What Happened to Eastern Airlines Flight 980?
On New Year's Day in 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 was carrying 29 passengers and a hell of a lot of contraband when it crashed into the side of a 21,112-foot mountain in Bolivia. For decades conspiracy theories abounded as the wreckage remained inaccessible, the bodies unrecovered, the black box missing. Then two friends from Boston organized an expedition that would blow the case wide open.
By the time it crashed, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 would have been just about ready to land. Beverage carts stowed, seat backs upright, tray tables locked. The 29 people on board would have just heard the engines change pitch and felt the nose dip slightly, seat belts tugging at their stomachs.
One imagines a focused cockpit. Pilot Larry Campbell was responsible for the safety of everyone on the flight, and this was just his second landing in the Bolivian city of La Paz. Copilot Ken Rhodes was a straightforward military man. No foolishness, especially when descending through a mountain valley in bad weather. Sitting behind both, flight engineer Mark Bird was a retired fighter jock. In the Air Force, he was known for buzzing the tower and other hijinks, but he’d joined Miami-based Eastern only a few months before, and during a tricky approach in the middle of a thunderstorm would not have been the moment to chime in.
On January 1, 1985, the mostly empty Boeing 727 was headed from Asunción, Paraguay, to Miami, with stopovers in Bolivia and Ecuador. Landing in La Paz was always difficult. Ground controllers there had no radar—and what navigational equipment they did have was spotty—so they relied on the cockpit crew to track their own position.
Why Couldn't Investigators Reach the Crash Site?We explore the science of altitude on the expanded audio version of the story.
At 13,325 feet, El Alto International, which serves La Paz, is the highest international airport in the world. The air is so thin that planes land at 200 miles per hour because they would fall out of the sky at the usual 140. Air brakes find less purchase here, so the runway is more than twice the normal length. The airport is so high that, as the plane dropped toward La Paz, the pilots would have worn oxygen masks until they reached the gate, per FAA regulations. Passengers would have felt the altitude’s effects as the cabin depressurized: increased heart rate, deeper breaths, fuzzy thoughts.
The last anyone heard from the jet was at 8:38 P.M. Eastern time. According to ground controllers, the flight was about 30 miles from the airport and cruising on track at roughly 20,000 feet. It was cleared to descend to 18,000 feet when it plowed straight into a mountain.
A team of alpinists couldn't locate the plane's black box. Stranger than that, no one found any bodies at the crash site. Or blood.
Mount Illimani, a 21,122-foot mass of rocks and glaciers rising from the eastern edge of Bolivia’s Altiplano region, towers over La Paz. The Andean mountain is so textured by ridgelines, high peaks, and shadows that, viewed from the city, it seems to move and change shape throughout the day.
Flight 980 hit nose first on the back side of Illimani, just below the summit. It probably cartwheeled forward, the fuselage bursting and splattering across the mountain like a dry snowball hitting a tree. Nearby villagers said it shook the whole valley. The airport’s radio registered only a single click.
It took a full day to locate the wreckage. Once the Bolivian air force saw it on the peak, it mobilized a team to get to the crash site, but a storm had dumped several feet of snow, and avalanches turned them back. The Bolivian team was soon followed by representatives of the U.S. embassy in La Paz and those from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), the two organizations responsible for investigating crashes by U.S. airlines. But none of them were acclimatized enough to do any climbing. The agencies asked to borrow a high-altitude helicopter from Peru, but Bolivia wouldn’t allow it inside the country.
“The Bolivian government did not want the world to know that the Peruvians had a better helicopter than they did,” says Bud Leppard, chairman of the ALPA Accident Analysis Board, who departed for La Paz immediately after hearing about the crash. Eventually permission was granted, and Leppard devised a plan to reach the crash site by jumping off the helicopter as it flew above the ground at 21,000 feet, then skiing down to the plane. Better judgment prevailed when he realized that the chopper couldn’t hover at that altitude.
Sikorsky Aircraft shipped an experimental high-altitude helicopter to Bolivia that could drop Leppard off at the crash site, but the mechanics sent to reassemble it were so altitude-sick upon landing in La Paz that several days passed before they could do any work. When they did get it flying, bad weather at the summit kept everyone in the chopper.
One Bolivian climber, Bernardo Guarachi, apparently made it up to the wreckage on foot two days after the crash but then said almost nothing about his findings. When the Bolivian government filed an official—but inconclusive—crash report a year later, Guarachi wasn’t named in it. It was unclear who’d sent him in the first place.
