By Jamie Rieger
On Dec. 12, 1985, radar technician, Steven Donovan was in his quarters at CFB Gander awaiting the pre-Christmas meal that had the senior NCOs and officers serve the young, single soldiers a Christmas dinner.
“I was in my room waiting when the dayshift cook, Greg Shannon came knocking on my door,” said Donovan. “But it was to tell me that a plane had crashed.”
In fact, it was Arrow Air Flight 1285 carrying American troops home to Fort Campbell, Kentucky for the Christmas holidays from Cairo, Egypt.
The plane had just lifted off from Gander, when it stalled, crashed and burned about one-half mile from the runway, killing 248 passengers and eight crew members.
“The local law enforcement called in the military, called us and it started as search and rescue, but it quickly became a search for remains,” said Donovan. “We were out there for two full days. Then the U.S. military brought in a mortuary squadron.”
It was not until then that Donovan and his comrades felt the severity of what had happened.
“We went downtown for a beer after 48 hours of searching and it was then that we were watching the news and saw pictures of all these young soldiers. The average age was 21-22 years old and they were all coming home for Christmas. That plane crash was the largest Canadian aviation disaster at that time,” he said.
Donovan added that there were two primary theories as to what caused Arrow Air Flight 1285 to crash.
“There was some speculation that there was an icing problem, but these soldier were working in Egypt and there was a lot happening over there at the time, so there was an element of something more sinister,” he said.
“The plane went over the TransCanada Highway and crashed. It had just cleared the trees and a lot of witnesses heard a boom. All that was left was fuselage about 12-15 feet in length. The rest of it was in chaos.”
While the Canadian Aviation Safety board determined the probable cause to be unexpectantly high drag and reduced lift condition, likely due to ice contamination on the wings’ edges and upper surfaces, as well as underestimated onboard weight, a secondary report suggested the crash could have easily been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin.
All but 12 of the US servicemen were members of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), most from the Third Battalion, 502nd Infantry.
A memorial of the crash site overlooks Gander Lake and another is at Fort Campbell.
Despite the Arrow Air Flight crash, Donovan said he had a great experience in Gander.
“That day is etched in my mind, but I had 7 wonderful years in Gander,” he said.
Donovan initially joined the military in 1982 to get an education and to see parts of the world he would not otherwise been able to see.
“It was a time when I was trying to decide between university and the military. In the 1970s and 80s, people were not enlisting, but I thought the military would be a good place to get my education,” he said.
So, in February, 1982, Donovan went to CFB Cornwallis where he began 12 weeks of basic training.
“They put you through a string of aptitude tests and I chose electronics. After basic training, I then went to CFB Kingston School of Communications and Electronics where I got all of my technical training,” he said.
His first posting was to Gander, NL with the 226 Radar Squadron, one of 27 radar squadrons in Canada and after seven years of being posted there, he was sent to CFB Edmonton, where he spent the final three years of his service with the Canadian military and retired as a Master Corporal in 1992.
After that, he spent 22 years as a defense contractor and for the past 11 years, as a defense contractor for the Royal Saudi Air Force.
“Their equipment is pretty much the same as here. They invested about the same time as Canada and the United States and have state of the art equipment,” he said.
That contract just finished at the end of August, allowing Donovan to return home to Foremost with his wife, Celia, and two children; Khyle (10) and Stephanie (9).
“Reflecting back at our role during peacetime, I have a great sense of pride. When I lived in the Middle East, I think it gave me a different perspective. At least, it gave me a better understanding,” said Donovan, adding that the recent killings of Canadian soldiers should not cloud people’s view of the world.
“There is the reality of it hitting close to home. Our freedom has been threatened, but a lot of it is people have to be more cognizant. The world is not a bad place and we need to appreciate what we have here at home. But, when it happens on our soil, it is a real eye-opener,” said Donovan. “Remembrance Day is not just about our fallen soldiers, but also about the people who are serving us now.”