Mayday (2013) s07e03 Episode Script

Blown Apart

NARRATOR: High above the North Sea, an ageing propeller plane tumbles from the sky.
The first headline was 'Sabotage'.
Investigators consider a string of possibilities.
- It takes two years to find the cause.
- Unbelievable.
It's something that's never been seen in any previous investigation.
They looked at that and said, "Man, oh, man.
How could that be?" It would lead to arrests half a world away and call into question the safety of one of the world's most important planes - Air Force One.
(THEME MUSIC) 4:30pm, September 8, 1989.
Ah.
Thank you.
Hang on.
Hang on.
Knut Tveiten and Finn Petter Burg are flying a charter flight from Oslo, Norway to the German city of Hamburg.
MAN: (OVER RADIO) Partnair 394.
Radar service terminated.
The plane is about 100km from the Danish coast.
124.
55.
Bye.
Partnair 394.
Partnair 394, good afternoon.
Radar contact Copenhagen Control.
The aircraft they're flying is a twin-prop Convair 340/580.
It's a popular plane for short routes like this one.
The plane has been chartered by the Norwegian shipping company Wilhelmsen.
All 50 passengers are winners of a company lottery sending them on a free trip to Hamburg to name a new ship.
As the Convair crosses the North Sea, a Norwegian Air Force F16 approaches the plane on its way home.
Whoa! Look at that.
11 o'clock.
F16.
Suddenly, the plane experiences a violent shock.
The crew is caught by surprise.
The plane begins rolling upside-down.
Air traffic control notices that Partnair 394 is off-course and falling from the sky.
Partnair 394, Copenhagen Control.
Please report new flight level.
The crew is struggling to save the plane and the lives of everyone onboard.
(ALARM BEEPS) AUTOPILOT: Terrain.
Pull up.
Terrain.
Pull up.
Please report new flight level.
Then it disappears.
Partnair 394 on route to Hamburg is off radar.
Rescue teams race to the crash site nearly 20km north of the Danish coast.
They find only wreckage and bodies.
All 55 people who were on the flight are dead.
The shipping company is devastated by the news.
Half the staff from its head office has been killed.
(SPEAKS NORWEGIAN) It's the biggest airline disaster in Norwegian history.
The nation is in shock.
Jan Ovid is a young reporter for Norway's largest newspaper.
He's assigned to cover this story.
MAN: One of the inspectors in the Norwegian FAA jumped to the conclusion that it had to be sabotage and it was also stated by one of the Danish rescue team leaders who said that they had no distress call.
It just fell out of the sky which meant it had to be a bomb or something.
And somebody drew links to Lockerbie the year before.
In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The evidence in that case is pointing conclusively to a bomb.
Norwegian journalists uncover an intriguing fact about the Partnair plane.
Our Prime Minister at the time, Gro Harlem Brundtland, she used the plane on her campaign trip to the north of Norway and I guess she used it for two or three days and that was just two or three days before it crashed.
The nation wonders - could the tragedy have been a botched assassination attempt? The first headline was 'Sabotage' and on the whole front page.
A bomb would explain the plane's sudden plunge from the sky.
(ALARM BEEPS) Had the 55 people onboard been the innocent victims of a murderer? Investigators looking into the mysterious downing of a passenger jet over the North Sea are facing a stunning possibility - that the plane was deliberately sabotaged.
The Norwegian Accident Investigation Board recruits an Air Force investigator, Finn Heimdal, to join the team.
It will be a severe test of his investigative skills.
It's good to be here.
I started many, many years ago with the Air Force .
.
and, of course .
.
I saw some investigations mishandled terribly and I thought it can be done better than that.
Searchers scour the surface of the sea for floating debris and for victims of the crash.
Eventually, all but five bodies are found.
They're taken to Denmark for autopsies.
Those examinations reveal that some of the victims have small puncture-like wounds.
This supports the notion that a bomb brought down Partnair Flight 394.
An autopsy on the First Officer also uncovers something unusual - a complete, unbroken toothpick is discovered in his stomach.
That was an odd finding, really, because they're pointed at both ends and how can you swallow a toothpick like that? He must have been exposed to a very shocking experience.