Two months after the crash, in March 1985, a private expedition of Bolivian alpinists commissioned by Ray Valdes, an Eastern flight engineer who would have been on board if he hadn’t swapped shifts, successfully navigated the treacherous mix of rock and ice. The small team encountered wreckage and luggage, but they couldn’t locate the plane’s black box. Stranger than that, no one found any bodies at the crash site. Or blood.
Another private expedition went up in July 1985, followed by NTSB investigators in October, but neither was able to spend more than a single day at the crash site.
Not one body, not one body part, no bloodstains. Why not?” said former Eastern pilot George Jehn. “It’s the single greatest aviation mystery of the 20th century.”
In all, at least five expeditions have climbed Illimani in search of the wreckage over the past 30 years. None of them found any bodies or flight recorders, nor could anybody establish what brought down the plane. Officially, it was designated a “controlled flight into terrain,” which means it couldn’t be blamed on a bird strike or an engine malfunction or hijackers. The NTSB ultimately filed its own report to supplement the Bolivian one, but it came to the same flat conclusion: the plane was destroyed because it ran into a mountain.
As time passed, however, details emerged that invited speculation among South American journalists, the families of the victims, and anyone else still following the story. The flight crashed because of an equipment malfunction; no, the crew was new to the route and flying in bad weather; no, the Paraguayan mafia blew it up because the country’s richest man was on board; no, Eastern Air Lines was running drugs; no, it was an attempted political assassination—someone took down the flight to get at the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, Arthur Davis, who was supposed to be aboard but changed his plans at the last minute.
The thing is, even the more outlandish theories had some ring of truth. Five members of Paraguay’s prominent Matalón family, who built an empire selling home appliances, were on the flight. The wife of the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay—Marian Davis, who had continued on without her husband—died in the crash. In 1986, a criminal indictment against 22 Eastern baggage handlers revealed that, for three years, the airline had indeed been used to deliver weekly shipments of 300 pounds of cocaine from South America to Miami. (Eastern declared bankruptcy in 1989 and dissolved in 1991.)
So the mystery deepened. Theories festered and grew. Where were the flight recorders? Where were the bodies?
One of the more comprehensive explanations came from George Jehn, a former Eastern pilot who published a 2014 book about the crash called Final Destination: Disaster. In it he theorizes that a bomb went off, depressurized the plane, and sucked all the bodies out of the cabin. Then he speculates that either Eastern or the NTSB hired Bernardo Guarachi to get rid of the flight recorders as a way of halting further inquiry into the crash, for fear that a full investigation would have revealed that the airline was running drugs for President Ronald Reagan. It’s a convoluted plot, too far-fetched to take seriously, but seductive as hell to those looking to explain the inexplicable.
“Not one body, not one body part, no bloodstains. Why not?” Jehn said when we spoke in May. “It’s the single greatest aviation mystery of the 20th century.”
But the case of Flight 980 is about as cold as they come. Any remaining clues have been locked in the ice of a Bolivian glacier for decades. Trying to solve it would combine the dangers of high-altitude mountaineering with the long odds of treasure hunting—a losing hand almost every time. So here’s another question worth asking: What sort of foolhardy seeker suddenly takes an interest in a 30-year-old plane crash?
Dan Futrell is an affable, loud, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. Impulsive. Persistent. In college he was the Gonzaga bulldog mascot at basketball games, dancing and making costumed mischief during time-outs. After graduating in 2005, he served two tours in Iraq. He completed Army Ranger School but decided to move on to civilian life. Now 33, he manages people and spreadsheets for an Internet company in Boston, where he lives.
To say that he misses the physical challenge of soldiering is an understatement, but that’s his preface when you ask him what kicked off his interest in the crash. Since leaving the Army, he’s made a habit of regularly scheduling sufferfests—he once took aim at all seven peaks in New England named after presidents and bagged them in one day. A little more than a year ago, he stumbled across a Wikipedia list of unrecovered flight recorders. Next to Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, the article listed “inaccessible terrain” as the reason the flight recorders had never been found.
“Challenge accepted,” he wrote on his blog.
Isaac Stoner, Dan’s roommate, was the first to hear his let’s-go-find-it sales pitch. Though they’ve known each other only two years, they act and argue like brothers. But where Dan has dark hair, weary eyes, and an expressive face with many angles, Isaac has the blond hair and classically handsome features of a small-market news anchor. Dan is spontaneous and emotional; Isaac is calm and analytical. After the Army, Dan attended grad school at Harvard; Isaac worked in biotech and then went to MIT.
