The idea of cruising at 30,000 feet shoved in a tin can with a hundred other people breathing recycled air isn’t the most comforting scene imaginable. That’s why aviophobia, or terror at the thought of flying, is one of the most common fears among people from around the world.
We will never know if the passengers of British European Airways Flight 548 were nervous when they boarded their flight in London to Brussels. But we do know that the events of that trip unfolded in a dysfunctional and tragic way. While the cause is still disputed, the many affected by the incident are still desperate for answers.
British European Airways Flight 548 left London Heathrow airport on June 18th, 1972, carrying 118 passengers to Brussels. Unbeknownst to the passengers on board, they were stepping into a perfect storm of disastrous circumstances.
Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives
Stanley Key was the rostered captain of the plane that day. As a former Royal Air Force pilot who served in World War II, he was an accomplished veteran with a perfect record during his commercial airline career.
International Magazine Services
Although he had an impressive set of skills as a pilot, there were other forces at work for Captain Key. Three days before the scheduled take off of flight 548, Key made a shocking admission about his co-pilot.
He complained that his inexperienced co-pilot, Jeremy Keighley, who only had about 22 hours of flying experience, “would be useless in an emergency.” On top of his frustration with his co-pilot, there was another point of stress for Captain Key.
About two hours before takeoff on that June day, Stanley Key entered an explosive verbal altercation with a first officer named Flavell. They were discussing the impending strike of airline workers and flight attendants, which Flavell supported and Key adamantly opposed.
The crew of Flight 548 looked on as Captain Key lost his temper in a major way. One of the bystanders described the fight as “the most violent argument he had ever heard.” The crew thought the worst of it was over.
When the time for take off finally arrived, there was a last minute addition to the roster. Just as the doors were closing, the plane was asked to accommodate another flight crew who needed to get to Brussels. With the added passengers, they were off.
Conditions were not ideal for flight 548. The weather was cloudy and rainy, presenting unique difficulties during take off. However, that wasn’t their biggest problem that day. The co-pilot committed a serious error during departure.
PlanesWeekly / YouTube
He flipped the wing flaps fully down instead of up. This led to a chain reaction of events that prevented the plane from reaching a fast enough speed during ascent. Then, the first engine stall occured.
Kent Wien / Flickr
After an attempted recovery, another stall occurred. At this point, Captain Key experienced a medical event associated with pre-existing heart problems. The last attempt at correction made from the cockpit was made by a flight crew member.
Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images
Meanwhile, brothers Paul and Trevor Burke, ages 9 and 13, were walking near the King George Reservoir in the small English town of Staines-Upon-Thames when they spotted flight 548 descending rapidly. The massive commercial jet just missed a major highway before it crash-landed in a field.
Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives
“It was just coming out of the mist when the engines stalled and it seemed it glided down. It was just like a dream. The plane just fell out of the sky,” Trevor Burke reported of the incident. First responders arrived on the scene within 15 minutes.
Terry Disney/Harry Dempster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
However, there wouldn’t be much for them to do. Two people were alive on the scene but died en route to the hospital. Every single member of the crew and every passenger lost their lives in the crash, totaling 118 deaths.
British Air Line Pilots Association
To this day, it remains one of the most deadly air disasters in the United Kingdom. A massive investigation took place to uncover what happened onboard flight 548. The inquiry came up with a variety of reasons explaining how such a tragedy could happen.
Aviation Clips / Youtube
The main causes were reported to be the crew not maintaining the air speed, failing to monitor airspeed and configuration, and wrongly disabling the stall correcting system. Investigators established underlying causes as well.
Captain Key’s heart condition, insufficient training for emergency scenarios, and the inexperienced co-pilot were also to blame for the lethal crash. Obviously, the concerns Key expressed over his co-pilot had some legitimacy.
This tragedy led to a change in protocol for the airline, which rebranded as British Airlines and included a new training program for flight crews to ensure proper preparation. Also, officials placed recording devices in cockpits to remove future blindspots.
