Timeline: Swissair 111 crash investigation

A four-year, $57-million investigation into the

On the night of Sept. 2, 1998, Swissair Flight 111 was following its regular course from New York to Geneva. As it flew near the Nova Scotia coast, the cockpit filled with smoke.

The pilots put on emergency masks and manoeuvred the plane to dump fuel into the Atlantic Ocean in preparation for an emergency landing in Halifax. They never made it. As they circled, the Boeing MD-11 plunged into the ocean off Peggys Cove. All 229 people aboard the plane died.

The recovery effort was massive and involved official agencies and an outpouring of aid from local communities and volunteers. By Oct. 2, more than 3,000 people had become involved in the effort, including representatives from the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Coast Guard, the RCMP and the United States Navy.

Lost cargo from the flight included currency, diamonds, jewelry and Pablo Picasso's The Painter. At the time, the painting's value was estimated at $1.5 million.

Timeline of the investigation

Sept. 2, 1998

10:10 p.m. AT The flight crew of Flight 111 detects an unusual odour in the cockpit.

10:12 p.m. There's no unusual smoke in the cabin, and the crew suspects the smell is coming from the air conditioning system. A decision is made to divert and land the plane, possibly in Bangor, Me., or Boston, Mass.

10:14 p.m. Smoke is visible in the cockpit and Flight 111 declares Pan Pan Pan. That's an international signal indicating a problem that's not yet an emergency. The pilot requests a diversion to Boston.

10:16 p.m. The flight crew puts on oxygen masks and the plane turns to land in Boston. The pilot is then advised that Halifax would be a closer landing site, and the plane heads in that direction.

10:21 p.m. Flight 111 informs Halifax's flight control centre it must dump fuel before landing. The plane turns in preparation to do that.

10:24 p.m. The pilot declares a state of emergency and takes manual control of the aircraft.

10:25 p.m. Halifax loses contact with the plane.

Vic Gerden, lead investigator into the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Peggys Cove, N.S., stands in front of the plane's cockpit at the reconstruction hangar at CFB Shearwater on May 27, 1999. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

10:31 p.m. Swissair Flight 111 strikes the water nose first and almost upside down, killing all 229 onboard.

Key dates

Sept. 6, 1998

Divers recover one flight data recorder in the Atlantic, nine kilometres from Peggys Cove. They also locate three large pieces of the plane's fuselage.

Sept. 7, 1998

A multinational team of investigators begins analyzing the recorder.

Sept. 9, 1998

A memorial service for the 229 victims takes place near Peggys Cove, in Indian Harbour.

Sept. 11, 1998

The cockpit voice recorder is found 55 metres below the ocean surface. So far, four victims have been identified from the recovered remains.

Sept. 29, 1998

Thirty-four victims have been identified.

Oct. 1, 1998

U.S. aviation officials raise questions about the type of insulation that was aboard the plane.

Oct. 8, 1998 

Officials say all accessible human remains have been found and 78 victims identified.

Oct. 29, 1998 

Swissair decides to turn off individual in-flight entertainment systems on its MD-11s and Boeing 747s based on preliminary investigations by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Dec. 22, 1998

TSB issues an aviation safety advisory to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, noting anomalies in cockpit wiring.

Feb. 1, 1999

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada says it is more than $20 million over budget because of the cost of the investigation.

Feb. 10, 1999

The chief investigator says the Flight 111 fire extinguishers were either spent or partly spent. However, he says it isn't known if their discharge happened before or because of the crash.

March 1, 1999

Swissair says it will compensate families of Europeans and Americans equally.

April 9, 1999

A family member looks out towards the crash site at the Swissair Flight 111 memorial at Bayswater Beach, N.S. on Sept. 2, 2008. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Nova Scotia government decides to commemorate the victims by erecting three memorials outside Peggys Cove.

May 13, 1999

The Nova Scotia government decides to bury the unidentified remains recovered after the crash in a common grave overlooking the ocean in the community of Bayswater. Family members are upset over this plan. The Nova Scotia medical examiner's office had said many of the remains were difficult to identify because they were so small.