Finding the box sounded pretty good to Isaac. And it took priority over their other screwball ideas, like running a marathon in a suit or attempting to set the world record in the pieathlon, a 3.14-mile race in which you eat a whole pie.
Most people still tracking this plane crash have deeply personal, often tragic reasons to care about it but very little capacity for travel and risk. Dan and Isaac had no reason but the adventure. They had no sponsorships, benefactors, or Kickstarter funding—just a crazy plan, a bit of money in the bank, and two weeks’ vacation.
The first step was to divvy up the responsibilities. Dan was in charge of learning about the crash and its history, figuring out where to start searching, and blogging about the trip. Isaac researched the altitude, weather, skills they’d need to learn, and contingencies if things didn’t go smoothly—in short, he was tasked with keeping them alive.
They embarked on a five-month training plan that consisted of running stairs at the Harvard football stadium and sleeping in a Hypoxico altitude-simulation tent. Four weeks before wheels up, a friend of a friend sent me a link to their blog and relayed that they’d be happy to have me along. Two days later, I was on the phone ordering my own altitude tent.
Our primary search area was not the crash site itself, but a roughly one-square-mile patch of glacial moraine 3,000 feet below it. Flight 980 hit a saddle on the south side of Illimani, near the top, and for the past 31 years plane parts have been sliding down the mountain in icefalls, plunging over a cliff, and then slowly grinding downhill toward a glacier at the bottom.
The Bolivian summer and fall of 2016 (the Northern Hemisphere’s winter and spring) had been warm and rainy, and we were told that the glacier had melted far up the mountain. The moraine—and the wreckage—was more exposed than ever. We planned to spend four days searching the debris field at about 16,000 feet, then another searching the original crash site at 19,600 feet.
Which is how we find ourselves standing amid a heap of rental gear in a climbing shop in La Paz, three days after leaving the U.S. Off to one side, I’m nauseous and dizzy from climbing a single flight of stairs. We’re at 13,000 feet, but to me it feels like the summit of Everest. Isaac says it looks like I got hit by a large bus. He says he got hit by a smaller one.
Meanwhile, our climbing guide, Robert Rauch, has fallen asleep in his camping chair. Fifty-nine years old, born in Germany but living in Bolivia for the past 20 years, Robert has pioneered more than a hundred routes in the country, including three on Illimani’s south side. His house has an entire room devoted to equipment for different kinds of pull-ups. He does not own a couch. Dan calls him “the most interesting guide
in the world.”
Rauch had taken an interest in the crash as well. He’d traveled through the debris field while scouting routes on Illimani and thought that a concerted, methodical search of the area might turn up the recorders and bodies. “The whole area will lie in front of us like a Google map,” he’d written in an e-mail.
A few minutes later, our expedition’s cook, Jose Lazo, shows up. He’s Aymara—one of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples—and he and Robert are soon telling stories about the time Jose was chased by a bear, the time Robert was chased by a condor, the time an angry mob chased the two of them out of Jose’s village and they fled 300 miles in seven days, crossing jungles and alligator-infested rivers to get back to La Paz. Dan calls him “the most interesting cook in the world.”
Back in the store, Isaac is trying to convince Dan to rent warmer snow pants; Dan is rolling his eyes. Robert is down to his skivvies, having dropped trou in the middle of the shop to rub his sore left knee with an herbal balm he bought on the street.
I’m still feeling queasy, resting on a box of something or other, when a climber with a man bun sits next to me and says that a week of wind sprints before we start will help me adapt to the altitude.
“When do you leave?” he asks.
To get to Mount Illimani, we tie our bags to the roof of a rented Land Cruiser and tell the driver to head south from La Paz, following the Irpavi River all the way down to 3,000 feet, where the air feels soupy and rich and our pulses finally find the low side of 70. I feel remarkably better. Then we cross the river and drive to 12,000.
At least it’s a rest day. Our only responsibility is riding in a car and then unloading our overstuffed backpacks and duffel bags at Mesa Khala, an abandoned tungsten mine at 15,400 feet that’s a 45-minute hike from the lower debris field. As we drive up the other side of the steep valley, past an active uranium mine, we round a corner and see 50 yards of impassable rock blocking the road.
“What if we just drive faster?” Dan says.
We’re still two miles and about 3,000 vertical feet below our base camp at Mesa Khala, and we’re going to have to hike it. So much for the rest day.
Dan and Robert walk to the uranium mine and return ten minutes later.