Please report new flight level.
But investigators can't confirm that a bomb brought down the plane.
They'll need to know more about the final moments of Flight 394.
Partnair 394, en route to Hamburg, is off radar.
Nine separate radar stations tracked its final seconds.
The most intriguing readings come from a military radar station in Sweden.
Operators there tracked the Partnair flight as it crossed the North Sea.
Let's start at 14:36.
The military radar has detected something unexpected.
There is another object in the same airspace as the plane.
It is not another aeroplane.
It appears as Flight 394 started to plummet from 22,000ft.
Any idea what it is? Simply didn't know what it was.
From the beginning, we had no idea what it could have been.
It took more than half an hour - something like 38 minutes - and the question was, what is light enough to fall that slowly and solidly enough to give radar returns like that? Whatever the mysterious object was, it now lies at the bottom of the sea.
A month after the crash, investigators are busy recovering sunken wreckage.
They've plotted the position of the wreckage on the ocean floor using side-scan sonar.
It sends out sound waves that are reflected back when they encounter objects.
The sonar equipment has painted a remarkably accurate picture of the underwater wreckage.
It helps investigators see that the plane parts have settled over a 2km-wide area.
It was evident that the aircraft had come apart in the air.
It hadn't hit the sea in one piece, that was for sure.
The midair break-up suggests a bomb brought down the plane.
But it will take weeks to prove this.
In the meantime, investigators hope the plane's black boxes will provide more immediate insight into the crash.
The plane's voice recorder and eventually it's data recorder are recovered from the seabed and sent to labs for analysis.
Both boxes were damaged in the crash.
Investigators hope the damage to the boxes didn't affect the data.
Well, let's see what we've got.
On.
That's required.
- Autopilot system.
- Armed.
The device usually records the final minutes of a flight but this CVR has done the opposite.
- Beta lights off.
- Power.
(SILENCE) It recorded the start of the flight but the mysteriously stopped recording just before the plane took off.
Well, it had recorded the conversation on the ground but as soon as the engines were up-shifted to normal RPM for take-off, it ceased operations so that was a disappointment to us.
But the malfunctioning CVR did pick up an intriguing exchange between the two pilots.
How's the weather in Hamburg? It's clear skies.
Good visibility.
Hope it stays that way.
The CVR does tell investigators that Flight 394 began with an unusual problem.
JAN OVID: Partnair was in financial dire straits and we found out that just a few hours before the plane took off, the Norwegian Aviation Authorities sent out a telex to tell all the airports in Norway, "Don't let the Partnair plane take off because they owe a lot of money "on unpaid charges and fees.
" They won't release us for take-off till we pay the catering bill.
(SCOFFS) - How much you got on ya? - Seriously? (SIGHS) (LAUGHS) Probably enough, actually.
Wow.
I'll take care of it, then.
The First Officer was forced to leave the cockpit to pay the caterers for onboard meals.
Investigators check maintenance records to find out why the CVR only recorded the crew's conversation while they were on the ground.
They discover that the plane's cockpit voice recorder had been modified more than 10 years earlier.
Modified, they switched to primary AC.
Beta lights off.
It was altered so when the engines were given full power for take-off Your power.
.
.
the CVR would automatically switch from the plane's batteries to its generator.
And that modification was not working on this aircraft.
Neither pilot realised that as the engines were revved up for take-off, power to the CVR was actually cut off.
Any time you get key investigation components such as a cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder that don't work correctly, it brings into question the thoroughness of the maintenance and also the continued operation - safe operation - of the aeroplanes.
The malfunctioning voice recorder and the unpaid catering bill lead investigators to look more closely at the history of the aeroplane and the company that owned it - Partnair Airlines.
NARRATOR: Partnair operated a fleet of mostly older planes that flew to northern European destinations.
The Convair that crashed into the North Sea was one of the airline's most recent acquisitions.
But the plane itself was 36 years old.
It had a complicated history of both ownership and modification.
The biggest change was to the plane's engines.
A really important modification was upgrading the engines to turbine engines.
On prop planes, the propeller moves air backwards, propelling the plane forward.
Early prop planes used piston engines to turn the propeller.
