It’s the stuff of nightmares, but for the passengers and crew on Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 it was definitely happening. And as the reality of the situation began to present itself to the passengers, the horror on board can only be imagined. The flight’s fate became a tragedy; one that’s been shrouded in mystery for too long.
More than three decades since the accident happened, a team of mountaineers have discovered an important part of the plane that could reveal what actually occurred during that fateful day. But how had it remained undetected for so long?
Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 took off from Asunción, Paraguay on New Year’s Day, 1985. Its final destination was supposed to be Miami, Florida but it was also scheduled to stop in La Paz, Bolivia and Guayaquil, Ecuador on the way.
There were 29 people on the flight that day, including Marian Davis, the spouse of Paraguay’s U.S. Ambassador. No one, however, would survive the terrible accident that tragically occurred just a few hours after takeoff.
When the plane was getting close to La Paz, the pilot informed the airport’s ground-control staff that he was due to land in ten minutes. But the touchdown never happened; instead, for reasons unknown, the plane steered dramatically off course.
Just 25 miles from El Alto Airport, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 crashed into Mt. Illimani, high in the Bolivian Andes. At almost 20,000 feet, the crash site remains the highest area of an accident involving a commercial aircraft.
Yet it wasn’t until the following October that the National Transportation Safety Board sent an air-accident investigator to the crash scene. Unfortunately, conditions this high up were going to make the job extremely difficult.
The wreckage, which was spread far and wide, was blanketed by snow. And so despite their best efforts, the U.S. team weren’t able to find the plane’s black boxes. Consequently, they couldn’t say with any certainty what had caused the accident.
Fast forward a whole generation, to June 2016, and an exciting new discovery might shed some light on the mystery. This is when a pair of intrepid explorers discovered what could be Flight 980’s long-lost black boxes.
The debris was discovered by Isaac Stoner and Dan Futrell, a pair of amateur adventurers from Boston. They have long been fascinated by missing planes and unexplained accidents, so they set their sites on discovering what really happened to Flight 980.
“Dan and I are both remarkably average dudes: average height, average weight, average athletic ability,” Isaac wrote on his blog before setting off for the Andes. “And yet here we are, about to try to do something pretty non-average.”
The two friends hadn’t made a snap decision; if they were heading out to Bolivia then they were going to do it properly. And so they spent the next 12 months planning what promised to be a trip of a lifetime.
As well as pushing themselves physically and mentally, the buddies wanted to return with the ultimate adventure story. If they succeeded in in their goal, Futrell and Stoner believed they might also be able to bring some closure to those who had lost family members on the ill-fated flight.
After months of training and preparation, the intrepid pair were finally ready to begin their expedition in May 2016. They headed out to Bolivia from Boston for the start of what would be an epic journey.
It took weeks of roaming, but Futrell and Stoner finally reached the base of Mt. Illimani. After a 15-hour ascent to a dizziness-inducing height of 20,000 feet, the brave explorers arrived at the crash site.
On the expedition’s first day the amateur mountaineers found some mangled pieces of metal that looked like they could belong to Flight 980. But what they found next would blow their minds.
On June 4, 2016, Futrell revealed that he and Stoner had found the cockpit voice recorder for Flight 980 – along with parts of the plane’s other black box. It was an incredible achievement for the two explorers.
This pair of amateur mountaineers had somehow been able to discover something that seasoned professionals hadn’t. The weather, however, hadn’t been kind to the debris – could the black box reveal anything after spending so long on the mountain?
That remains to be seen; three decades is a long time to reside on the hostile Mt. Illimani. Futrell and Stoner’s find, however, at least offers hope that the mystery behind Flight 980 could at least be partially unraveled.
Soon after releasing news of the discovery on the expedition blog, Futrell was contacted by relatives who’d lost family members in the crash. They thanked him and Stoner for their efforts to finally uncover the truth, for these amateur explorers have, remarkably, got closer to doing so than anybody else.