The victims of flight 548 never made their destination, but their lives will not be forgotten. Two memorials are dedicated to the victims at the crash site. The men and women who work for airlines are reminded of these disasters often in order to improve upon the mistakes of the past.
Like American Airlines’ employee Denise Miracle, for example. She has been a ticketing agent with the popular air service for nearly three decades. Not only was Denise extremely confident in her customer service, but she also had become familiar with American Airlines’ patronage over the years.
So when two young girls approached her counter in the summer of 2017, Denise immediately felt something was off. Unaccompanied minors always gave her pause, but when Denise questioned the girls about their itineraries, her suspicion grew to concern.
To begin with, the young ladies — 15 and 17 years old — were planning to fly from Sacramento to New York City. Two girls of that age flying such a great distance was already unusual, but then things became even more alarming.
Denise noticed the girls didn’t have much in the way of luggage. In fact, they were both only carrying one small backpack. That’s not a lot of baggage for an entire cross-country trip.
What initially struck Denise as odd was quickly escalating as she discovered that both girls were flying with one-way, first class tickets. Questions began flooding in. How could two young girls afford these tickets, why were they traveling so light, and where were their chaperones?
The red flags became too apparent and Denise decided to take some initiative and question the teenagers. As the girls struggled to answer without consulting their phones, Denise felt like it was her moment to act.
She informed the girls there seemed to be something amiss with their tickets, and asked them to wait patiently as she looked into it further. In that time, Denise was able to track the credit card that purchased the tickets.
Not surprisingly, the tickets weren’t purchased under either of the girl’s names. In fact, the card used to buy the tickets had been marked as potentially fraudulent. This was evidence enough; Denise needed to call in help.
While Denise was “sorting out the ticketing issue” she covertly called the police over to investigate the situation. Fortunately, the department was quick to respond and Deputy Todd Sanderson pulled the two ladies aside for further questioning.
What the deputy found was that the girls had plans to jet off to New York for the weekend at the invitation of a man they had befriended on Instagram. The idea was that they would do some modeling and appear in a few music videos.
Aside from the exposure, each girl was promised to net about $2,000 from their weekend work. The only problem? Neither of them had any idea that their tickets were only good for one way. What’s more, both of their parents thought they were at the other girl’s house.
It was instantly clear these two were the victims of a dangerous scam. It wasn’t until Deputy Sanderson informed the girls their tickets were only good for one way that it began to dawn on them the whole thing might be a trap.
What was the potential threat that the teens may have been walking into? Denise and the Sacramento Police Department speculate that the man the girls befriended on Instagram, known only as “Drey” was luring them into a human trafficking plot.
The moment authorities attempted to contact Drey, his entire online presence completely disappeared. Sanderson suspects that the number the girls were communicating with him through was a Google number, which is near impossible to trace.
Both girls adamantly insisted that under no circumstances would they have done anything they didn’t want to do. But the harsh reality is that if Denise hadn’t stopped them from getting on that flight, they likely wouldn’t have had any say in the matter.
Luring young, impressionable girls in with the promise of modeling work is apparently a common tactic in the human trafficking circle. With the universal presence and access to social media, this scheme has only become more and more of a threat.
The girls were both returned home to their families who were more than grateful to Denise’s attentiveness — the real hero in this ordeal. One of the girl’s mother’s even tracked her down on Facebook to thank her directly.
The grateful mother wrote, “That was my 15-year-old daughter. There are no words to express our gratitude to you. Because of you, my daughter is home safe with her family where she is loved and belongs.”
American Airlines issued a public statement to thank Denise for her incredible service. They also took the opportunity to further highlight the dangers that exist and how best to avoid becoming a victim.
As American Airlines general manager Aleka Turner put it, “Denise is a testament to the critical role our frontline team members play each and every day in the operation and the lives of each person they come in contact with. She’s a true professional with a huge heart.”
There’s nothing quite like exploring new places and meeting new people. Unfortunately, traveling anywhere often involves a bit of risk and, of course, a trip to the airport, which can be stressful. Between the long waits and the pressure to make it there on time, flying can be a real ordeal.
