Iceland and Sri Lanka collide in a tragic accident

The crash of Icelandic Airlines flight LL-001

In 1978 Sri Lanka was emerging from a long period of economic isolation. A landmark election the year before had ushered in a change of government, with a mandate to open up the economy. Rebuilding ties with the West, long-ignored during a period of austerity and socialist policies, was a priority for the new regime.

Loftleidir Icelandic Airlines

On the other side of planet far away from the tropical island of Sri Lanka was another, slightly larger, island set in the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Iceland, with a small population of around 224,000 people was a very different place — culturally and physically distant from Sri Lanka. A small private airline, known as Loftleidir Icelandic (IATA code LL) had been founded there in 1944 and been slowly extending its reach. Starting off as a local airline flying to islands in the area, Icelandic had become a pioneer in the ‘low cost long-haul’ market. Using a small fleet of jets (a Boeing 707 initially then a few Douglas DC-8s) to offer the cheapest flights between the USA and Europe. By including a mandatory stop-over and aircraft change at Reykjavik, Iceland’s main city, the airline was able to keep its costs down. This serendipitous invention of the ‘hub and spoke’ connectivity model would pave the way for many other airlines, such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates, to develop their home cities into into ‘mega hubs’ — but all that is a long way in the future.

TF-FLA the Dc-8 that was to crash in Sri Lanka. Photo by Howard Chaloner

The scene is set

Loftleidir Icelandic Airlines Flight LL001 was approaching Colombo from Jeddah en route to Surabaya, on November 15, 1978. Ironically, this was in the reverse, or ‘mirror-image’, circumstances to the ill-fated Martinair DC-8. This was a chartered Icelandic DC-8–63CF also carrying a load of Indonesian Muslim pilgrims returning home from their sacred pilgrimage. The Loftleidir pilots and cabin crew were probably looking forward to a relaxing layover in Colombo, as another team of colleagues were waiting to take the aircraft on its next leg. The flight had departed Jeddah at 15:58 local time (18:28 Sri Lanka time) and flown through the evening, first contacting Colombo Air Traffic Control at 22:53 local time.

Runway alignment at Katunayake. It is the same as in 1978.

Instrument Landing Systems

An ILS approach provides two radio beams, one of which, the ‘localizer’, guides the aircraft on a straight line aligned with the runway centreline from about 12 miles out. At a particular spot on that track the aircraft will intercept the ‘glide slope’, the second radio signal that provides a gentle 3-degree slope to a point on the runway, a minimum altitude known as the MDA, that will provide clearance from obstacles on the ground during the final approach.

The ILS approach Rwy 22 for 1978 as used by the Icelandic pilots

Initially a normal approach

‘Lima Lima 001’ (to use the radio call sign designated to the Loftleidir flight) was cleared for the ILS approach by the radar controller at 23:06 local time and was asked to “report established on the localizer” — the lateral guidance beam of the ILS. But the DC-8’s crew failed to acknowledge or comply with the instruction, so the air traffic controller kept giving them helpful (to his way of thinking) advisory information on their track and altitude.

Lack of stabilization

One aspect that stands out from the subsequent accident report, which was produced by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Sri Lankan government, is that flight LL001 never really flew a stable descent on the ILS. The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder (the so called ‘black boxes’ which are actually painted orange) were both recovered, and show that the DC-8 was not stable on the ILS but ‘chasing’ the beams, never maintaining a constant heading or rate of descent — see the re-created flight path below. This is what probably caused the radar controller to provide what he thought were helpful comments on the radio.

The actual descent profile of LL001 as re-created in the accident report.

Accident and the aftermath

The accident occurred late at night in a rural area that was, at the time, largely uninhabited. The initial impact had been with the tall trees on a coconut plantation, and then the aircraft proceeded to hit rubber trees on the adjoining estate. The fuselage and wings broke into sections that were scattered in the vicinity. Fire engulfed the area and 175 passengers, plus eight crew members (including both the pilots and flight engineer) were killed. One other pilot who was ‘deadheading’ at the rear of the aircraft and several members of the cabin crew survived.

The wreckage of LL001 in the coconut estate. Photo courtesy Island newspaper

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.