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#IP 1180 22 - 28 May 2017

Revisiting the 1985 Kanishka air crash investigation

It is more than 30 years ago, but we still remember the tragic air crash of Emperor Kanishka, Air India’s Boeing 747, on 23 June 1985 off the coast of Ireland. The plane was flying from Montreal to Delhi via London. Over 300 passengers, most of them of Indian origin, died in the crash.

When a plane flying high suddenly disappears from the radar screen you have to suspect a bomb blast. And those were turbulent times, with a violent agitation raging for the creation of Khalistan, making such a ghastly event even more likely.

To confirm the suspicion of an onboard explosion, however, you need strong and valid scientific evidence that can convince a court of law. The best Indian team for failure analysis and accident investigation was in CSIR-NAL’s Materials Science Division: Dr V Ramachandran, Dr A C Raghuram, Dr R V Krishnan, Mr S Radhakrishnan, with their other colleagues, formed a truly formidable group of ‘detectives’.


This team had unraveled many such puzzles in the past, including the crash landing of an Indian Airlines Boeing 737, coming in from Trivandrum to Madras in 1979, following an explosion in the lavatory. Fortunately, there were no casualties in that mishap.


It was therefore no surprise when Justice B N Kirpal, heading the Court of Enquiry into the Kanishka crash, requested CSIR-NAL’s help to assist the Court. CSIR-NAL asked Dr V Ramachandran to be the chief ‘detective’ of this investigation.


The investigation, in spite of its tragic backdrop, was daunting and thrilling. The Atlantic Ocean was often violent and choppy, the wreckage was widely scattered (spread over 15 square miles), immense, and immersed deep below (6700 ft) on the ocean bed. Hauling up this wreckage was both time-consuming and expensive. Dr Ramachandran’s challenge could be viewed as an optimization problem: How to bring up the smallest quantity of wreckage, in the quickest time, at the least cost, so that it contains enough evidence to satisfy the Court of Enquiry?


Arguably the most riveting account of this adventure, by Nithyanand Rao, has now appeared in Connect, the quarterly newsmagazine from the Archives and Publication Cell of the Indian Institute of Science. It is a compelling narrative where we meet a much younger Dr Ramachandran shuttling between two ships, gazing at underwater video images, peering frequently at his faithful microscope, hardly eating or sleeping – but never apparently feeling tired – and occasionally worrying if an evil shark would gobble him up. “The shark would’ve regretted it; who would want a south Indian vegetarian meal after all that effort?”, chuckles Dr Ramachandran, now 85, but still with those same sparkling eyes.

Srinivas Bhogle


#IP 1179 15 - 21 May 2017

Annual Seminar in Hindi ANSH 2017


#IP 1178 8 - 14 May 2017

Bharat Ratna Dr B R Ambedkar's 126th Birth Anniversary Celebrations 2017 held at CSIR-NAL on 12 May 2017

#IP 1177 1 - 7 May 2017

Nineteenth Technology Day Lecture on "Technology Development-GDP Driver" by Dr. Prahlada, Chairman CSIR-NAL Research Council, Bengaluru on Thursday, 11 May 2017 at 11.00 A.M. at S R Valluri Auditorium, NAL, Bengaluru


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