Was the Bagram Airfield Plane Crash of 2013 an Act of Terrorism?
On April 29, 2013, National Airlines Flight 102 lifted off from Bagram Airfield, in northeast Afghanistan, carrying several tons of U.S. military equipment destined for the Emirati city of Dubai. Within minutes of liftoff, at 3:27 p.m. local time, the Boeing 747 aircraft suddenly stalled before crashing into one of Bagram’s open fields. The fuselage exploded upon impact, killing all seven crew members. You may remember watching a dramatic video of the crash captured by a nearby vehicle’s dashboard camera that was uploaded to the video website LiveLeak a day later.
Two years later, in July 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded its lengthy investigation into the catastrophe’s main cause, finding that the aircraft stalled because “five large military vehicles it was carrying were inadequately restrained. This led to at least one vehicle moving rearward, crippling key hydraulic systems and damaging the horizontal stabilizer components, which rendered the airplane uncontrollable.” This was hardly a revelation: For the past two years, coverage of the crash has focused on the shifting of heavy cargo in the plane’s rear bulkhead, where the flight’s crew had placed the armored vehicles, including three mine-resistant trucks known as Cougars, each weighing between 13 and 21 tons.
But why were the vehicles inadequately restrained, causing them to shift in the first place? In a statement delivered on July 14 at the N.T.S.B. headquarters in Washington, D.C., board chairman Christopher A. Hart said that the crash victims “lost their lives not to enemy fire, but to an accident.” The official accident report, published on August 26, likewise blamed crew error: “The NTSB concludes that there is no evidence that an explosive device or hostile acts were factors in this accident.”
A review of recent N.T.S.B. investigations suggests it is unusual for the agency to clarify, either in press releases or completed reports, that an incident classified as an accident was not caused by explosives or some other hostile act. In the investigation of the Flight 102 crash, however, this question was actively explored (and diligently addressed) by the agency. This could be chalked up to the fact that the crash occurred in a military theater, or the dramatic nature of the plane’s sudden descent and destruction. But perhaps the most significant factor in this arm of the investigation was National Airlines, the company that owned and operated the destroyed Boeing 747.
In the course of the N.T.S.B.’s fact-finding mission, just as the agency began to form a clearer picture of what happened in Bagram Airfield, the Orlando-based airline latched onto a very different theory about the crash’s cause. The Flight 102 disaster, one of the company’s top executives repeatedly insinuated in documents submitted to the agency, may have been perpetrated by Taliban militants.
In a 31-page report submitted to the National Transportation Safety Board on March 19, National Airlines’ director of maintenance alleged a litany of errors with the federal agency’s investigation of the crash, including its alleged refusal to consider foul play and its apparent inability to protect the evidence of the crash from contamination. The director, Steven Santangelo, also revealed previously undisclosed events, including the discovery of an I.E.D. on a subsequent National Airlines flight and the mysterious death of an Afghan official who initially oversaw the crash investigation. At the end of the document, which was made public on May 27, Santangelo asserts that “terrorist activity, such as explosive damage or sabotage to the aircraft or its cargo, cannot be ruled out” as a cause of the flight’s crash.
Santangelo, who has worked in the airline industry since 1985, belonged to a three-person investigative team that arrived in Bagram four days after the crash and surveyed the accident site for the following nine days. The chairman of the team, Tom Jacky, is an N.T.S.B. employee. The third member, Rick Mayfield, works for the Boeing Company. The same trio inspected the craft’s wreckage at an N.T.S.B. facility in Ashburn, Virginia in September 2013. These inspections, along with interviews of Bagram personnel, generated hundreds of documents related to the crash.
The conclusion at which Santangelo arrived—that it was essentially impossible to rule out foul play—would, of course, be immensely helpful to National Airlines’ bottom line if the N.T.S.B. were to concur. “The purpose of the N.T.S.B.’s investigation is to try to figure out what happened,” the aviation expert Jeff Wise told Gawker. “They’re specifically not out to assign blame or culpability. But obviously their finding is going to be a major factor if someone gets sued.”
Aerial view of Flight 102 wreckage · Photo Credit: NTSB
Santangelo’s conclusion also happens to align with the statements of an unlikely group: The Taliban. Within hours of the crash, the terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the aircraft’s destruction. American authorities quickly rebutted this claim by pointing out, accurately, that the Taliban demands credit for virtually every setback to the U.S. military. But Santangelo’s report introduces information that has never been disclosed to the public—some of which we were unable to corroborate—that significantly muddles this narrative.
Among his report’s most noteworthy allegations:
- Some time after Flight 102’s crash, a National Airlines employee discovered an improvised explosive device (IED) on another armored military truck that the airline had transported from Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates. According to Santangelo, “the fact the device went undetected through security sweeps out of Afghanistan and into the UAE lends support to the view that terrorism should not have been discounted in the accident investigation.”
- Members of the Taliban “threatened the investigator-in-charge for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Transportation and Civil Aviation (MoTCA) to coerce him into accepting the Taliban’s claim.”
- The same investigator-in-charge, whom Santangelo does not name, “was subsequently killed” under unknown circumstances.
