Thursday, October 10, 2013

An Overview Of The Pan Am Flight 103 Air Crash Investigation

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By Catalina Nielsen

It seems hard to believe that it was almost a quarter of a century ago that a terrorist attack brought a Scottish village to everyone's attention. The village's name was Lockerbie, and it claimed 270 lives. The Boeing 747 was only 38 minutes into its journey from London to New York when it exploded in midair. This is a brief look at the Pan Am flight 103 air crash investigation.

The aircraft was at flight level 310, or 31,000 feet, when the incident occurred and as a consequence debris was strewn over a huge area. In fact the area was so large that not only were military helicopters used for surveying the area, but the investigating teams also used satellite images. It can be said that the delayed departure allowed such a detailed analysis to take place. Had everything been on schedule then the explosion would have occurred over the Atlantic Ocean.

In total over 10,000 pieces of debris were recovered, and these were all catalogued and logged into a computer system. There were several large components which had fallen on or around the village of Lockerbie. The following day the flight data recorder, the infamous black box, was found close to some woods by a couple of local boys.

More than a thousand people became involved with this analysis, it was a huge operation and a large part of southern Scotland was searched. Even the military were called on to help with manpower and equipment. Any item which was recovered went to the local school's gymnasium. There it was subjected to x-rays and looked at with a gas chromatograph.

There were no immediate indications as to what brought the plane down. It was soon becoming clearer that the incident had been the result of an explosion, as small traces of Semtex were being detected. Also there were parts of what was identified as a timing device found in the wreckage.

Through painstaking efforts by air accident investigators the fuselage was slowly reconstructed. It was discovered that a 20 inch square section of fuselage had been severely damaged by an explosion. This was in an area adjacent to the forward cargo hold.

The baggage containers were mainly consistent with damage that would be expected from a fall of great height. However two of them showed unusual damage patterns. Their exact positions were found from the loading records. Tests were carried out in America to determine the exact quantity and location of explosives to cause the same damage.

From this information not only were the investigators able to trace every item of luggage within that baggage container, but also which one was the suspect item. They even deduced the contents through recovered fragments of clothing. Which lead them to Sliema, Malta. Thanks to a trader one of the prime suspects was a man he identified as the person he had sold the clothes to.

In total the Pan Am flight 103 air crash investigation took over three years to complete. It had involved agencies of many different nations, but primarily those of the United Kingdom and America. As with all such incidents everything was examined in minute detail, and the perpetrators were sent for trial in a neutral country.

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