Stories of mystery have served to captivate the masses for centuries, but that’s usually all they ever are: stories. Yet while most people are content to be mystified by tales that seemingly have no end or explanation, there are plenty of others that believe stories like these are far from over.
After 30 years of fruitless efforts to understand the cause of one mysterious plane crash, two hikers made it their mission to crack the case once and for all. But when the two men arrived at the windswept peaks of Mount Illimani, they discovered a lost piece of the puzzle that not even they were prepared to find…
On New Year’s Day, 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 was preparing to depart on an international trip from the waterfront city of Asunción, Paraguay, to sunny Miami, Florida. With scheduled stopovers in Bolivia and Ecuador, the flight was shaping up to be an enjoyable tour of South America.
But because the airport at Asunción didn’t see much regular traffic, Flight 980 was to be flown on a large Boeing 727 airliner, a craft much larger than those that typically transport small numbers of passengers. With legroom to spare, however, the 29 men and women aboard didn’t seem to mind the extra space.
Disciples of Flight
The Houston-based cockpit crew was headed by Captain Larry Campbell, who, along with a cabin crew of five Chilean flight attendants, was confident the journey would go off without a hitch. After all, the passengers they were transporting weren’t just your everyday air travelers.
Though the flight was carrying individuals from Paraguay, the United States, and even South Korea, there was one woman in particular that crew members were made especially aware of: Marian Davis. As the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, her safety was of the utmost importance.
Marcos Serrou do Amaral / Flickr
At around 7:37 PM, Flight 980 contacted the control tower at Bolivia’s international airport in La Paz and gave the crew the all-clear to land and refuel. But although landing a plane might seem like a simple task for a trained pilot, bringing the craft down at this particular airport wouldn’t be so easy.
Know as “El Alto,” La Paz’s notorious airstrip is the highest international airport in the world, sitting an astonishing 13,327 feet above sea level. Combine that with the jagged, ice-capped mountain peaks that circle the area and “El Alto” is easily one of the most deadly airspaces on the planet.
But Campbell and his crew weren’t phased by the dangers of the treacherous terrain, and moments after radioing the tower the plane, now just 25 miles from the airport and flying at an altitude of 19,600 feet, began its descent.
Unfortunately, Flight 980 never arrived. Traveling at 500 mph, the plane crashed into the side of Mount Illimani, scattering itself over the rocks and icy crags of the mountain. No sooner did Flight 980 go down that the control tower at “El Alto” called in their Air Force.
Even with years of advanced training under their belts, the Air Force unit was hindered by inclement weather and altitude sickness, making the recovery effort that the more difficult. After several days and little progress made, the search was called off. There were no survivors.
The reason for the plane’s demise was also considered an unknown, as neither of the two black boxes containing the flight recorders were recovered. Over the years, efforts have been made to locate the flight records of Flight 980, but all have come empty-handed — that is, until now.
More than three decades after the crash, a pair of Boston hikers named Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner came across a Wikipedia article listing all of the unrecovered flight records from crashed airplanes, including Flight 980. After mulling it over, the two men took on the mission themselves.
It took several months for Futrell and Stoner to train for the expedition until finally, in the spring of 2016, the two hikers touched down on the tarmac of “El Alto.” Dubbing their mission “Operation Thonapa” after the Incan god of wisdom, the Bostonians were hoping for a little extra luck on their side.
Unlike the other recovery teams, Furtrell and Stoner avoided the crash site in favor of searching the areas below. Given how fast the plane was traveling, there was a very good possibility that debris – and hopefully the flight recorders – had been scattered further down the mountain.
By that logic, the men focused their efforts on exploring a stretch of terrain a good 3,000 feet below the wreckage. And no sooner did they begin combing the area that one of the hikers made an impossible discovery…
It was a black box! Furtrell and Stoner also discovered a roll of magnetic tape that they believed to be the flight records. But unfortunately, both the black box and the tapes had sustained heavy damage; if the recordings were unreadable, then the truth behind the crash of Flight 980 would be lost forever.
shreddor / Reddit
As the hikers continued to explore the wreckage, they tried to compare the clues they found with some of the theories about the crash. One theory was that the control tower crew misdirected the flight as the result of a post-New Years Eve hangover, while another suggested something far more sinister…
Eastern Air Lines was no stranger to criminal investigations. This theory – that the plane’s crashing had been a result of its involvement in some illicit activity – seemed too farfetched to the hikers to be true… until they found the suitcases.
Inside, Futrell and Stoner were shocked to find dozens of poached crocodile skins worth millions and one piece of luggage even held $2 million! They later learned that the goods and the money belonged to Enrique Matalón Sr., a mafia boss and drug lord on Flight 980 with his wife and children.
The men were convinced that Matalón Sr. had something to do with the crash, but there was only one way to know: the black box. But when they presented their findings to the National Transportation Safety Board, they were heartbroken to learn the truth…
To the dismay of the two hikers, the “black box” that they’d found was simply the rack that had fixed it onto the plane. What’s more, the rolls of magnetic tape were not flight records but instead a Spanish-dubbed reel of an episode of the 1965 television series I Spy.
Despite over 30 years of tireless efforts, the fate of Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 is still a mystery. Whether it is one to be solved remains to be seen, but thanks to Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner the newfound interest in cracking this decades-old case will hopefully one day return some answers.