Dubai: Dawn grew brighter and the green hills of south west Ireland were over the distant horizon. The flight was routine, and Air Traffic Control in Shannon was calling to set up control of Flight 182 — as ATC did with all flights crossing the North Atlantic corridor.
It was 7.05am GMT on the morning of June 23, 1985, and Air India Flight 182, a fully-loaded Boeing 747 passed track position 50°N 15°W, and relayed the information to Shannon.
Captain Hanse Singh Narendra served as the commander sitting in the left front seat, with Captain Satwinder Singh Bhinder as the first officer on his right, and behind was Flight Engineer Dara Dumasia.
A thousand kilometres away, in Scotland, Anil Singh Hanse was supposed to go offshore, diving deep into the sea off the coast of Aberdeen in Scotland. His work as a professional deep-sea diver with an oil company took him to some of the most exotic places on Earth: From the UK to the UAE to Far East … And it was business as usual for the oil rig employee.
Or was it?
Anil was looking forward to the helicopter ride later in the day that would take him to England, where he would be joined by his father, Captain Narendra, a commander with Air India.
Almost around the same time when Anil was taking his diving gear off and pining for that tall, cool glass of his favourite beverage, on the radar, Flight AI 182, commandeered by Anil’s father, was inching its way towards London’s Heathrow. It was around 7 in the morning and Capt. Narendra’s flight was checking in with ATC at Shannon Airport — barely an hour away from London Heathrow.
The radio chat with Shannon ATC was routine.
Captain Bhinder: “Air India 182, good morning.”
Shannon Control: “Air India 182, good morning. Squawk two zero zero five, and go ahead please.”
The flight was cleared for onward handover to Heathrow approach at 10,000 metres, and Bhinder repeated the instructions, and corrected an earlier radio misspeak.
On 23 June, 1985, Air India's Boeing 747-237B, Emperor Kanishka, exploded midair in Irish airspace in an attack by Sikh extremists in retaliation for 1984 'Operation Blue Star' (Indian army attack Sikh Golden Temple Complex that reportedly killed 1,000 people).
Minutes earlier — on the other side of the world — ground staff at Tokyo’s Narita Airport pulled at suitcases from metal containers pulled from the hold of a Canadian Pacific Air Lines just landed ahead of schedule from Vancouver.
But this was far from typical of the routine played out hundreds of times daily at the airport.
A blast ripped a container apart, killed two baggage handlers, injuring four others, and leaving a hole on the concrete floor. If this had happened on a plane, the aircraft would not survive the structural damage.
Back on the Kanishka, the flight was routine.
Shannon was still chatting to 182.
“Squawking two zero zero five, 182,” Bhinder said.
There were discussions on the flight deck then about sealing the duty free bar — routine chat.
The next — and final sound the flight box microphones would record — was a sudden, abrupt rushing of air. Then silence. Deadly silence.
The search and rescue and recovery efforts were based out of the Irish Naval Service base at Haulbowline in Cork Harbour, Ireland
There was a clicking sound of a transit button on the headsets in Shannon.
On the large circular green radar screens at Shannon, Flight 182 was gone. The Kanishka simply disappeared.
For the next minutes, ATC searched, calling for radio contact, hoping that transponders were off, a glitch.
Search and rescue
By 7.30, Shannon initiated a search and rescue operation, with the Irish authorities, its navy, all shipping and aircraft in the area of south west Ireland put on alert.
LE Aisling, a small Irish navy fisheries protection ship, along with cargo ships in the region, among them the Laurentian Forest — en route from Quebec to Dublin — converged on the area.
It took a further 103 minutes for the worst fears to be confirmed. The Laurentian Forest radioed that it had found a sizeable debris field, was starting to recover bodies and wreckage — and there were no survivors of the 329 on board.
Speaking to Gulf News over the phone from Melbourne, Anil’s voice sounded as if it was yesterday’s story that he was narrating: “You won’t believe it … Even today I fail to understand how or why this happened. But I swear … barely had I fallen asleep did I realise that I was sitting bolt upright on the bed, telling myself: ‘If Dad were to die now, I would clean-shave my head for the rest of my life’!”
About an hour later that day, Anil woke up and headed straight for the breakfast table. But even before he could tuck into a golden brown slice of buttered toast and order a ‘sunny-side-up’, a colleague walked up to him and said: “There’s a piece of news on the radio and I think you should listen to this.”
AI 182 with 329 souls on board had crashed into the Atlantic near the Irish town of Cork.
Debris from Air India Flight 182. In response to threats from Sikh activists, Air India had requested extra security, leading Canada to assign extra policemen in terminals in Toronto and Montreal, and all baggage was to be checked by X-ray or by hand. But after the x-ray machine broke down that day, inspectors used a portable explosive sniffer.
Just as AI 182 fell off the radar, it was noontime in India and the members of the Dumasia family in Mumbai were busy following up their Sunday luncheon with dollops of unadulterated, homespun small talk that typically livens up households across India on weekend afternoons. Simply put, it was just another Sunday.
“My father Dara Dumasia was the Flight Engineer on AI 182. We all knew that he would be landing in Heathrow around noontime in India that day and he was supposed to meet my sister Dilshad’s fiance in London later over lunch. So we were expecting a call from Daddy. But instead, it was my sister’s fiance who called up and wanted to know whether we had heard anything from Air India authorities in Mumbai? We said we had no clue. But what was the matter? Then he said that he had heard it on BBC radio that an Indian aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off Ireland … He knew that my father was operating the Montreal-London leg of AI 182.
“Mum phoned Air India operations. They hesitated and only said that the ‘plane was missing’. Then my mother told them that we had heard from London that the flight had crashed into the Atlantic, to which they finally said ‘yes, that’s true’ … We were just broken, we collapsed …” Farnaaz Sethna’s voice almost choking as one could see just that glint of a teardrop at the corner of her eyes.
Speaking to Gulf News at her home in Jogeshwari, Mumbai, on what happened to be yet another Sunday afternoon last month, Farnaaz continued: “We are two sisters, but I was Daddy’s pet. I would just follow him as long as he would be around and every time he came back home after a long-haul flight, I would just go on and on, giving him an update on all that he had missed during the week. So when I heard that he would never come home again, my world just collapsed. I remember telling a friend that I would rather crawl under the bed and hide … I just couldn’t bear it. I must have cried myself to sleep for more than a year after that incident ... It was just incomprehensible that Daddy was not coming home ever again.”
Most held Canadian passports — taken out at the first opportunity by Indians who sought a better life, education and economic opportunity under the Maple Leaf.
Most were Indian-Canadians, travelling from across Canada to return to India to visit relatives and friends. The flight from Montreal was due to land at London’s Heathrow — then onwards to the international airport in New Delhi.
But how does a modern aircraft with a perfect maintenance record fall from the sky? There were no indications of mechanical issues, and nothing reported from the flight engineer.