Aug. 5, 1999

Swissair and Boeing Co. accept liability and offer victims' families full compensation damages. However, the airline and aircraft maker say they are not responsible for the crash.

Sept. 1-3, 1999

Memorial services are held near Peggys Cove to mark the first anniversary of the accident. Family visits to the investigation site are organized as part of services. Many families visit the plane reconstruction in CFB Shearwater Hangar.

Sept. 2, 1999

One year after the crash, investigators have pointed out some possible contributing factors: wiring that chafes easily, and flammable insulation. Although nothing has been proved at this point, safety officials have started making preventative moves. The Transportation Safety Board plans to dredge the ocean floor at the crash site. It hopes the key to uncovering the cause of the crash can be found in the tiny pieces of plane still at the bottom of the sea.

Sept. 9, 1999

Swissair launches a legal action against Interactive Flight Technologies Inc., the maker of the entertainment system that was installed on Swissair's MD-11s.

At the same time, the families reject Swissair's and Boeing Co.'s offer of full compensatory damages. Families are seeking $16 billion US in damages from Swissair and $3.8 billion US from DuPont Co., saying the metalized Mylar covering the insulation in the plane helped spread the fire.

Dec. 15, 1999

Wreckage recovery is complete. About 98 per cent of the aircraft, by weight, was recovered.

May 25, 2000

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issues final rules ordering operators of 719 MD-80, MD-88, MD-90, DC-10 and MD-11 aircraft to replace insulation blankets covered with metalized Mylar, saying they are too flammable.

Aug. 30, 2000

Canada's Transportation Safety Board releases a preliminary report, which chronicles the events leading up to the fatal crash. The TSB says much of its investigation has focused on where, why and how the fire started. The board says it picked up more than two million pieces of wreckage, some as small as a $1 coin. A major part of the investigation has been the examination, partial reconstruction and documentation of aircraft debris at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater.

Visitors view the Swissair Flight 111 memorial at Whalesback, near Peggys Cove, on Sept. 1, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Dec. 4, 2000

Canada's Transportation Safety Board releases five safety recommendations. The board wants potential fire hazard areas on aircraft identified so detection of a fire can be improved. The report does not include any conclusions about the cause of the crash.

Aug. 8, 2001

Investigators focus on aisle lights as possible ignition sources. Investigators have found more instances of overheating. In three other MD-11s, the aisle light bulb temperature rose as high as 200 C. Additional testing showed that aisle light bulbs on MD-11s can draw electric current levels 143 per cent higher than they were built to withstand.

Aug. 28, 2001

The Transportation Safety Board issues three recommendations to improve airline safety.

  • Toughen the flammability standards for all materials used in airplanes. The emphasis until then had been on walls and seat cushions.
  • Create more stringent certification standards for electrical wires. The board says standards should include more realistic testing covering all the ways wires can fail.
  • Evaluate all systems in terms of their impact on an in-flight fire. It says current systems can aggravate fires, turning a minor scare into a full-blown tragedy.

Dec. 10, 2001

Transportation officials call for an industry-wide review of the way emergency instruments are displayed in airplane cockpits.

Jan. 14, 2003

A group of families of Swissair victims plans to establish a scholarship fund for Nova Scotia high school students, saying it's a way of repaying the province for its generosity.

March 27, 2003

The Transportation Safety Board issues its final report after a $57-million investigation, attributing the crash to an in-flight fire caused by faulty wiring. Investigators concluded that the flames fed off the surrounding flammable thermal acoustic insulation materials called metallized polyethylene terephthalate. The TSB made 23 recommendations based on its findings.

May 2007:

The Swissair Flight 111 air traffic control tapes are released to The Canadian Press after a court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

September 2008

Ten years after the crash, 18 of the 23 recommendations have an "active status," meaning the board is still trying to solve a particular safety issue, and tracking regulators and manufacturers that haven't followed its recommendations.