“Cinco porters-o,” Dan tells us, exhausting his knowledge of Spanish. “They’ll carry our shit-o. Up the mountain-o.”
This is great news, except we packed like we were driving all the way to base camp, so even five porters won’t be enough. “This is how Livingstone traveled,” Isaac says, surveying the explosion of gear as we hastily jettison nonessential items—candy, notebooks, an extra stove, more candy—to send back in the 4×4.
The ascent doesn’t kill us, but it tries. Jose sets the route, and it turns out that Aymara-style climbing consists of walking straight up the fall line. By the halfway point, I’m resting every few steps.
Four hours later, we’ve covered the two miles to Mesa Khala. Setting up camp among the ruins, we find plane parts that locals must have brought to the mine from the debris field. Scrutinizing and discussing each one in detail, we’re transfixed, as if this random piece of aluminum tubing or that tiny drive shaft or the mechanism from an inflatable life vest might shed light on what brought down the aircraft.
The next morning, we hike to the steep glacial moraine that marks the edge of the debris field and find more parts on the ridge. It’s exciting. This is exactly what Dan and Isaac spent five months imagining a Bolivian mystery adventure would be like—scattered clues leading to a search area laid out in front of them like a Google map.
In fact, it was only recently that this trip went from being a simple treasure hunt to something heavier, a story about tangible grief and unexplainable loss. Only recently did they meet Stacey Greer.
Greer has a few very specific memories of her dad, flight engineer Mark Bird. Talking on his radio. Eskimo kisses. The two of them snuggling in his recliner. She was three years old when the plane crashed.
“My mom didn’t really talk about it a lot,” Greer told me when I called her at her home in Fort Benning, Georgia, a few weeks before we left for Bolivia. “She just said that he had been in a plane crash. As a kid, your imagination runs wild. You always ask yourself, Why couldn’t he just jump out of the plane? Crazy stuff like that.”
She didn’t fully understand what had happened until she watched the video of his memorial service as a teenager.
“It was just my dad’s flight helmet and a picture of him. It clicked,” she said. “There was no casket. There was no body.”
In the past few years, Greer, now 34, has started questioning the official narrative that the crash site was too difficult and dangerous to reach. She read George Jehn’s book and contacted him by e-mail; he sent her a link to Dan and Isaac’s blog. A former Army nurse who met her husband in Iraq, she forged a quick connection with Dan, who was also in the Army and raised by a single parent.
But where Dan carefully avoids any mention of conspiracy, favoring a more straightforward interpretation of the crash, Greer seems to have embraced the idea.
“It’s the only plane crash that has never been properly investigated by the NTSB,” she said. “And then a few years later, Eastern goes under.”
In total, Flight 980 carried 19 passengers and ten crew. Eight were Americans, five of whom worked for Eastern, and seven were Paraguayans, five of whom were part of the Matalón family. There were also nine Korean passengers and five Chilean flight attendants.
With seating for 189 passengers, the crash could have been far more deadly, and Greer never heard from any of the other families. To her it felt like everything was immediately swept under the rug. The missing bodies aren’t so much a mystery as a sign that the general public stopped caring.
“People need closure,” she said. “Imagine one of your family members on the mountain for years, and their body has been frozen over and over and over again.”
Robert finds the first body part. It’s a femur, roughly 14 inches long and so dry that it’s almost mummified. You can see skin, muscle, and fat still attached.
“That’s pretty gruesome,” Dan says. “It just sheared right off in the crash.”
Encased in ice for more than a quarter-century, the bone likely spent several years sliding down the mountain from the crash site, several seconds falling over a 3,000-foot cliff, and—judging by the milky white marrow still visible inside the bone and its location at the base of a rapidly melting glacier—perhaps only months in the sun before being found by us. It’s 1 P.M. on our first day of searching.
“Shall we say some words?” Isaac asks.
Sure, but no one can really think of anything.
“Shall we bury it?” Dan says.
They dig a small grave, stacking rocks as a marker. Not long after, we find another bone—probably a tibia. Then, a few feet away, cervical vertebrae with frayed nerves still visible down the spinal column.
As we search, the temperature swings wildly between T-shirt weather in the sun and down-jacket weather in the shade. Every hour or so, a massive block of ice—possibly carrying more plane parts—drops off the saddle and roars toward us before disintegrating into a sugary white cloud.
We find another bone—probably a tibia. Then, a few feet away, cervical vertebrae with frayed nerves still visible down the spinal column.
