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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 17, 2004


Crash of Flight 111 homepage

On the evening of September 2, 1998, a Swissair MD-11 jet bound from New York to Geneva diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, after the crew smelled smoke in the cockpit. Just minutes from the airport, Flight 111 plunged into the ocean, killing all 229 people aboard. "Crash of Flight 111" tells the behind-the-scenes story of the quest for the cause of this tragic accident.

NOVA was given unprecedented access to one of the most intricate aviation investigations ever mounted, which cost $39 million, took more than four years, and involved a seemingly hopeless search for evidence among two million pieces of debris scattered across the seafloor. Through painstaking detective work, investigators eventually pinned the cause of the accident to a chain of events set off by conditions that still exist on many planes today.

After what appeared to be a minor smoke problem developed aboard Flight 111, the pilots headed for the nearest airport, Halifax International, for a nonemergency landing. On approach, they decided it would be safer if they first dumped fuel over the ocean in order to lighten the aircraft.

Matters grew rapidly worse. As the plane turned away from the airport, the autopilot mysteriously disconnected. Then something apparently catastrophic happened that caused both pilots simultaneously to declare an emergency. Seconds later controllers lost contact with the plane. Six minutes after that, residents along St. Margaret's Bay near Peggy's Cove heard Flight 111 hit the water and disintegrate.

Though divers soon recovered both black boxes—the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder—neither device preserved information from the final six minutes, thus deepening the mystery of what occurred to bring the aircraft down. Despite these obstacles, crash detectives from Canada's Transportation Safety Board methodically collected, sifted, sorted, and reassembled a large fraction of the plane in a giant hangar, where they slowly built a detailed picture of Flight 111's final moments.

The recovery was aided by the Queen of the Netherlands, a salvage ship known as the world's largest floating vacuum cleaner, which sucked fragments of the plane off the bottom of St. Margaret's Bay, including components that were later implicated in the crash. Investigators also performed flame tests on cabin insulation, which proved unexpectedly combustible, and they ran exhaustive failure scenarios in an MD-11 flight simulator.

As the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, the crash detectives arranged a flight to re-create the jet's final path in similar lighting and weather, hoping for clues to the terrifying last seconds aboard Flight 111—with main instruments dead, smoke filling the cockpit, featureless gloom out the window, and no way to know that the plane was veering out of control.

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Crane lifting wreckage

A crane lifts wreckage of Swissair Flight 111 that was retrieved from the seafloor off Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia.

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Crash of Flight 111
Wireless Black Boxes

Wireless
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Dissection of a Disaster

Dissection
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A veteran air-safety reporter turns an insider's eye on the Flight 111 investigation.

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Look inside a passenger jet at its sophisticated internal systems.



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