But turbine engines which use a series of fans, not pistons, to compress air, generate substantially more power.
Heimdal learns that in 1960, the plane's original piston engines were removed and powerful new turbo props were bolted to the wings.
It's a modification that provides more power but could pose a risk.
HEIMDAL: There was a tremendous increase of horsepower installing the turbine engines.
I was wondering what that was doing to the structure of the aircraft.
The plane's flight data recorder should tell investigators about the operation of the engines in the moment before the crash.
The recorder from this flight is a primitive analogue model.
GREG PHILLIPS: It used a metal foil strip that rotated and some marking pens actually scratched on the metal surface of the piece of metal.
The antiquated data recorder proves to be another frustration for investigators.
It didn't record many of the parameters it was supposed to.
But more mysteriously, the needle seems to have recorded certain signals twice.
The double line confounds experts who analyse the device.
Yeah, I've never seen that before.
The flight data doesn't offer investigators any immediate revelations about the crash.
Heimdal now wonders if the very fact the recorder was malfunctioning could be a clue in itself.
He decides to send the flight data recorder back to the American company that made it for further analysis.
Investigators painstakingly reconstruct the Partnair plane.
As the fuselage takes shape, the reconstructed plane provides investigators with some stunning evidence.
The only thing that would destroy the aircraft at cruising level would be an explosion so some of the parts looked, maybe, a bit suspicious.
Suspicious for what's on them.
There were rumours that it was found explosives in the Partnair plane.
There are traces of a powerful military explosive.
The amount is small, but the press gets wind of it.
But when the explosive residue is analysed, it's found not to have been from a bomb or a warhead.
There simply isn't enough of it on the plane.
There was a small sign of explosives but that was a very low level and looked more like a contamination than anything else.
Many battles have been fought off the Danish coast.
The sea is littered with old munitions.
Investigators believe the plane picked up some explosive residue while lying on the ocean floor.
Explosives are ruled out as a cause of this crash.
Metallurgist Terry Heaslip has been brought in.
He examines the plane's reconstructed tail and makes a startling observation.
Pieces of the plane's skin show evidence of damage from overheating.
Which means that it was flexing.
You know when you take a coathanger and you go like that back and forth, you hold it close to where it's gonna break you'll burn your hand 'cause you develop heat where you're doing the fatiguing.
It's the same thing on an aeroplane.
The evidence is pointing to a problem with the plane's tail.
Investigators are keen to look at a massive generator recovered from the rear of the aircraft.
The auxiliary power unit is housed inside the Convair's rear fin.
It's a backup power generator that's usually only used while the plane is on the ground.
Heimdal inspects the device and discovers that some melted plastic parts from the plane's cabin have found their way inside the APU's turbine.
Meaning that the cabin had failed when the APU was still operating.
The APU should not have been running while the plane was in the air.
The fact that it was means the APU could be behind this crash.
Investigators try to learn more about what happened on the day of the crash.
They interview the mechanic who inspected the plane that morning.
He reports that one of the plane's two main generators wasn't working and that he wasn't able to repair it.
Regulations demand that the plane have two sources of power before it's allowed to take off.
The First Officer comes up with a solution that will allow the flight to leave.
He tells the airline that he will use the auxiliary power unit throughout the flight as a substitute for the malfunctioning main generator.
OK, I want you to write this in the logbook.
"Released for flight with APU generator operative.
" We'll use the APU to power the left-side AC system.
APU is coming on.
Beta lights off.
Your power.
During his inspection of the APU, Heimdal makes an important discovery.
When I saw the part, I saw it was not an aircraft style of part at all.
It was made in a very primitive way by a piece of iron and welding it together in a substandard way.
He notices that one of the mounts attaching the APU to the plane is broken.
The unit contains a rapidly spinning turbine that generates electricity.
If it wasn't properly held in place, it could have caused this crash.
Investigators need to know if the broken APU caused the crash.
They'll soon discover that it's just a piece of a much more troubling puzzle.
Investigators have discovered that Partnair Flight 394 was flying with a broken APU mount.
(ENGINE ROARS, ALARM BEEPS, PASSENGERS SCREAM) Metallurgist Terry Heaslip performs extensive testing on the failed part.