Our plan was to walk a precise and thorough grid. But the search area is longer and thinner than we anticipated, a lifeless alpine moraine filled with boulder gardens and ice fields, walled off on three sides by vertical rock. Sixty-foot-tall glacier fragments and ten-foot-deep canyons force us off our pattern. So instead we spend the morning scrambling between pieces of wreckage on our own, congregating whenever anyone finds something interesting.
This happens quite a bit. There are plane parts everywhere. First we discover pieces of fuselage and a jet engine, then wiring and toggle switches and seat belts and children’s shoes. Then Robert finds a black plastic box.
“That’s a black box,” Isaac says when Robert holds it up. “Not the black box.”
We see an astonishing number of contraband crocodile and snakeskins, which were probably being smuggled to Miami to be made into black-market goods like shoes and handbags.
Dan gets on the radio to tell us that he found a roll of magnetic tape. “This is either from one of the black boxes,” he says, “or it has a great 1985 movie on it.”
Isaac and Dan also both find a few chunks of orange metal, which is exciting because—despite the name—flight recorders are painted international orange to help investigators locate them. But the pieces seem too trashed to have come from supposedly indestructible boxes.
Most planes carry two flight recorders: the cockpit voice recorder, which documents conversation among the pilots and the engineer, and the flight-data recorder, which notes the status of the plane’s mechanical systems several times per second.
Current specifications require that a flight recorder’s metal case be capable of withstanding temperatures of 2,000 degrees, underwater depths of 20,000 feet, and impacts up to 3,400 times the force of gravity. To hit these marks, the outer shell is made from a blend of titanium and steel. It also must have an underwater locator beacon that emits a ping for 30 days.
These standards weren’t so rigorous and uniform in 1985, and we couldn’t nail down which type of recorders were on Flight 980, in part because the airline has been shuttered for 27 years. Most of Eastern’s planes used a model of flight recorder manufactured by Fairchild that recorded via magnetic tape. But not all of them. So aside from the color, we aren’t really sure what the black box will look like.
Dan is adamant that the orange metal pieces are part of the flight recorders—but they’re aluminum, not titanium or steel. The metal must be a piece of something else on the plane; the tape could just be a home video, stashed in luggage. It feels like our discoveries have only prompted more questions: What happened on all those other expeditions? Why didn’t they find any body parts? And could you believe all those snakeskins?
In La Paz, the theories surrounding Flight 980 have less to do with missing bodies and cover-ups and more with the dubious rumor that Enrique Matalón—then the richest man in Paraguay—supposedly carried $20 million on board in a duffel bag.
In 2006, a Bolivian climbing guide named Roberto Gomez got wind that plane parts were turning up in the glacier below the crash site. If the wreckage was turning up, he thought there might also be a bag of money. Gomez and his team spent three days searching the glacier.
“The strangest thing we found was lizard skins,” Gomez says when we meet in his office in La Paz. “But it was a really sad scene, because we found a lot of children’s clothes, and many pictures.”
As Gomez tells his story, it’s clear that the Bolivian and American versions of this mystery diverge fairly quickly. The only place they overlap is at the beginning, when Bernardo Guarachi made it to the crash site and then clammed up about what he saw there.
In his book, George Jehn has a lot of questions for Guarachi. “Was he paid? If so, who paid him?” he writes. “What was his specific mission? What did he discover? Did he take pictures? Did he see or recover the recorders? Why didn’t the NTSB demand answers to these important questions?”
Oddly, though, Jehn never actually attempted to find Guarachi, even though he’s a fairly prominent climbing guide in Bolivia and is open to being interviewed when I contact him.
Born in Bolivia but raised in Chile, Guarachi returned to La Paz to look for work when he was 19. After being taken in by a more experienced guide in Bolivia, he went to Germany for formal training as a mountaineer and came home looking to make his name. He introduced himself at various organizations and said he was available if they ever needed help in the mountains.
He tells me that a man named Royce Fichte from the U.S. embassy contacted him after a Bolivian plane spotted the wreckage of Flight 980 the day after the crash. They met at the airport on short notice—Guarachi didn’t even have time to grab a camera—and took a helicopter toward the mountain. By the time they arrived at Puente Roto, a base camp on the west side, there were already teams assembling from the Red Cross and the Bolivian military.
The team stayed there that night, and the next day Guarachi and two assistants climbed to the crash site while Fichte stayed behind. Partway up, someone on the radio told them to turn around—he wasn’t sure who it was—but Guarachi insisted and finally got permission to keep going. After climbing to the saddle beyond the summit, he could tell they were getting close from the overpowering smell of jet fuel, but he couldn’t see the plane. It was only during a tiny break in the weather that he caught a glimpse and hiked over.
