may not have contributed to the loss of EI-AOM but there is no doubt that the aircraft was not maintained in the way called for by its manufacturer.

The Flight
EI-AOM, named St Phelim after Aer Lingus' practice of naming its aircraft after Irish saints, took off from Cork Airport as flight 712 at 11:32 am Irish Summer Time on Sunday, 24 March 1968, in clear weather.  It was headed for a cruising altitude of 17,000 feet on a familiar flight path that would take it along the south coast of Ireland, over the Irish sea to Strumble Head near Fishguard in Wales, and along the Green-One flight corridor to London Heathrow.  At 11:57, according to later transcripts from Shannon air traffic control, the plane was reportedly nine miles south of Hook Head travelling on its designated flight path between Cork and Tuskar Rock.  Confusingly, forty-one seconds later at 11:58, London air traffic control and several airliners monitored a weak radio transmission:

Echo India Alpha Oscar Mike with you,’ and then moments later, ‘five thousand feet, descending, spinning rapidly.’

It was the last transmission heard from EI-AOM.  Later analysis established that this transmission was made during EI-AOM's second dive near the Kennedy Arboretum north of Waterford (see map and discussion below).  The pilot and co-pilot were able to keep the Viscount airborne for another sixteen minutes but it finally crashed into the sea southeast of the Tuskar Rock Lighthouse at about 12:14 pm, 42 minutes after takeoff. 

View from a port-side window of a Vickers Viscount over countryside that could be Ireland.  (Image attributed to Gary Watt and downloaded from Airliners.net website; permission to use image has been requested.)

The four Irish crew and 57 passengers comprised of Irish, British, Belgian, Swiss, Swedish, American and Dutch nationals all died.  Only 14 bodies were recovered.  It took three months to locate the fuselage on the sea bed at a depth of 77m and, once located, the clumsy attempted recovery destroyed evidence that might have answered more questions.  When it was first lifted out of the sea, the fuselage crashed down again into the sea and sank to the bottom before finally being found again and recovered many days later.  Voice cockpit recorders had not yet been fitted to Viscounts at that time so the mangled fuselage yielded few clues as to what had happened.

Recovery of the wreckage of EI-AOM was shambolic.  Here, part of the remaining fuselage is lifted onto the quay at Rosslare Harbour.  (Image downloaded from baaa-acro.com website and permission sought for its use; copyright of image is unknown.)

Because the flight was on a clear Sunday morning, many people on the ground coming home from church witnessed the plane in distress or even its final plunge into the sea.  Rumours immediately began circulating as to the cause.  Some believed that EI-AOM was downed by an RAF missile or hit by one of the pilotless drones used as targets for the missiles.  Another theory blamed a mid-air collision with an Irish Air Corps trainer aircraft.  A cover-up by UK and Irish authorities was assumed by most.

The Inquiries
The official investigation into the cause of the crash was published in 1970.  Its preparation was overseen by the same man who authorised the Certificate of Airworthiness renewal for EI-AOM one month before it crashed.  The paperwork for his inspection of the aircraft was missing at the time of the 1970 report and remains lost.  The 1970 report was inconclusive and left open many possible causes for the crash.  Numerous lines of inquiry were not pursued and some eyewitness reports were simply dismissed as inaccurate.

In 1998, after pressure from relatives of the victims, a review of files from the 1970 report was carried out by the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit.  This led to a second study commissioned by the Irish government and this time carried out by independent experts from outside Ireland.  The resulting report published in 2002 found many omissions in the 1970 report.  While the 1970 report assumed complete accuracy of transcripts of radio transmissions between EI-AOM and Shannon air traffic control, the authors of the 2002 report made no such assumptions.  

Discounting Shannon ATC’s radio transcripts—which one can only speculate might have been taken in error from radio traffic with the same scheduled flight a few days before the fatal crash—the 2002 report pieced together 46 eyewitness accounts to provide a clear and logical flight sequence, and that told a far different story.  (Image of plane on QSL Card above and map below used by courtesy of M.H. Gill & Co.)

Almost indisputably, instead of flying the quicker track towards the Welsh coast as Shannon ATC’s transcripts indicated, EI-AOM travelled a meandering course over land that included two spiral dives east of Youghal and north of Waterford—as if the pilot was trying to resolve a mechanical problem without returning to Cork.  The 2002 report concluded that there was no other airborne object, missile or drone in the vicinity of the upset.  Whatever the emergency was, there had been time for routine procedures such as switching on ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ signs—which were found to be lit at impact.  This would have been completely implausible had the pilot experienced a sudden loss of control as with a missile strike or mid-air collision.  It was estimated that a force of 450 pounds (200 Kg) was required from the pilot and co-pilot on their controls to bring the aircraft out of its spins.  Only by throttling up could they lessen the force required, but this would cause the plane to climb.  In effect it was impossible for the pilot to land EI-AOM, as throttling back would again send the plane into a deadly dive.