Shaina Murry was just one of hundreds of people waiting for her American Airlines flight at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Eager to return home to her husband (pictured here with Shaina) and tired from her travels, she hurriedly found her gate and sat down. Then, she noticed something unusual…
Shaina Murry / Facebook
A man lay sprawled out on the airport floor. “It was clear something was wrong,” Shaina recalled later in a post on Facebook. “I just didn’t know what.” So, she rushed over to find out.
Ian / Flickr
Shaina asked the man, whose name was Will, a few questions. She never shared exactly what he told her, but after their conversation, she knew there was something she needed to do: call for medical assistance.
Then, Will shared something else with her. Over and over again, he told her he was “afraid he was going to miss his flight while waiting for the airport medical team to come assist him,” Shaina wrote. That’s when she realized exactly what was going on…
Will was autistic, Shaina determined, and the overwhelming stress of traveling alone had made him very uncomfortable. This realization “triggered me to switch gears,” she wrote.
Shaina Murry / Facebook
Most other people would have left Will waiting for the medical team, but not Shaina. Instead, she assured her new airport pal that all was well: she’d make sure he boarded his plane before takeoff—and she didn’t stop there.
Together, the duo called Will’s mom “to let her know he wasn’t feeling well and seeing the medical team at Dallas Airport,” Shaina said. Will’s mother explained that her son was indeed autistic, confirming Shaina’s hunch.
When the medical team arrived, Will, Shaina, and the staff at American Airlines discussed the best way to make sure Will was in good condition to continue with his flight. Unfortunately, they were concerned about his health—and his ability to remain in such a cramped space.
“The medical team said he needed to eat and have something to drink,” Shaina wrote, “and they were worried he would get sick again and didn’t know if he should fly.” Did this mean Will would miss his flight?
If the typical stressed-out, in-a-hurry traveler had been the one to first talk to Will, he might’ve ended up grounded. Shaina, however, was no ordinary traveler—and she wanted to make sure Will was safe.
“I worked with American Airlines and the medical team at Dallas,” Shaina said, “and told [them] I would change my flight, grab some lunch with him, and make sure he got on his flight okay.”
In response, American Airlines helped out by facilitating Shaina’s flight transfer free of charge. “American didn’t charge me a dime for the flight change,” she wrote. The airline took another above-and-beyond action, too…
Brad Loper / Dallas Morning News
Shaina added that American Airlines “even called me when [Will] and I were eating lunch together to let me know his gate changed.” Everyone with the power to help came together to make sure one frightened Will made his flight!
Finally, after a meal and pleasant conversation, Shaina walked Will to his gate. American Airlines took over from there, and the gate clerk “made sure he boarded safely to go see his Mom for Christmas.”
Just as Shaina (pictured with her husband here) promised, Will made his flight! Later, she beautifully reflected on her hectic day at the airport. “Today was not at all what I pictured it to be,” she wrote. “It has turned out so much better…”
Shaina Murry / Facebook
Her account of the day continued: “I had an amazing lunch with a wonderful young man who had a heart of gold from Louisville, Kentucky.”
There’s no denying it: airports are stressful. They’re loud, crowded, and at times they feel like a labyrinth no map can navigate you through. But Shaina sacrificed her easy traveling experience and spent more time in the chaos for a stranger. That’s pretty amazing!
Scott / Flickr
Of course, Shaina couldn’t have done it alone, and she acknowledged everyone who played a big role in getting Will on his flight. “American Airlines handled the situation with such professionalism and care,” she wrote. “The medical team [was] also just as amazing.”
Most importantly: Shaina acknowledged a truth everyone could stand to hear. “Every once and awhile we all need a little help. Regardless of disability, age, or social status. Thanks for making my day Will!”
Shaina Murry / Facebook
Although Shaina likely wouldn’t see Will again, the day she spent with him changed her whole life — and his. It just goes to show you that a little kindness and sacrifice can go a long way! In other cases, however, travelers have to fend for themselves.