There was wreckage scattered everywhere. The team found open suitcases, papers from the cockpit, crocodile skins, and shoes. Fichte had described where the flight recorders should be, but everything was a mess.
“When you went to the crash site, did you see body parts?” I ask him.
“No bodies,” he says. “Not even a finger. But there was blood. The plane hit the mountain dead-on. Everything disintegrated.”
They slept at the crash site and the next day got word that they would be resupplied from the air and possibly joined by another investigator, who would drop out of a high-altitude helicopter on skis—probably Bud Leppard. But during test runs, the maneuvers were deemed too dangerous, and the supplies never came. Guarachi and his team had to descend.
On the way back down, they saw footprints at their previous camp. They had been followed, but whoever it was didn’t continue to the crash site. They just stopped at the camp and left.
“I don’t think their intention was to rescue us or see what happened to the plane,” Guarachi says. “They were monitoring us.”
At base camp, Guarachi’s team was detained by the Bolivian military, separated, and taken to three different tents.
“They searched us all,” Guarachi says. “My backpack, even our clothing. They got us naked.”
He told them that all he’d found were plane parts and snakeskins. They were taken by helicopter to the airport and interrogated again. The official Bolivian crash report states that there were no bodies or blood, but Guarachi says that’s because he was too scared to talk about what he saw.
“One of the men threatened me,” Guarachi says. “He said, ‘Careful telling anyone about this. I will ruin you.’ ”
We start higher on the search field the next day, marching with purpose toward the glacier. Yesterday it felt like the plane parts were in better shape the higher we climbed, so we start by searching the melting ice itself. Soon we’re finding wheels, pistons, switches, hydraulics, another engine, life jackets, an oxygen tank, cables, alligator skins, and tangled clusters of wires.
Dan and Robert find a piece of metal lodged in ice, chip it out, and then decide not to do that again—there’s not enough oxygen up here to swing a pickax around. By midmorning we’re all thoroughly exhausted, and the novelty of new plane parts has worn off. Back at camp, it felt sort of miraculous to discover wreckage on a mountain, like each piece deserved our attention. But here, in the newly melted ice, there’s an almost comical number of parts.
“I think something happened here,” Isaac deadpans.
“Maybe a plane crash of some kind?” Dan responds.
You can hardly sit and rest without finding something aviation-related in the rocks at your feet. Jose and Robert find a pilot’s jacket half buried in the glacier and start digging it out. Twenty minutes later, I find the cabin’s altimeter.
On the way back to our packs for lunch, Isaac spots a lump of green cloth tied off with thick white yarn and begins to unwrap it.
“I hope it’s not a body part,” Isaac says, embracing the gallows humor that has become a mainstay of the trip. “No body, no body, no body…”
I point out that it’s more likely to be cocaine.
“Cocaine!” Isaac says, comically hopeful. “Cocaine, cocaine, cocaine!”
It isn’t cocaine. It’s a brick of papers in a ziplock bag. And a 1985 Baltimore Orioles schedule. And a plastic toy. And some crayons. And pages from a diary?
Oh. No way. This belongs to Judith Kelly.
In July 1985, Judith Kelly made the second private expedition to the crash site. Her husband, William Kelly, had been director of the Peace Corps in Paraguay and was on Flight 980, headed back to the U.S. When the NTSB’s immediate response was stymied by weather and logistics, Kelly began preparing for her own trip.
She devoted three months to getting in shape, took a mountaineering course in Alaska, and then went to Bolivia. Kelly declined to be interviewed for this article, but she told her story to George Jehn. In his book, Jehn describes how she met with NTSB investigator Jack Young, who died in 2005. Young reportedly told her to move on and put the loss behind her.
“Perhaps you could say that to someone with a broken arm or leg,” she told Jehn. “But not a broken heart.”
Kelly took a few weeks to acclimatize in Bolivia before hiring Bernardo Guarachi to take her up the mountain. They arrived at the wreckage on July 5, and Kelly spent a day reading letters she had written to her husband since the crash. She had also collected letters from the family of other victims. When she was done, she wrapped the package and buried it in the snow, where it began the same slow descent as the plane parts.
Back home, Kelly lobbied Eastern to conduct a more thorough investigation. She’d reached the crash site without any problems, she argued, so there was no reason not to send another team. When that failed, she appeared on the Today show and said the same thing.
