By Paul Richardson
On New Year’s Day in 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, carrying 29 passengers and a cargo of contraband, crashed into the side of a 21,112-foot mountain in Bolivia. For decades conspiracy theories abounded as the wreckage remained inaccessible.
So now the mystery. A plane crash in nearly inaccessible terrain. A foreign government fails to investigate thoroughly. Missing black boxes. No bodies or blood. An airline that was later implicated in large-scale cocaine smuggling, then went bankrupt. And… a bunch of crocodile skins.
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, a retired fighter jock.
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. By the time it crashed, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 would have been just about ready to land.
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. 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. 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. At roughly 20,000 feet, it was cleared to descend to 18,000 feet when it plowed straight into a mountain.
In all, at least five expeditions have climbed Mt. 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 conclusion: the plane flew into a mountain.
As time passed, however, details emerged that invited speculation among South American journalists, the fam¬ilies 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.
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.
Then, in 2016, two friends from Boston, Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner, organized an expedition that
would blow the case wide open.
The longtime missing black box was located, its position finally revealed in the glacial ice. And it revealed that apparently an onboard bomb went off, depressurized the plane, and sucked all the bodies out of the cabin. To this day, after numerous expeditions, not one body, not one body part, not one bloodstain has been found.
But the mystery is partially solved.
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