Shaina Murry / Facebook
After Serbian-born Vesna Vulović traveled to London to learn English, she soon found the travel junkie in herself. Inspired by a friend, the 22-year-old dreamed of pursuing a career as a flight attendant. She planned on traveling the world.
Vesna would do anything to make her dream happen, and she did. Worried that she wouldn’t pass the medical exam due to her low blood pressure, Vesna downed several cups of coffee immediately before the exam to raise her blood pressure. It worked.
In 1971, Vesna began working for JAT Airways, Serbia’s (formerly Yugoslavia’s) largest airline. After eight months as an airborne waitress, she was informed that she’d be joining the team of JAT Flight 367, which flew from Stockholm to Belgrade with a stopover in Copenhagen.
Funny enough, the airline confused her with a different woman named Vesna, but she wasn’t about to speak up. She saw the opportunity and nabbed it, as she desperately wanted to visit Denmark. If she could see the future, however, she probably would’ve declined.
After a less-than-exciting trip, Vesna and the crew met Flight 367 at the Copenhagen Airport at 1:30 PM on January 26, 1972, and patiently waited to board. The plane took off at 3:15 PM sharp, changing her life forever. After 46 minutes of smooth sailing, the nightmare began.
At 4:01 PM, an explosion in the baggage compartment (likely a briefcase bomb planted by a Croatian group pursuing independence from Yugoslavia) caused the aircraft to collapse in the air at exactly 33,330 feet high, directly above Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia.
Flight 367 and all 28 passengers on board smashed into the ground. The wreckage was devastating. Anyone surviving the 33,000-foot fall seemed impossible. No one was in the area to help. Well, almost no one.
When Bruno Honke, a man from a small Czechoslovakian village, heard faint screaming coming from a nearby hillside, he rushed to the area, unaware of the horror that would greet him.
He was shocked to witness the sight of airplane ruins, followed by the sight of Vesna, who was begging for help, in a blood-soaked, teal uniform. Since Bruno was a medic during World War II, he could keep her alive until help arrived at the scene.
Medics found her with two broken legs, three broken vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a fractured skull, Vesna beat the Guinness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute. Please, don’t attempt to beat her record.
Today I Found Out
Vesna was rushed to a hospital in Prague, where she resided for several days while in a coma. The crash impact was so brutal on Vesna’s body (well, duh) that, aside from said injuries, she also suffered a brain hemorrhage and severe amnesia.
For weeks the entire catastrophe was a blur to Vesna, as it took her nearly a month to remember what had happened. She had memories of greeting passengers boarding her flight and memories of her parents visiting her in the hospital; everything in-between those moments was gone.
It was a miracle Vesna wasn’t paralyzed, let alone dead, and it was even more miraculous that she was walking again just 10 months later. But how? Doctors were shocked.
Funny enough, the first thing Vesna asked for once she awoke was a cigarette. Go figure. But overall, she was pretty healthy, as she connected her short recovery period to “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil.” But it had to be about more than that…
Well, air safety investigators suggested that Vesna’s location in the plane at the time of the fall softened the blow of the crash. Vesna was based at the back of the plane with a food cart when the fuselage fell apart.
Laurence King Publishing
Rather than being sucked out of the aircraft, the food cart pinned Vesna to a section of the plane, which gracefully fell over a snowy, dense, wooded hillside, essentially cushioning her fall. That wasn’t all.
Along with those technical speculations, doctors had another, more anatomical, idea about what may have saved Vesna’s life during the crash: her low blood pressure.
That’s right, the very thing that almost stopped Vesna Vulović from accomplishing her dream was likely what stopped her heart from bursting on impact. It was all too coincidental.
Unbelievably, the whole traumatic ordeal didn’t keep Vesna from exploring the rest of the globe, as she continued flying up until her death in 2016. A year later, investigators had their plates full with a similar incident, which had them reopening old files.