A few days later, the NTSB announced an expedition, which embarked in October 1985, after the Bolivian winter, with logistical support from the Bolivian Red Cross. According to a report by lead investigator Gregory Feith, the mission was nearly its own disaster. It describes how, on the first night, porters delivered their supplies to the wrong base camp. When the two parties did connect, they found that the porters had brought tents for only four of the seven people and no stoves or fuel.
“We were able to melt enough snow to make one pot of cold noodle soup that allowed each of us one cup,” Feith wrote.
One investigator developed signs of pulmonary edema—a life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs—and had to descend the next morning; another developed altitude sickness at the crash site. Feith’s team spent a day digging through deep snow around the plane and located the portion of the tail where the flight recorders should have been but weren’t.
It would be decades before anyone went looking for them again.
After finding so much—wreckage, body parts, Judith Kelly’s memorial—Isaac starts to think that the flight recorders have to be here somewhere.
“A couple days ago, I would have told you—I think I did tell you—that I don’t really care about finding the black box,” he says. “But I find myself becoming more and more obsessed.”
The next day, Dan is low-energy, but Isaac’s on fire, scrambling around the debris field trying to cover it all. We crawl through glacier ice melted into curious spires. We hop over crevasses and peer into glacial caves, because we’ve exhausted all the safest places to search.
“Have you found it yet?” Dan and Isaac ask each other every few minutes.
“No, but I’m about to,” the other invariably responds.
At one point, Dan finds a human neck with what looks like a dog tag embedded in the flesh. But when he digs the metal out, it turns out to be just another piece of aluminum. “I was hoping I could get an ID,” Dan says. “But this unlucky guy just took some plane metal straight to the neck.”
By midday we’re beat. Isaac walks 150 yards to his gear and barely makes it back to the group; Dan sits down next to an engine. I can’t stand without feeling like I’ve stepped onto a merry-go-round. We give up. Jose and Robert head back to camp to start dinner; Dan and Isaac say they just want to search a little longer.
But instead of searching, they start digging up a metal beam angled out of the ground. When I ask them why, Isaac says, “I don’t know, I just started digging.”
Just as we’re beginning to accept that we’ve failed, that we still don’t know whether the flight recorders were stolen or destroyed or maybe still covered in ice, that we’ve given up and will have nothing to tell Stacey Greer and George Jehn and all the other people who are still following the crash… Just as we’re coming to terms with all that, something amazing happens: Isaac finds the cockpit voice recorder.
It’s on the ground, ten steps from where we ate lunch, a chunk of smashed metal sitting orange side down in the rocks. Isaac picks it up. Dan comes over to examine it.
There’s a wiring harness on one end, with a group of cables leading inside, labeled CKPT VO RCDR. It’s bright orange, crushed almost beyond recognition. Like many recorders manufactured before the mid-eighties, its outer shell is made of aluminum.
“This is it, this is the black box,” Isaac says.
We’ve been finding pieces of it—of both flight recorders—the entire time.
When we get back to La Paz, Dan and Isaac call Stacey Greer. “Why didn’t anyone find it before?” she says. “It just feels like there are so many unanswered questions.”
Indeed. Why didn’t anyone find the flight recorders on the first, second, or third expeditions? Who threatened Bernardo Guarachi and why? Who was smuggling reptile skins to Miami? What brought the plane down in the first place?
Flying home, we thought we still might have a shot at answering the last one. We had that roll of magnetic tape Dan found on the first day of searching. And based on nothing more than photos we could find online, it looked pretty similar to what would have been inside a flight recorder.
Before we found anything, the plan had been to turn all notable materials over to the U.S. embassy in La Paz. But with orange metal in hand, giving them to a bureaucrat seemed like a good way to get them locked away forever.
When Dan and Isaac got home, they told a friend who had worked at the FAA about what they’d found, and he said, “I just hope you didn’t bring it home.”
By taking the flight recorders and tape back to the U.S., they discovered, they had violated Annex 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, a document that lays out the rules for international air travel. It says that wherever a plane crashes, that country is in charge of the investigation. Moving evidence to a different nation could be seen as undermining that authority.
There’s a wiring harness on one end, with a group of cables leading inside, labeled CKPT VO RCDR. It’s bright orange, crushed almost beyond recognition.
The NTSB told Dan and Isaac that the Bolivian government would have to request the agency’s assistance before it could get involved, and it’s the only agency with equipment to analyze the tape.