My initial reaction was that the welding was bad, was probably inappropriate.
Heaslip wants to know when the strut broke.
If it happened during the plane's last flight, it could explain the accident.
I could see the impact markings and the progression markings on it that showed that it did not fail in a single overload during this last accident flight.
The way the broken mount is worn down also tells Heaslip that the mount holding the APU in place didn't break on the day of the accident.
It was broken long before Flight 394 took off.
Investigators now need to know what effect the broken mount had on the flight.
40,000 RPMs.
Did a lot of damage.
FINN HEIMDAL: The APU is a certain large gyroscope, having a tremendous amount of energy in it when it's rotating.
And if that energy is transmitted to the surroundings - the fuselage, the structure - it could impact the whole vibration pattern in the tail.
Investigators know the APU mount was broken before the flight.
But they still don't know if it even played a role in the crash or whether it would have effected the plane's tail.
Then the reconstruction begins to clear things up.
Heimdal discovers that two doors from the plane's tail have not been found.
When we reassembled the parts from the tail, we saw that the rudder had been torn apart in two major pieces and some parts were missing.
In particular, the doors between the fin and rudder were missing.
The shroud doors are two small doors located on the vertical fin of the plane.
They provide mechanics with access to weights inside the fin that control the rudder's movement.
Heimdal makes a dramatic find about the doors themselves.
They were constructed with an aluminium honeycomb liner.
From his days in the air force, Heimdal knows they have a unique property.
This is tin aluminium foil, as you know, and it has the good reflective properties for radar and it's very light.
The military use it to disturb radar signals, call it chaff.
Investigators now realise that the unidentified object picked up by Swedish radar was probably a piece of one of the shroud doors.
By the time we connected the missing doors with the radar data, we knew that it had happened up at cruising altitude because the slow-falling object had come from very high level - at cruising altitude, practically.
Investigators conclude that the tail began to break apart at 22,000ft before it plummeted from the sky.
But why had the doors fallen off in mid-flight? Whatever caused the shroud doors to tear off likely caused the crash.
The APU with the broken front shock mount on its own, running in flight would not cause the aircraft to come apart and the tail to come apart.
There had to be extra factors there for that to occur.
Investigators continue searching for those extra factors.
Then Partnair Airlines proposes one.
They point to the F16 that passed over the plane just minutes before the plane veered off course.
Whoa! Look at that - 11 o'clock.
F16.
Partnair claims the military jet was flying faster than it should have been.
They also believe that it came much closer to the flight than officially reported.
JAN OVID: Partnair, they contacted the Swedish investigator, and he came out with the answer that the F16 could probably have gone through the sound barrier as it passed just over the Partnair plane.
But the Norwegian F16 pilot testifies that he was more then 1,000ft above the Convair when he passed it.
Investigators calculate just how close the F16 would have had to be in order to seriously disturb Flight 394.
They determine that for the F16's pressure wave to have affected the Convair, it would have had to fly within a few metres of the plane.
There's no evidence the two planes were ever that close.
- OK? - OK.
Good work.
Investigators get a break when the faulty flight data recorder is analysed in the United States.
The manufacturer has asked its top expert to come out of retirement and examine the device.
The expert tells investigators that the needle that was supposed to be recording the plane's altitude was shaking so much that it was leaving another mark on the foil.
But then he goes one step further.
The FDR has a capacity to record for hundreds of hours.
By unspooling the metal foil completely, he sees that the FDR has been vibrating severely for months.
We saw that this had happened something like 360 operation hours before the accident.
It now seems the APU wasn't the only thing vibrating on this plane.
Investigators decide to chart the history of the vibrations chronologically.
They notice an unusual change in the pattern of vibrations.
Two months before the crash, the vibrations suddenly stopped for a number of weeks.
Virtually no vibrations for16 flights.
Both increasing in intensity and frequency up to the summer of '89.
Then the pattern changed.
After getting better, the pattern of vibrations got worse again, right up until the crash.
What happened here? Investigators now need to find out what changed on the plane during the two-week period when the vibrations stopped.
Why was it out of service? Where was the work done? The airline tells investigators that during that time the plane was receiving a major overhaul in western Canada.