In March 2017, authorities dispatched investigators to a remote wooded area just outside of a mining town in Ontario, Canada. There, reports indicated, they would find a downed plane.
Sure enough, investigators spotted a single-engine Cessna 172 like the one below. But this one had torn through the branches of snow-covered evergreens, broken a wing, and crumpled on the forest floor…and some other things were not right about it.
The plane’s cockpit survived wholly undamaged, but there was no sign of a pilot. Nobody lay un-moving in the cockpit; no footsteps in the snow led away from the wreckage. Whoever called in the crash had no relation to the plane. So where was the pilot?
Investigators searched the plane for evidence of his or her whereabouts. But not even the in-flight recording equipment harbored any evidence. At the scene, the investigators could only shrug.
“Certainly, it’s unusual,” said senior investigator Peter Rowntree of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. “Normally when you go to a crash site, there is someone there.” Soon, authorities heard whispers of a “ghost plane” — a flight without a pilot.
But were Peter and his team truly chasing a ghost? Or were they trying to understand a complicated scene only a missing pilot had the answers to? They started digging into what Peter would eventually call the most intriguing investigation of his 20-year career.
After news of the mysterious crash hit the mainstream, police at the University of Michigan (UM) in the United States contacted the Canadian investigators with information vital to the case. It seemed both were chasing a similar mystery…
UM authorities confirmed the plane did have a pilot, 27-year-old School of Information doctoral candidate and Chinese national, Xin Rong. He had been missing since March 15, the day the plane crashed into that Ontario forest.
As it turned out, Xin, a member of the university’s Flyer’s club and an experienced leisure pilot, rented the plane from Ann Arbor, Michigan. But that was the only detail of the investigation that made sense. Where was Xin? investigators wondered.
Xin left the Ann Arbor airport at 7 pm on the day he was reported missing, heading for the Michigan resort town Harbor Springs. The plane — without Xin — crashed at 11:40 p.m., 400 miles north of that destination.
With this information, Peter and his investigators conducted another sweep of the crash site for Xin. Maybe snow wiped away any trace of the doctoral candidate. Maybe he crawled away, wounded, dying.
The search, though, turned up nothing: Xin was nowhere near the crashed plane. So that left investigators a few options. Either Xin set the plane to autopilot and jumped out of it on the Michigan runway, or he jumped out mid-flight. Were either realistic?
“We believe [the plane] was on autopilot, but we can’t prove it,” Peter reported. And because the 33-year-old plane didn’t have the ability to take off while on autopilot, investigators nixed the first theory. So he jumped…right?
Well, Peter found problems with that theory, too. The plane didn’t have a hatch for the roof. “The only way in or out is through the two main cabin doors,” Peter said. So “when he exited, and how he exited, is still a mystery.” But that theory had another hole.
The plane carried no parachutes. If Xin abandoned ship mid-flight — a strange maneuver in its own right, since the plane didn’t have any mechanical failures — there would’ve been no safe way to reach the ground. Soon, investigators hit a wall.
Xin wasn’t some novice who could “accidentally” overshoot his destination by 400 miles. In fact, on his website, the certified pilot chronicled dozens of sightseeing flights he took friends on. This led to far more sinister theories about his disappearance.
Some speculated he jumped from the plane as a means of suicide. A possibility, of course, but speculation — no tangible evidence supported the theory. And wouldn’t his body have turned up somewhere along the flight path? Still, investigators had no answers.
Seven months after the crash, Xin’s wife Surong Ruan struggled to answer questions from insurance companies about her husband’s coverage, but without an official death, she couldn’t provide satisfactory answers. So she made a painful choice.
She petitioned a county probate judge to declare her missing husband dead, writing: “All the evidence indicates the aircraft was operating normally and crashed because it ran out of fuel…I believe Xin Rong exited the aircraft and didn’t have a chance of being alive.”
In October, the judge granted her request, officially pronouncing Xin Rong dead. But without a body, investigators could never, truly be sure. Maybe someday, we’ll understand what happened to Xin on March 15, 2017.
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.
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.