Wreckage of destroyed Cougar · Photo Credit: NTSB
These disclosures help set up the (still fairly shaky) idea that a hostile act may have been the cause of the crash. Santangelo then goes on to argue that N.T.S.B. officials ignored this very possibility, thereby compromising the integrity of the entire investigation. “The following basic investigative actions were not taken following the accident,” he writes, “to rule out potential terrorist claims”:
- Determining whether the military conducted a security sweep of the [Cougars] prior to loading.
- Determining the security situation on the ground during the two hour loading delay before the Atlas loader began loading the Cougars. (National Airlines uses a Security Checklist, which is signed by the loadmaster and carried on board the aircraft; this document was not recovered.)
- Testing items recovered from the runway following the accident in the vicinity of Taxiway C, which was near the point of takeoff rotation, and items found along the flight path, for explosives. (Although bomb-sniffing dogs were used after the accident, dogs cannot detect the residue of a bomb that has detonated.)
- Determining the source of fluid/smoke observed by witnesses during the aircraft’s brief flight.
- Analyzing the CVR [cockpit voice recorder] to detect the audio signature of an explosion.
Later on, he explains how the wreckage’s physical evidence may have been contaminated:
During the post-crash field investigation a crane was used to lift wreckage from the debris field. It was observed that the crane rolled over other pieces of wreckage within the debris field thus possibly damaging or burying physical evidence. Some wreckage was hauled in the back of pickup trucks to a parking lot on Bagram Air Base. There was no chain of custody for the wreckage. Moreover, although the military had posted guards, numerous individuals, such as persons bringing flowers to the wreckage and first responders, had access to the wreckage.
The rest of the report, much of which is written in highly technical language, disputes several preliminary analyses presented by N.T.S.B. investigators, particularly those related to exactly why, and exactly when, the Cougars shifted after liftoff to throw the aircraft off-balance. Many of these analyses remain incomplete because both the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) stopped recording just seconds after liftoff. The report’s last section, titled “Probable Cause,” reads:
The probable cause of the accident was a departure stall at an altitude that was too low to allow for recovery. The cause of the pitch up and departure stall could not be determined due to the loss of the FDR and CVR information immediately after liftoff and the destruction of the wreckage following impact and post-crash fire. Terrorist activity, such as explosive damage or sabotage to the aircraft or its cargo, cannot be ruled out.
This conclusion is not just noteworthy for its implied corroboration of the Taliban’s claims. In a report submitted on the same day as Santangelo’s, and made available on May 27 as well, a Boeing Company investigator named Paul Richter argues that “hostile acts were not a factor in this accident.” The section detailing this argument reads:
Immediately after the accident, when conditions permitted, U.S. Air Force personnel examined the wreckage at the accident site to determine if there were any indications of weapon effects. The Air Force conducted additional weapon effects inspections on the wreckage and the airplane parts found on the runway on May 11th and 12th. None of these inspections found signs of any weapon effects. A military laboratory also examined two pieces of the airplane that were found on the runway (near rotation) for signs of explosives or other exploitable materials and none were detected.
In addition, no sounds of explosions or weapons effects were recorded on the CVR. Based on these findings, the Air Force concluded that hostile acts were not a factor in this accident. These findings were supported by the absence of any images of explosions or weapons effects (smoke, fire, etc.) in the three videos of the Accident that the NTSB’s Vehicle Recorder Laboratory analyzed.
As noted above, Santangelo’s report disputes nearly all of Richter’s findings. The wreckage was improperly handled. The crash and subsequent fire likely destroyed any detectable residue of exploded ordnance. The cockpit voice recorder stopped recording after the plane became airborne. The only finding from this section that Santangelo doesn’t directly address is the purported lack of “any images of explosions or weapons effects” in three videos of the crash, taken from security cameras placed around Bagram Air Field.
Still from security camera footage of Flight 102’s descent · Photo Credit: NTSB
The lack of “weapons effects” in security footage does not necessarily mean there weren’t observable indications of foul play—or at least something amiss. Indeed, according to witness statements gathered by the N.T.S.B., an Air Force technical sergeant named Michael Zullo observed “a clear colored fluid [or] liquid coming from what looked to be the bottom tail area” of the aircraft sometime after lifting off the ground. Zullo’s statement is likely the one Santangelo is referring to when he criticizes investigators for failing to assess “the source of fluid/smoke observed by witnesses during the aircraft’s brief flight.”
Not all of the available evidence (or deficit thereof) supports Santangelo’s narrative, however. His report claims, for example, that “there is no evidence that any actions by the flight crew contributed to the pitch up of the aircraft or the inability of the aircraft to recover from the stall condition.” This passage appears to refer to the possibility that the craft’s crew members failed to secure the military trucks, which require a complex arrangement of heavy nylon straps to prevent them from shifting during transport. According to Richter’s report, Boeing did not recover definitive proof of such negligence during the flight that crashed, but the company does point to evidence that cargo had been insufficiently secured on the flight immediately preceding it.