Thank you.
We'll be in touch.
The work was done by the plane's previous owner, a Canadian company that specialises in servicing Convairs.
During the various test flights there, the FDR recorded almost no excessive vibrations.
This healthy pattern continued on several passenger flights once the overhaul was done and the plane returned to Norway.
Investigators review the maintenance records.
Heimdal finds that during the overhaul, mechanics found signs of wear on one of the four bolts that connect the vertical fin to the plane's tail.
These four bolts are the only things holding the tail to the fuselage.
During the overhaul of the Convair in July of 1989, a mechanic replaced one of the four bolts.
The information from the flight data recorder reveals that the vibrations in the tail stopped right after that one bolt was replaced.
Do you see that? And as they go across Incredibly, investigators are able to recover all four of the bolts, which were holding the tail in place.
We did metallurgical testing and we did mechanical testing.
And by doing all of these analyses we worked out that the three of the assemblies were not up to scratch.
They werethey were bogus assemblies.
His analysis shows that the faulty bolts were incorrectly heat-treated when they were made.
As a result, they are only 60% as strong as they should have been.
Investigators finally know why the tail was vibrating for months.
Three of the bolts holding it in place were too weak.
They just weren't hard enough.
Unbelievable.
Three bolts holding the tail to the rest of the plane were not authentic parts.
They were well-disguised fakes.
The weak bolts mean investigators now must answer a critical question.
Why didn't the tail come off in the previous 16 flights where it vibrated excessively? Why this last flight? High above the North Sea, an ageing propeller plane tumbles from the sky.
(ALARM BEEPS) Investigators already know that on the day of the accident flight a power generator wasn't working and that the pilots improvised a solution.
Hey, I want you to write this in the logbook.
"Released for flight with APU generator operative.
" We'll use the APU to power the left-side AC system.
APU is coming on.
The pilots didn't realise that the APU mount was broken and the motor was vibrating considerably.
Their decision to run it throughout the flight made a bad situation worse.
The reason why things got bad on this particular flight is that the APU was literally floating on two mounts instead of three.
This, along with the faulty bolts, created even more vibrations in the tail of the plane.
And when you get the two of them shaking, if they ever get into sync - what we call resonance with each other - disaster.
(ALARM BEEPS, PASSENGERS SCREAM) The investigators conclude that the vibrations in the tail and the vibrations from the APU could have combined into a lethal force.
OK.
Now, this is what we got from the guys at MIT.
Technically, the vibrations could have torn the plane apart.
If the two loose items start to vibrate in the same frequency, now you're gonna get - or a multiple of that frequency - you get what's called coupled harmonics and the one vibration is feeding the other one.
They're feeding each other and making each other worse and worse.
The most famous example of coupled harmonics occurred on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State in 1940.
The newly built steel and concrete bridge began swaying lengthwise and then a crosswind started dipping it left to right.
The two vibrations moving in different directions combined to create a violent twisting motion that tore the bridge apart.
Investigators calculate that the same effect tore apart Flight 394.
And we said, "My gosh, that's exactly the phenomena we have here.
" This lethal combination of vibrations caused the tail to sway back and forth so violently that the rudder jammed to the left.
This forced the plane into a left turn so abrupt that it increased airflow over the right wing, creating greater lift and causing the aircraft to roll.
The plane recovered briefly but the rudder jams to the left again and the shroud doors explode.
It rolls a second time but the tail begins to disintegrate.
After that, the crew didn't have a hope.
Investigators conclude that it was the three bogus bolts that initiated the Partnair crash.
HEASLIP: I looked at that and said, "Man, oh, man.
How could that be?" "In a crucial component, a crucial fitting like that, in the tail?" I couldn't believe it.
The report on Partnair Flight 394 sends shockwaves throughout the aviation industry.
It's the first time that a fatal plane crash has been linked to unapproved spare parts.
It raises a frightening question - how many of the parts being put into planes around the world are bogus? The Partnair crash - that was the seminal event that started people actually having to recognise the unapproved parts problem and the fact that the worldwide inventories of aircraft parts in fact were contaminated.
