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The Haunting Story of OB-1303

On September 11th, 1990, a Peruvian Boeing 727 with 16 crew members on board went down to Newfoundland, Canada. In an anxiety call overheard by two other aircraft, the pilot of the ruined jet reported that they were low on fuel and readying to ditch. But no trace of the plane was ever discovered.

The Haunting Story of OB-1303

Pic: Wikipedia

The plane in question was a three-engine Boeing 727 passenger jet registered as OB-1303, which was possessed by an airline called Faucett Perú. Faucett largely operated within the Peruvian domestic market, but it also leased some of its aircraft to airlines overseas. During the summer of 1990, Faucett leased OB-1303 to Air Malta to assist that airline to fulfill heightened demand during the vacation travel season.

After a summer working routes in Europe, the contract concluded in September 1990 and the plane was due to be returned to Faucett Perú. Nonetheless, the Boeing 727 is not a long-range aircraft; its fuel capacity restricts it to intracontinental flights. To get the plane from Malta to Peru, it had to make stays for fuel in London, England; Reykjavik, Iceland; Gander, Newfoundland; and Miami, Florida. This rather long return journey necessitated the carriage of many additional crew members, which is presumably why there were 16 people on board, although no data about their individualities are readily available.

(One source states that some Faucett pilots who had been working in Malta were coming back with their families in tow.) The flight manifest indicated that there were 18 crewmembers, while Faucett Perú reportedly stated that three of them never boarded the plane when it left Reykjavik, resulting in a total of 15 occupants. News references at the time quoted this figure. Nonetheless, most sources that give statistics on plane crashes, such as ASN and the BAAA claim that there were 16 occupants, which doesn’t align with either of these scenarios.

Departed

Around 1:16 p.m. local time (source) on the 11th of September, OB-1303 departed Reykjavik for the third leg of its five-leg trip from Valletta, Malta to Lima, Peru. The destination was Gander, Newfoundland, an ordinary stopover point for airliners in the days before bigger and more fuel-efficient jets made direct flights between Europe and North America possible. The distance between Reykjavik and Gander was approximately 2,500 kilometers, comfortably within the Boeing 727-200’s maximum range of 3,570 kilometers. Records exhibited that the pilots took on six hours of fuel, nearly equal to the worldwide standard (sufficient for the flight plus two hours extra).

Very little is understood about what occurred to the plane after it left Reykjavik. Nonetheless, in 2006, a user on the PPrune aviation forum, a site prominent with aviation professionals, responded to an examination about the flight, claiming to have worked as an accident investigator for the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association at the time of the occurrence. He said that according to documents given to him at the time, the 727 started to deviate to the left (south) of the appropriate heading of 234 degrees nearly instantly after takeoff, an assertion which is verified by modern news reports.

100KM

By the time the plane neared Newfoundland, it was hundreds of kilometers off course, and after about 4 hours—the point at which they should have been entering in Gander—the plane was somewhere over the North Atlantic southeast of Newfoundland, out of the span of any air traffic control center on VHF radio. (Although HF has a much-extended range than VHF, the aircraft was not provided with an HF radio at the time.) It also would have been far out of range of any ground-based navigational aids. As this was before GPS, the staff could not have realized their position with any certainty, and as they were incapable to raise ATC on any frequency, a rising feeling of alarm must have filled the cockpit.

Nonetheless, the staff did have one last means of communication at their disposal: the guard frequency. “Guard” is a basic radio frequency generally utilized for emergency communication, and most commercial aircraft have one radio monitoring guard at all times. The staff of the Faucett 727 started to “call on guard,” and their messages were picked up by the staff of a TWA flight and a United flight that were in the region. According to the pilots of the flights who talked to the doomed jet, the 727 staff knew they were off course and were somewhere southeast of Cape Race, the easternmost point of Newfoundland. At this point, with nearly two hours’ worth of fuel left, the plane should have been competent to make it to St. John’s, if not to Gander, but the crew’s weather radar exhibited a line of serious storms directly between their determined position and the Canadian coast.

Out Of Range

According to the Canadian investigator, sometime after the original flights that had been talking with the 727 flew out of range, the staff made a connection with another United flight that had reached the area. The crew of the 727 told the United crew that they were at 10,000 feet, headed southwest, and had earned a low fuel warning. They instructed that they did not think they could penetrate the drastic weather and were readying to ditch on the open ocean. This was the final communication from the ill-fated flight.

The contents of their last message leave a couple of significant questions. The low fuel warning makes sense given the amount of time they had spent in the air at that point. The plane had 6 hours of fuel, it left Reykjavik at 13:16 UTC, and the last distress call was heard at 18:50, nearly five and a half hours later—right about when the plane should begin warning the pilots about low fuel. By that point, they should have landed an hour and a half ago and we’re nearly through their safety buffer.

The issue is if they realized they were in an emergency, why didn’t the crew try to penetrate the squall line and go for a landing in Newfoundland? I would assume that they were afraid about running out of fuel while in the squall line, as they did not understand their precise distance from Newfoundland and could not be certain that they had sufficient fuel left to reach any airport. In such a circumstance, they must have decided that if they had to ditch, either way, it would be reasonable to do it away from the storms.