Unfortunately, relations between Bolivia and the U.S. are pretty frosty. In 2008, Bolivian president Evo Morales accused both the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia and the Drug Enforcement Administration of plotting a coup and expelled them from the country. Then, in 2013, Morales’s personal plane was forced to land in Austria because of a rumor that Edward Snowden was on board. Morales was so mad he threatened to close the U.S. embassy.
I tried reaching out to retired crash investigators at Boeing and to various aviation museums, hoping that someone might help us figure out whether the tape was from the black box, but no one would touch it until the legal situation was resolved. Meanwhile, we couldn’t get any answers out of La Paz or the Bolivian embassy in Washington. From June to September of 2016, we made phone calls that weren’t returned, sent e-mails that weren’t acknowledged, and mailed certified letters that went unanswered.
“This surprises me not one iota,” George Jehn wrote in an e-mail when I sent him an update. “It’s like that crash is toxic. Nobody wants to go near it.”
Conspiracies breed in the spaces between solid facts, and unless the NTSB decides to further strain diplomatic ties with Bolivia or gets permission to look at the tape and finds usable information—and both scenarios seem pretty unlikely—there will always be gaps in the story of Flight 980. But when you’re solving mysteries, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one. After we got back from Bolivia, we knew that Guarachi didn’t steal the flight recorders and that a bomb didn’t suck all the bodies from the plane before it hit the mountain. As we reevaluated the facts about the flight, a plausible story began to emerge.
The descent into La Paz, for example, was even more difficult than we first realized. In addition to the lack of radar at the airport, language problems sometimes plagued communication between flight crews and controllers on the ground. When Eastern purchased the routes to South America, it issued a memo warning pilots to exercise a “dose of pilot type skepticism” when in contact with the tower. There was little training on how to do this, however. Before going into La Paz, the captain was required only to watch a video about the landing. Then, on his first trip, a check pilot—someone who had flown the route before—would ride in the cockpit.
Flight 980 crashed on what would have been pilot Larry Campbell’s second landing in La Paz. Check captain Joseph Loseth was aboard but had been seated in first class.
What’s more, the navigation technology at Campbell’s disposal was rudimentary. Nine months after the crash, Don McClure, the chairman of the ALPA’s accident-investigation board, was part of a separate inquiry into the overall safety of flying in South America. His report details a number of shortcomings, particularly with an onboard navigation system called Omega. He noted that on flights between Paraguay and Bolivia, the system steered aircraft four miles off course in the direction of Mount Illimani—though this alone wouldn’t have caused Flight 980’s impact.
Meanwhile, the aircraft’s other navigation system, called VOR for very high frequency omnidirectional range, relied on localized radio transmitters that told pilots only where the beacons were, not where the plane was.
“All the navigation facilities on this route are so weak and unreliable that there is no good way to cross-check the Omega,” McClure wrote. Even if the pilots suspected that they were off course, it would have been impossible to verify.
Maybe none of this would have mattered if there wasn’t also a storm southeast of the airport. Maybe a more experienced crew would have gone south around that storm instead of north, toward Illimani. (Or maybe not—other airlines had maps of the valley with terrain hazards labeled prominently, but Eastern didn’t.) We can speculate that the storm, combined with lackluster navigation equipment, inexperience, and bad luck, led Flight 980 straight into the side of Illimani, but it’s still conjecture. Instead of case closed, it’s case slightly less open.
Or maybe that’s missing the real point. In July, Stacey Greer was in Boston for a week of classes and met up with Dan to talk about the expedition and look at pictures of the debris field. He also brought a couple of small plane parts and gave them to her.
“This is my dad, right here,” Stacey said as Dan clunked the pieces down on the table. “This is the closest thing I have to the last time I saw him.”
When her young kids called at bedtime, she had them talk with “the man who found Grandpa’s plane.” Then she and Dan called her mom, Mark Bird’s widow.
“Do you have any idea what happened?” she asked.
“We have lots of ideas,” Dan said. “The problem is we’re no better than anyone else at picking the right one.”
But now that there’s evidence of the bodies and flight recorders, and any notions of mysterious journeys to the summit have been dispelled, the questions we’re left with seem much less nefarious.
Did a storm push the flight off course, or was it a problem with the navigation systems? Did the cockpit crew spot the mountain and try to make a frantic emergency turn? Or were they calmly pulling on the oxygen masks that they would have worn all the way to the gate? Were they sitting in nervous silence as lightning flashed around them and weather beat at the cockpit? Or was Mark Bird wishing everyone a happy new year and telling a joke? If his voice is on the magnetic tape sitting in Dan and Isaac’s kitchen, will anyone ever hear it?