There are 6 million moving parts on a 747 alone.
The spare parts business is a 45 billion industry.
And at the time of the crash, that industry was largely unregulated.
Mary Schiavo is the former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the FAA.
No-one knew how large the problem was.
They knew it was a problem because of the crash, but how big was the problem in the United States? So we set out to measure it.
We started by auditing the FAA's own parts bins.
And the FAA's own parts bins contained 39% bogus parts.
What we found is if the parts had come from a parts broker, which was a huge percentage of the parts supply industry, 95% of them were not authentic.
The FAA would soon find bogus parts on an airplane widely considered to be the most secure plane on earth.
There are 5,000 parts brokers in the United States, many of them in the Miami area.
(PHONE RINGS) MARY SCHIAVO: Parts brokers had no regulation whatsoever.
If you had a telephone and a fax, you were a parts broker.
Overnight you could be in the parts brokerage business and you could get them anywhere you chose.
You could get them from junkyards, you could get them from scrap facilities, you could get it from old planes, you could get them from crashes, you could them from people willing to manufacture and don't care about the law.
Spare parts for airplanes are expensive.
A single bolt like the one holding on the Partnair's vertical fin can cost up to 250.
A bogus one can cost as little as 30.
PETER FRIEDMAN: Which makes it a bargain.
And when you have situations like you have today, and airlines are bottom-line driven and you've got 8 or 10 major airlines in the United States, for example, that are on the verge of bankruptcy, they're looking to cut costs.
The FAA launches a major investigation into illegal parts and uses sting operations to uncover unscrupulous dealers.
Investigators uncover a black market industry that makes thousands of worn and inferior parts look brand-new.
These are really good counterfeits.
It's very difficult to tell.
At the time of the Partnair accident, there were checks and balances in the system that were supposed to keep bogus parts from getting on major airlines.
For instance, each spare part needs someone's signature to verify its authenticity.
It has to have some documentation that states that it's airworthy.
It has to have a maintenance release by some certificated entity.
But investigators discover that in addition to a huge market in spare parts, there's also a burgeoning market for counterfeit FAA tags.
MARY SCHIAVO: We'd execute search warrants and find that people had printed stacks of fake yellow tags and in many cases they'd sign with the name of an actual inspector but they'd just forge the signature.
The tag, in this business, is worth more than the part.
At first, investigators believe the problem is mostly with smaller airlines.
Smaller operators and repair stations are usually the people who are most vulnerable to this aftermarket broker parts problem.
They're shocked when they discover that bogus parts have been found on what is supposed to be the most tightly controlled plane in the world, 'Air Force One'.
It reached all the way to what many people considered literally the highest levels of aviation - the aviation that flies around the president of the United States.
Supposedly in an airtight supply chain we had bogus parts cases that touched those aircraft.
The FAA responds quickly.
More than a hundred dealers are arrested.
With every conviction, we were able to raise the level of awareness, not only of the problem, but of the severe consequences if you want to risk somebody's life.
And I actually think that the most important thing that we did was get criminal convictions.
As a result of their investigation, the FAA institutes a much more rigorous system for documenting airplane parts.
They threaten airlines with criminal charges if they knowingly accept bogus parts.
Things are different today because we have a whole body of regulations, much more than we had in the '80s and '90s, even, to address the problem.
PETER FRIEDMAN: You have to get the mechanic who's actually got the wrench in his hand to a point of sophistication where he's knowledgeable enough to smell a bad part.
To smell a bad piece of paper.
And it is possible to do.
The new regulations achieve their goal.
In the two decades following the crash of Partnair 394, there wasn't a single fatal accident attributed to bogus parts.
Years after the Partnair crash, Finn Heimdal became the head of the Norwegian Accident Investigation Board.
HEIMDAL: It was a major puzzle that an aircraft, for no obvious reason, could more or less disintegrate in midair.
His report into the accident resulted in major changes that likely saved lives.
That's the positive thing.
But the negative, of course, is the tragedy, the personal tragedy to many people.
One of the smallest parts on a Norwegian charter plane failed in 1989.
Because investigators found the cause of that accident, passengers around the world are safer, less likely to be on a plane that's fitted with bogus parts.