Water

Nonetheless, the circumstances at that time were not encouraging for ditching. A ditching is simplest on calm water, and the North Atlantic is infamous for being the polar opposite of calm. Even though skies were clear in the region where the plane is supposed to have ditched, there was a stiff breeze of 10-15 miles per hour and the ocean surface was covered in enormous swells. According to a news report at the time, the breeze was out of the southeast, which clarifies the pilots’ decision to head southwest; by ditching perpendicular to the breeze, they would hopefully land parallel to the wind-driven swells to increase their likelihoods of keeping the plane intact.

Presumably, within 10 to 15 minutes of that last distress call, the crew ditched the plane in the Atlantic many hundred kilometers southeast of Cape Race. Given the horrible surface conditions, the likelihoods of successful ditching were incredibly low. Ditching methods instruct pilots to land parallel to the swells, but on the open ocean, it can be unthinkable to tell in which way the swells are aligned even if the wind direction is known. Most open-ocean ditchings in history—almost all of them in much better circumstances than this one—ended with the plane digging into a swell, cartwheeling, and shattering apart. That is almost surely what occurred to the Faucett 727, and if anyone endured the initial crash (possible, maybe even probable, given the low speed of the aircraft) they would have rapidly drowned in the heavy seas or perished to hypothermia. Even if the plane did come to a stop intact, the likelihood of rescue for the occupants was remote. No one understood the plane’s precise position, and in heavy seas, it would have been incredibly tough to deploy the rafts and get everyone into them. And even if they did deploy the rafts, a few hours on the North Atlantic would carry them far from their actual position, where searchers would be unlikely to discover them before the heavy seas affected the rafts to capsize or sink. Personally, nonetheless, I doubt they managed to deploy any life rafts.

Missing Plane

As soon as Canadian authorities received word of the missing plane, a prominent search and rescue operation was launched. According to recent news reports, searchers had just two pieces of data to work with when trying to assume the plane’s position: a single hit from a satellite over England, and a partial radar track from the onboard radar of another plane that was in the region. Nonetheless, these two radar hits were nowhere near each other, urging searchers to cover a region of 40,000 square miles of ocean. Although a few signals that could have been the flight’s emergency transmitter beacon were detected, searchers were incapable to discover the airplane or its staff, and after many days the search was called off. To this day the plane’s precise last position is unknown; sources that I’ve found all agree that it was southeast of Cape Race, but distances used in several sources include 290km, 333km, 463km, and 658km.

Generally, when a plane goes down in international waters, the inquiry becomes the duty of the aircraft’s state of registry, which in this case was Peru. Nonetheless, in 1990 Peru was in a state of great unstableness. Peru’s new president Alberto Fujimori had come to the office a little over a month earlier and was fighting both currency hyperinflation and a Maoist insurgency that was wreaking devastation in the countryside. Amid the chaos, Peruvian authorities never followed up on the fairly minor distraction of the missing 727, nor did they ever wish that Canada take over the investigation. As a result, no inquiry was performed and no official report was ever published. The plane still has not been discovered to this day, although the aforementioned Canadian investigator stated that a few “tarpaulins” thought to have come from the plane washed up in Newfoundland sometime after the crash.

And that’s where the story ends. This analysis includes something like 99% of the data readily accessible on the internet about the disappearance, with a significant helping of my analysis on top. Many of the questions about what occurred have theoretical answers, but how it all began and why will possibly never be known. Why did the plane fly on the false heading instantly after takeoff from Reykjavik? Why didn’t the staff notice until many hours later? Was there a shortcoming with their instruments, or did they make some kind of mistake? What might have taken place on board the plane in its last minutes? Here we have no basis even for the assumption. As dozens of other plane crashes throughout history have demonstrated, they could have gone off course for any number of justifications. Today, we’re left with a troublesome mystery with little hope of finding, which must be particularly tough for the families of the 16 casualties, who will spend the rest of their lives wondering what took place aboard the ruined airliner as it sank to meet the siren song of the inscrutable Atlantic.

This is my first time posting to r/UnresolvedMysteries, but I post related content about solved plane crashes weekly on r/CatastrophicFailure, so some of you may identify me from there! I wish this haunting case stirs some interesting discussions.

Update: Theories!

Thanks to some input from commenters, I can assume a little bit more about what might have caused them to go off course. Before GPS, the most valid way to navigate an airliner across a region without ground-based navigational aids was to use an Inertial Navigation System or INS. An INS comprises a set of gyros that track an airplane’s every activity and use this data to calculate, through dead reckoning, its position over long distances. INS is valid to within a few kilometers even after flying for many hours. But OB-1303 was a Boeing 727 built-in 1969 for short-haul flights over land, and it nearly certainly didn’t have an INS.

That implies that the staff would have had to navigate by dead reckoning manually. It’s very simple to make a blunder while doing this, and if they made an error early in the flight, it would compound over time because each calculation relies on the previous ones being accurate. Furthermore, this staff was used to flying domestic flights in Peru with occasional trips to Miami, and perhaps also regional flights in the Mediterranean with Air Malta, where they were never too far from land. Had they ever crossed an ocean by dead reckoning before? I would bet they hadn’t. They may well have been set up to fail by their ineffective equipment and inadequate experience.

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