Strap fragments recovered from crash site · Photo Credit: NTSB
The Boeing aircraft used for Flight 102, registered under the number N949CA, originally arrived at Bagram Airfield via Camp Bastion, an airbase operated by Britain’s Ministry of Defense in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. According to transcripts of conversations captured by a microphone placed in the cockpit, crew members noted that some straps holding the same military cargo had gone loose. From Richter’s report:
The crew discussed improper cargo movement that had occurred sometime during the flight to Bagram. The crew discussed a “busted” strap and the presence of a “knot.” The crew further discussed a load movement of “a couple inches,” and the fact that “all the [straps] that were keeping em from movin backwards were all loose.” The accident Captain commented about heavy cargo not having a “lock”. Another crewmember said, “I’m getting off this plane, I’m scared,” to which the Captain responded “throw [the broken strap] out man, that’s evidence. The loadmaster don’t want that hangin around either.” Based on the recorded conversation, the crew apparently addressed the cargo movement by replacing the broken item and “cinching them all down.”
Santangelo does not address these transcripts—which are, admittedly, quite damning—in his own report. This omission is particularly noteworthy given his report’s length: it is twice as long as Boeing’s. Then again, much of his report is devoted not to the presence of evidence, but to the lack of it, in order to establish his underlying epistemological argument: that in the absence of proof to the contrary, the N.T.S.B. cannot rule out the potential of foul play.
Jeff Wise, the aviation expert, was highly critical of National Airlines’s apparent strategy. “[Santangelo] is not saying, ‘We think an I.E.D. placed at the roof of the wing would have caused exactly what we saw to have happened,’” Wise said. “This guy’s not saying anything like that. He’s not positing any kind of alternative scenario. He’s just blowing smoke. He’s saying, ‘The government is evil and cannot be trusted, therefore my client has to be let off the hook.’”
However, a third document published by the N.T.S.B. on May 27 suggests Santangelo’s claims were treated seriously enough to trigger an apparently rushed effort to locate any evidence or testimony that would disprove them. Dated May 13, 2013—nearly two years prior to Santangelo’s report—the document lists the results of an extensive chemical analysis performed on two pieces of wreckage recovered from the crash site: a section of the aircraft’s outer skin, and piece of bent metal that belonged to a hydraulic line. Both fragments tested negative for any “explosives or other exploitable materials.”
The analysis carries a notable disclosure at the very end, though. “Although no explosives were identified it does not eliminate the possibility of the preexistence of an explosive,” it reads. “Likewise, if a military-grade ordnance were to explode properly, it is possible all explosives would be consumed in the explosion and no explosive residue remain within a detectable limit.”
Wreckage recovered from aft bulkhead under examination · Photo Credit: NTSB
On June 22, the N.T.S.B. uploaded an undated memorandum prepared by the Joint Combat Assessment Team (J.C.A.T.), a group within the Department of Defense that investigates aircraft failures in war zones. Signed by Lt. Col. Chad Ryther, the memorandum summarizes what Ryther and his J.C.A.T. colleague, Capt. Gary Roos, witnessed at Bagram on the day Flight 102 stalled and exploded. Both men, the memorandum states, had obtained “extensive training in identifying the visual, acoustic and other employment signatures of the full spectrum of weapons known to be employed against aircraft.” And neither of them believe any weapon was used against the Boeing aircraft:
At no time did the JCAT team observe any indications of weapons effects on any portion of the aircraft. Additionally, a JCAT review of numerous witness statements and two videos of the incident indicated no evidence of weapons employment prior to, during or after the event. The final JCAT assessment was that there was absolutely no evidence that any sort of weapon was employed against aircraft N949CA at any time prior to, during or after the event on 29 April 2013.
This would appear to be definitive. But eighteen days later, on July 10, Santangelo provided a “supplemental submission” to N.T.S.B. investigators in which he vehemently questioned not only the contents of J.C.A.T. report, but the fact that National Airlines was only recently made aware of it. “The report does not cite to any near contemporaneous documentation of any of the observations described,” Santangelo wrote, “which is especially troubling considering the report is undated and was received by National Airlines more than two years after the accident.” The submission concluded:
The appearance of this unusual, JCAT “report” does not resolve significant questions about the adequacy of the investigation into possible sabotage of the accident aircraft. National Airlines remains concerned that an improvised explosive device or other sabotage could have caused or contributed to this accident and that this line of investigation never appropriately proceeded. No attempt was made to determine the signature of an improvised explosive device hidden in or on the military vehicles on board the accident flight, or to conduct a comprehensive search for explosives residue and other potential evidence of a low-level explosion.
Four days later, the N.T.S.B. announced its final report’s findings. “The probable cause of this accident,” the finished report states, “was National Airlines’ inadequate procedures for restraining special cargo loads.” The airline has not yet submitted any other statements or documents pertaining to the crash, according to the agency’s online docketing system.
National Airlines did not acknowledge repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for Boeing declined to comment on Santangelo’s statements submitted to the N.T.S.B., and referred Gawker to the documents it had submitted to the same agency. In an email, an N.T.S.B. representative wrote: “Information added to the N.T.S.B. docket is used for factual information. The information stands for itself without further elaboration.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org · PGP key + fingerprint · Photo credit: LiveLeak