Cold Case – Mobile phones vs. Wideroe Flight 710

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Last year, the Norwegian aviation accident investigation board reopened a 23-year-old case involving a Wideroe Dash 7 four-engine turboprop that slammed into a mountain on approach to Bronnoysund, Norway in May 1988. All 33 passengers and 3 crew members were killed.

The final results of that “supplementary” investigation are in, and conspiracy theorists and Luddites may not be happy with the results, particularly with mobile phones and other gadgets becoming ubiquitous in the cockpit and cabin.

The “new” evidence that caused officials to reopen the case? A witness to the original crash (a passenger who deplaned in Namsos before the ill-fated flight took off) came to the Board in May 2013 with a problem. He had told accident investigators in 1988 that he had seen a passenger sitting in the observer’s seat in the cockpit carrying a mobile phone when he deplaned. The original investigation noted that the jump seat passenger remained in the jump seat for the accident leg, but there was no mention of mobile phones in the final accident report, published in 1989.

That report revealed that the crew had flown into a mountain (see the only obstruction shown on the approach plate below) during a non-precision VOR/DME approach to Bronnoysund in foggy weather. What the investigators could not determine was why the pilots began descending from an intermediate holding altitude of 1,500 ft. at 8 nm. from the airport rather than at 4 nm., as required by Wideroe's operating procedures (the published approach allowed a descent to 1,200 ft. at 6 nm. from the airport). All 33 passengers and three crew members were killed. 

 

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Based on the deplaning passenger’s report, the Board launched the supplementary investigation to determine whether radiation from mobile phones could have caused faulty instrument readings that could have led the pilots to descend too early. Investigators noted that the sheriff’s department report from the 1988 accident mentioned that two mobile phones were found at the crash site, a Mobira MD 50NA (shown below) and a Mobira CU 59D, the very large cell phones from that era. 

 

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The report stated that the phone telephone company was not able to say whether those phones had been used on the day of the accident.

The Board limited its investigation to the potential effects of the cell phones in terms of possible loss of control through the autopilot, erroneous horizontal navigation and vertical navigation, assuming a worst case scenario of both phones turned on. It  could find no evidence of any wrongdoing by the mobile phones.

“Based on this supplementary investigation…. the [Board] is of the opinion that the course of events was not influenced by interference from the mobile telephones on board”, the new report states.

It’s not clear if the reopening of one cold case may be precedent for the opening of others from that era, based on eyewitness accounts of cells phones, laptops or other Wi-Fi or transmitting devices being or board, or from those picked up at the accident site.

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