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Silent witness: the crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285

Bob Hinks holds a photo of himself in uniform when still in service with the RCMP. Years after retirement, he remains haunted by the events he witnessed as a first responder attending the crash scene of Arrow Air flight 1285. – © J. René Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES – Bob Hinks remembers almost every single moment, every single detail. He still calls it the worst day of his career with the RCMP.

On Thursday morning, Dec. 12 1985, Arrow Air flight 1285 took off from Gander International Airport. The plane was on the last leg of its journey from Cairo, Egypt to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. On board were 8 crew and 248 passengers, members of the famed 101st airborne division, the same division whose storied history was so well portrayed in the HBO film Band of Brothers. Flight 1285 never reached its destination, crashing only moments after takeoff.

Bob was a 32 year old RCMP Constable stationed at the Gander detachment. Gander had a detachment of 36 at the time.

Nearly two weeks earlier, the town had held an emergency drill to simulate a mock disaster. Bob recalls the drill went too well.

”Everybody was notified about the mock disaster – the fire department, the hospital, the military, but it went off too well because everybody knew about it.They were all waiting to get a call, and thats not how a disaster works.”

Because of that, the decision was made to hold another mock disaster, but without informing anyone ahead of schedule. Bob recalls the morning of December 12th perfectly.

“I was up fairly early because my wife, Marie, had to go to work.So I was up and in my service uniform to drive her to work, and then (planning to) go in to work myself after that. As I was going through the door, the telephone rang and I answered it. And this was my boss telling me that a plane had crashed down by Gander Lake, down by Boathouse Road.”

Given the rescheduled mock disaster, Bob suspected this was the second trial run.

“I laughed at him and told him where to go.” When his boss persisted, Bob took off, “as fast as I could go.”

He arrived at the gate to the Boathouse Road where he met a fellow RCMP officer. The two made lighthearted comments about having another mock disaster so early in the morning.

As Bob ran down the road, he recalls with absolute clarity, seeing the tops of trees cut off and fires burning.

“I remember thinking, boy, they’re really going all out with this mock disaster. They even got 45 gallon drums in the woods burning fires.”

When he got to the T-intersection, Bob came around the corner, and saw the undercarriage of an airplane, “Right in the middle of the road, and the tires were on fire.”

That’s when it hit him that this was no mock disaster. It was all too real. Another fellow officer approached and stopped Bob.

“Frank Ward was walking towards me. and he said ‘Did you see all the dead people?’ I turned back to look, and I had walked by maybe a dozen or more people. I didn’t even see them.”

Bob and Frank began to look for survivors. As Bob walked through the woods, he recalls seeing scenes unimaginable to most.

“Body parts everywhere… airplane parts everywhere.”

As he searched, Bob chanced upon one man in a Military Police uniform. He was sitting at the base of a tree, his legs out straight in front of him, his hands resting casually on his legs, and his sidearm at his side.

“I thought he was alive. He was just sitting there. and I asked him, ‘Are you okay’. And he was dead.”

Bob has other recollections, ones that will not be recounted here simply because of their extreme graphic nature.

He was tasked with several jobs that terrible morning, including assisting doctors through the crash site, looking for passengers they could save. They didn’t find any.

Bob recalls one moment in particular so extreme that even one doctor got sick in the bushes.

“He had to leave the site.”

There were no survivors of Flight 1285. The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8, had been built in 1969. The technology of the time meant that the black boxes of the aircraft were woefully out of date. They consisted of a pin that scratched a drum, able to record only a few systems, so there wasn’t a great deal of data to aid crash investigators.

Bob is the one who found the Flight Data Recorder (FDR).

“It was just sitting there, in a ditch, right on the side of the road for anyone to see. It just happened to be me.”

To maintain chain of custody, the next day Bob was put on a private jet to Ottawa with both Black Boxes. He was the only passenger.

The investigation was a very confused affair. A terrorist group attempted to claim responsibility, and there was only limited information gleaned from the recorders.

Investigators ultimately determined there were two key factors that caused the crash.

The plane was subjected to constant freezing rain conditions, leaving a very thin coating of ice on the wings. It was not de-iced prior to takeoff as the ice was not easily visible.

The other factor, ultimately dooming the flight, was that it was overweight. Fuel calculations are based on the average weight of a person, some 170 lbs for an average man, and 120 lbs for a woman.

Flight 1285 carried 248 soldiers, all large and strong men averaging a weight of 220 lbs each, not counting their equipment.

That weight differential, coupled with the ice conditions, doomed all onboard the moment it left the ground.

Flight 1285 remains the deadliest crash in Canadian History, and the United States Army’s single deadliest air crash in peacetime.

Bob ended up with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result of what he saw and experienced that day. With that came Menieres Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes vertigo and dizziness.

He stayed with the RCMP for as long as he could, but eventually had to walk away in 1995, with a permanent disability.

These days he keeps himself busy outdoors.

“Im an avid hunter, fisherman – salmon or trout, rabbits, turrs or geese. I go from season to season.”

Bob admits that he a rough night after this interview.

“I was just laying there, with everything running through my head again, and my wife had to wake me up from the nightmare.”

He enjoys watching action movies, but admits it’s a little odd that one of his favourite shows is Mayday, a show that profiles plane crashes. The show featured the Arrow Air Flight 1285 disaster on Episode 3 of Season 11, entitled Split Decision.

Despite the traumatic memories, Bob says that his best medicine are his grandchildren. Jase and London, who live in Port aux Basques not too far from him.

“If I get a little depressed or I start thinking things that I shouldn’t be thinking, I just spend some time with them, and they are my pill. That takes all my worries and woes away.”

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