Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Jewels in the ice

The night was still warm in Mumbai when 105 passengers bound for New York, boarded an Air India coach at the Santa Cruz airport on that fateful night-day of 23rd-24th January 1966. Not very far from the departure terminal, stood the giant bird, which was going to take them on their long journey to New York. It was the Boeing 707-437 aircraft bearing an identification tag VT-DMN and was named as “Kanchanjunga” after the second tallest Himalayan peak and literally meant a river of gold. The aircraft had first flown on 5 April 1961 and was delivered new to Air India on 25 May 1961. It had just done a total of 16188 hours. Passengers looked forward to a pleasant and comfortable journey as they were travelling by Air India and those ware the golden years for Air India, known for its service and comforts, all over the world.

Passengers were welcomed on board by smiling saree clad Air India hostesses, who made them comfortable on board. Soon a VIP joined them. He was the famous atomic scientist of India, Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha. He was an Indian nuclear physicist, founding director, and professor of physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He was colloquially known as the "father of Indian nuclear programme." Bhabha was the founding director of two well-known research institutions, namely the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Trombay Atomic Energy Establishment (now named after him); both sites were the cornerstone of Indian development of nuclear weapons which Bhabha also supervised as its director.

The aircraft touched down later in the night at Delhi, shivering on a wintry night, before it took off for Beirut, where it made another scheduled stop. As the plane took off from Beirut, the pilot found out that one of the VOR's on board (VHF omnidirectional radio range) was not serviceable. He kept this in his mind. VOR is a type of short-range radio navigation system for aircraft, enabling aircraft to determine their position and stay on course by receiving radio signals transmitted by a network of fixed ground radio beacons, with a receiver unit. It is the standard air navigational system in the world, used by both commercial and general aviation even today. There are about 3000 VOR stations around the world.

It was early morning of 24th January, local time, when Control tower at Geneva, Switzerland, told the pilot that they were at Flight Level 190 and should start descent for Geneva International Airport after they had passed Mont Blanc. Soon Pilot announced to the passengers, that they have crossed the highest peak in the Swiss Alps, known as Mont Blanc, and the aircraft started its descent towards Geneva International Airport. Over next few seconds, all hell broke loose and Air India flight 101, bound for New York, just disappeared from Radar screens into oblivion.

It was found later, that the pilot had made a wrong judgment that they have crossed the Mont Blanc ridge and actually were still on the southwest side of the ridge, when he started his descent. Since one of the VOR receivers was not serviceable, he perhaps misjudged his own position and started his descent even before crossing the Mont Blanc ridge. The aircraft crashed into the Glacier des Bossons (Bossons Glacier) on the southwest face of Mont Blanc in France at an elevation of 4,750 metres (15,584 ft). All 106 passengers and 11 crew were killed instantly.

Crash investigators later found out that the pilot-in-command, who knew on leaving Beirut, that one of the VORs was unserviceable, naturally miscalculated his position in relation to Mont Blanc and while reporting his own estimate of the aircraft position to the controller; had told the radar controller that his calculation may be erroneous because of the defective VOR. Geneva control tower had noted the error, determined the correct position of the aircraft and passed a communication to the aircraft which, control tower believed, would enable the pilot to correct its position. Unfortunately, the exact phraseology used by Control tower was not sufficiently precise and the correction was mis-understood by the pilot.

Bits of wreckage of the crashed Boeing aircraft still remain at the crash site on Glacier des Bossons. In 2008, a climber had found some Indian newspapers dated 23 January 1966. Then in August 2012, a mountain rescue worker, Arnaud Christmann was told by some tourists that they had seen something shining on the Bossons glacier. Next day, he and his neighbour went up the mountain in search of, what they hoped would be some shining diamonds or at least a few gold ingots, They however, found only bits of pieces of an aircraft cabin and things like a shoe, cables. Mr. Christmann describes the crash site as a real garbage dump. While returning, he saw a jute bag sitting as if someone had just placed it there. The bag had markings saying "Diplomatic mail" and "Ministry of External Affairs", as the foreign ministry is called in India. Christmann said jokingly that Instead of gold ingots all they got was some soaking wet mail and Indian newspapers dated 23 January 1966.

What mountain rescue worker Arnaud Christmann could not find at the site of the rescue, has been discovered last week, by a French climber, who is not willing to disclose his name. When he was scaling a glacier off Mont Blanc mountain, he stumbled across a treasure trove of about 100 nos. of emeralds, rubies and sapphires that had been buried for decades. The jewels, estimated to be worth up to 246,000 euros ($332,000), lay hidden in a metal box that was on board an Indian plane that crashed in the desolate landscape some 50 years ago. The precious stones were packed in sachets that bore the stamp "Made in India."

There had been a crash in a nearby spot on the mountain, of another Air India Super Constellation aircraft, Malabar Princess, about 15 years prior to this disaster, when this aircraft was pulverized as it went down during a snowstorm in November 1950, killing 48 people on board including 40 Indian navy sailors returning to their ship. Because of the name of the aircraft, a legend grew that the earlier flight had carried a Maharani and her treasure. However, in all likelihood, the gems must have been carried by the Boeing 707 plane in 1966.

The climber honestly turned the haul in to local French police. Local gendarmerie chief (Police chief) Sylvain Merly says, "This was an honest young man, who very quickly realized that they (jewels) belonged to someone who died on the glacier." French authorities are contacting their Indian counterparts to trace the owner or heirs of the jewels if possible. Under French law, the jewels could be handed over to the mountaineer if these are not identified, unless Air India comes up with convincing proof such as bill of lading or air waybill etc. and details of the consignor and consignee, who were lawful owners of the precious stones flown on flight 101, that left Mumbai on 23rd January, 1966.

1st October 2013

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