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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 15:57 GMT
Air crash 'missile' link ruled out
Wreckage of the Aer Lingus plane
Metal fatigue or a bird strike are seen as the likely cause
A plane which crashed in the Irish Sea more than 30 years ago killing all 61 passengers and crew was not downed by a missile fired from a defence base in Wales, an inquiry has found.

Relatives of those killed on the Aer Lingus flight 712 from Cork in March 1968 had speculated the plane was hit by a test missile launched from a Ministry of Defence establishment at Aberporth in west Wales.

It puts to rest once and for all misleading suggestions that the disaster was caused by a UK aircraft or missile

British Embassy statement

But no evidence has ever been found of the MoD's involvement, and the ministry has said the base was closed on the day of the disaster, a Sunday.

The third report into the disaster published on Thursday supports this view - it said it was more likely to be corrosion or a bird strike that caused the tragedy.

A total of 57 passengers and four crew died when the Viscount aircraft - named St Phelim - went down off the Wexford coast at Tuskar Rock, bound for London.

It took three months for recovery teams to find the aircraft wreckage which crashed, six minutes flying time from Strumble Head on the Pembrokeshire coast.

The report was compiled by a team of international experts at the request of Ireland's Public Enterprise Minister Mary O'Rourke.

A memorial  the 61 victims of the crash
A memorial to the 61 victims of the crash

It stated: "A structural failure of the port tail plane is consistent with the evidence relating to the loss of EI-AOM.

"An initial event, which cannot be clearly identified, is considered to be some form of distress affecting the horizontal tail of the aircraft."

"Possible causal factors are metal fatigue, corrosion, flutter (vibration) or a bird strike.

"We have carefully examined all aspects of the tests conducted in the UK ranges and of the sea and air activities performed on that Sunday.

"It is our opinion that all theories involving the presence of another aircraft can be rejected."

Final message

The day of the crash, 24 March, the weather was clear and conditions were fine.

The passengers - among them Irish, British, American, Swiss, Swedish and Belgian - embarked at Cork and were headed for Heathrow.

As it flew out to sea co-pilot Paul Heffernan, 22, sent out the final message: "12,000 ft descending, spinning rapidly."

Witnesses say Captain Barney O'Beirne, 35, managed to level the four-engine plane about 1,000 ft above the water, and carried on for about 15 minutes before it crashed close to Tuskar Rock.

Despite an extensive search only 14 bodies were ever found.

A British Embassy spokesman said: "The British Embassy welcomes the report of the international experts into the circumstances of the Tuskar Rock air disaster in 1968.

"It puts to rest once and for all misleading suggestions that the disaster was caused by a UK aircraft or missile.

"The UK authorities co-operated fully with the international experts in their investigation.

"Our thoughts are with the relatives and friends of those who were lost in the tragedy."

A memorial those who were killed has been erected in a cemetery in County Wexford.

BBC Wales's Hywel Griffiths
"It took three months for recovery teams to find the wreckage"
See also:

19 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
Irish air crash report due
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