The 2002 report cited probable causes as structural failure, corrosion or a bird strike.  It seems that part of EI-AOM’s advanced, tetrahedral tail may have failed or become damaged, causing the first spiral dive near Youghal, and that the second dive caused further crippling damage.  The pilot was able to keep the mortally wounded Viscount airborne for 32 minutes after the first dive, but passengers must have known that the end was near.  The progressively critical condition of the aircraft finally led to an uncontrollable dive slightly to the port side that ended in impact with the sea, killing all on board.

The Victims
Like any group brought together by random events, the passengers and crew aboard EI-AOM were a diverse collection of individuals.  There were two groups of sport fishermen—one Belgian group of business associates and the other, Swiss and Dutch nationals who were physicians—that were in Ireland for fishing holidays; at least nine business executives travelling to London on Sunday for meetings presumably the next day; one chess champion and mathematics PhD; one holder of the title Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (‘CBE’); one famous orchestra conductor and author; one priest; two nurses; eight consultant physicians; two shop-owners; five husband and wife couples, two of which were travelling for weddings; three family groups of three; two groups of sisters; and three children, the youngest being six months old.

Regarding the crew, the report from the 2002 investigation into the crash included the following statement: 

. . . it was a major achievement for the crew to be able to keep this aircraft flying for more than half an hour, with such poor manoeuvrability characteristics.   This showed a remarkable intrinsic and professional level of experience.  It is equitable to acknowledge such a performance.

The crew of EI-AOM consisted of pilot Captain Barney O’Beirne from Dublin, co-pilot First Officer Paul Heffernan from Cork, stewardess Ann Kelly from Wexford, and stewardess Mary Coughlan from Tipperary.

Capt. Barney O’Beirne, 35 years of age, was an experienced pilot with over 1,600 hours’ flying experience in a Viscount.  He received a posthumous award from the Irish Aviation Authority which helped his family, struggling to process this horrendous weight of responsibility.  At the time of his death he was one of Ireland's best-known golfers.

First Officer Paul Heffernan, 22, was a promising young pilot.  He had trained at Perth in Scotland and joined Aer Lingus in 1966.  His total flying time was 1,139 hours, of which 900 was on Viscounts.  In 2004 First Officer Heffernan and Capt. O’Beirne became the first recipients of the Wright Brothers Award, established by the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association to honour exceptional contributions to aviation in Ireland and abroad.

The stewardesses on board that morning were Ann Kelly, aged 21, and Mary Coughlan, aged 21 (the caption above along with pictures taken from an obituary of passengers and crew in The Times of 25 March 1968, shows her age incorrectly).  Ann Kelly’s body was one of only fourteen recovered from the wreckage of EI-AOM, and is buried in Crosstown Cemetery in Co. Wexford where there is a memorial to those lost on EI-AOM.  Mary Coughlan, who had got her wings only a month before, was not rostered that morning on EI-AOM.  She had switched flights with a colleague who needed the day off.  Mary Coughlan's body, like those of most on board, was never found.

Suaimhneas siorraí dá n-anamacha dílse.

Gravestone of Rita McCarthy in Tullagh Cemetery, Baltimore, Co. Cork.  She was the mother of six-month-old victim Jeremiah Timothy McCarthy whose body, like most, was never found.

​*     *     *     *     *

Special Event Station EI5ØAOM devotes one day of operations to each victim of EI-AOM, beginning on Monday, 22 January 2018 with EI-AOM’s captain and ending on Friday, 23 March 2018 with the youngest victim, six-month-old Jeremiah Timothy McCarthy.  The fiftieth anniversary of the crash on Saturday, 24 March 2018, begins the final week of EI5ØAOM’s operations.  Special thanks are extended to Jerome McCormick, brother of EI-AOM victim Neil McCormick, for extensive information on passengers and crew of EI-AOM.  Following is a list of casualties, their nationality and the day on which EI5ØAOM remembers them: 

All QSOs are uploaded to LoTW.  For confirmation of a contact by paper QSL card please send your card via Ei2KA, either bureau or direct.  Direct QSL cards must be accompanied by a self-addressed envelope and $2 to cover postage.

73 de Tim Ei2KA


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